Steven Friedman
Steven Friedman

The new is not yet born: The battle for African democracy

Sometimes, progress can look like a mess — particularly for those who prefer not to see it. An excellent example is the current state of African politics.

As it often does, the continent is offering Afro-pessimists — a long, fancy word for people who don’t believe black people in Africa can run anything — no shortage of ammunition right now.

Zimbabwe remains in authoritarian thrall, a reality confirmed by the brief arrest of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and continuing reports of police violence against government opponents. Kenya is wracked with violence after a suspicious election result denied the opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) a likely victory. Nigeria continues to grapple with claims that its last election was stolen. And here, the election of a new ANC leadership has triggered gloom among those who believe that majority rule can only end in tears. What more could anyone need to show that the continent remains as much a mess as ever, that nothing changes when Africans govern themselves?

Those who think this way deeply misunderstand what is happening in Africa. There is a link between all these examples, but not the one the “Afro-pessimists” see. Africa’s problem is not that its inhabitants cannot govern themselves; it is that they have rarely been allowed to do so — “independence” meant usually that power was shifted from colonial rulers who imposed themselves on the people to local leaders who did the same.

What is happening now, in all the cases mentioned here and quite a few more, is that Africans are trying, more effectively than ever before, to win the right to govern themselves, to ensure that leaders lead because the people put them there and stay only as long as the people want them.

This threatens power holders who have no mandate from the people and so they are fighting back in the hope of stemming the tide. In some places they have failed; in others they are winning. But in all, we are seeing an unprecedented fight between undemocratic power-holders and a push for democracy. While this is often tragically violent and the good guys don’t always win, it is a groundbreaking attempt to move forward, not further evidence that nothing on the continent ever changes.

In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe’s government ruled largely unchallenged until 2000, when it lost a constitutional referendum, a thinly disguised signal that the people wanted it gone. This forced it into a lengthy attempt to stay in power despite the people’s judgement. Since then, politics in Zimbabwe has been about the elite’s desperate and often violent attempts to shore up their power in the face of democratic forces’ attempt to win change.

In Kenya, tensions were suppressed (but simmered below the surface) while Daniel arap Moi imposed his will on the people for two decades. Democracy was partly achieved when some members of the elite, most notably current President Mwai Kibaki, went over to the opposition and won the last election. But the Kibaki government proved far more like the one it had replaced than Kenyan democrats had hoped and so the ODM emerged to challenge Kibaki. Despite the mealy-mouthed response of the international community, the evidence suggests that the ruling elite thwarted this attempt to deepen democracy by creatively embellishing the election results. Again, the conflict is caused by democratic pressures and the old elite’s response to them.

In Nigeria, a new push for greater democracy began with the fall of the Abacha junta. Previous president Olusegun Obasanjo was elected at the polls but tried to change the Constitution to give himself a third term. Parliament rejected the attempt and so he relied on a strategy also tried in some other countries — he stayed on as head of the ruling party and hand-picked its presidential candidate. But he continues to face resistance, both because the election in which Obasanjo’s choice, Umaru Yar’Adua, won was riddled with irregularities and because Yar’Adua has not turned out as compliant as his predecessor had hoped (a problem that also faced some other presidents who tried to control their successors after their terms were up). Again, the cause of the conflict is the push for more democracy and the elite’s reaction to it.

Here, Jacob Zuma’s victory was prompted by claims that Thabo Mbeki was not accountable enough to the ANC — and fears that a third term would entrench him further. We do not know whether the new leadership will be more democratic than the old — but it remains possible that ANC activists will hold it to account if it is not.

The pattern is clear. The “right” of African presidents to rule for as long as they like, regardless of what their people may think, is under threat. In some cases, such as Ghana, the old order seems to have lost out: a president who was not an ally of military ruler Jerry Rawlings was elected in a free vote. In others, it is not yet clear whether change has brought greater democracy or a new elite insulated from its people. And in still others, the old order is winning thus far. But in all these cases, we are seeing not a continuation of the old Africa but an attempt to build a new one in which people will acquire a say in their lives.

One reason this is happening is that the international climate is more hostile to undemocratic rulers. Fears that the “war on terror” would thwart democratic pressure as the United States and Britain embraced any autocrat who supported them have not been realised, although in some cases — such as Ethiopia — rulers can get away with flouting democracy if they do what the US wants. Another is that, as a result of economic changes, Africans are beginning to gain the independent resources they need to challenge their rulers — key groups are less dependent on government and more willing to try to hold it to account.

Most of those pressing for greater democracy are not grassroots leaders but members of the elite who are using popular pressures to seek power. But around the world this is usually how democracy is established: grassroots people lack the resources they need to challenge power and the task is left to those who do have them — often dissatisfied members of the elite. So, the fact that the forces of democracy are often led by people who care far more for themselves than the people is not necessarily a problem: once democratic pressures bubble up, they often can’t be controlled by the elites who want to use them and then rein them in.

Africa is, therefore, not imploding. It is struggling to become free, often in the face of great odds as ruling groups with power and resources hit back. The question is not why Africans can’t govern themselves, but whether the push to claim that right will succeed.

Self-government in Africa has not failed — it has rarely been tried. What we are seeing now is not a descent into more chaos, but an attempt to win it for the first time.

  • Will

    But Paul, I tought the UK was a monarchy? 😉

    Ivo, where the situation in Africa differs from that in the US is that usually no one particular group has such a secure grip on power as the Anglo-Saxons historically had on Washington. Due to their numerical and military superiority it was inevitable that they were going to prevail against the upstart Irish – as is so graphically depicted in the movie Gangs of New York – or whichever immigrant community was going to challenge their hegemony.

    The reason why economic liberalism is a given in America is oddly due to its ethnic diversity: the majority group, who also happens to control most of the wealth, naturally resist the transfer of that wealth from their own pockets to those who are not their ethnic kin. Liberalism is also increasingly becoming the default option in Europe as immigrant communities are becoming more visible. In Africa, where the majority is usually poor, people naturally vote for parties that will “correct economic imbalances” by implementing socialist policies, which makes control of the state a much more vital objective for all concerned.

    The conflict in Northern Ireland is actually primarily an ethnic one. The Protestant faction originally hails from Scotland. It is true that religious differences exacerbate the problem, but the opposite is also true — that a common creed can ameliorate ethnic strife, as is the case in Protestant UK. Religious difference isn’t a strong enough force to cause violent strife by its own, as is shown by the peaceful co-existence of Protestant and Catholic in Germany and The Netherlands.

    I fail to see how you can declare that the problems in France isn’t ethnic strife because the immigrants aren’t integrated into the values and beliefs of society at large. The reason why they do not integrate is precisely that values are very much a part of one’s ethnic identity, although the kinship element possibly looms larger.

    Europe is still in a position to avoid ethnic upheaval by completely liberalising its economy and restricting immigration, but I’m afraid for Africa the liberalization option is out of the question because of popular pressures for socialism. Only when the states have been homogenized — through secession, genocide, expulsion or forced assimilation – will there be calm.

  • Ivo Vegter

    Paul, I said quite the opposite. Ethnic or racial homogeneity is not necessary. What’s needed to keep a country together is philosophical homogeneity — agreement on certain basic social and economic principles that speak to individualism, rather than racial or ethnic division.

    And MidaFo, please chill. Nobody who matters thinks black people are incapable or inferior. Those in whom our problems provoke angry racial attacks or angry racial defensiveness, cannot be part of the solution. That’s what I mean by seeing past the simplistic identity politics of racial and ethnic analysis.

  • Alan

    A wonderful analysis, Dr. Friedman. I’m quickly understanding why my friend sends me links to your columns.

    We’re so early in the game – 300 years since first exposure to capitalist societies and only 50 years of independent political experiment – and already Africans are struggling to live in the kinds of free societies that took 2,000 blood-drenched years, from the brief Athenian democracy to the American Revolution for westerners to realise.

    I still worry that there might be major setbacks in our life-times. I fear that large proportions of every South African ethnic group are more committed to democracy when it supports short-term self-interest rather than to freedom justice, and opportunity for all. I dream of that day when we can be where India is today – where, despite its many problems, democracy is firmly entrenched and looks unshiftable.

  • Frenchie

    “Afro-pessimists — a long, fancy word for people who don’t believe black people in Africa can run anything”

    Why does it always have to be a black/white thing with you? You seem to use the words “African” and “Afro” interchangeably with “black”. An African is someone who comes from Africa. You tell an Algerian or an Egyptian, he’s black! Or an Afrikaner!

    Afro-pessimism doesn’t mean pessimism about BLACK people’s ability to rule themselves. It means pessimism about the African continent. To the extent that it relates to government, it is a pessimism relating to the ability of African people of all races, to govern themselves. But that is not the crux of it. Most Afro-pessimists believe simply that Africa faces too many inherent, structural and societal problems to be able to bootstrap itself in a reasonable time. I have yet to see a published Afro-pessimist say that Africa’s problem lies with the nature of the black man. All of them recognise that there are a multitude of problems facing Africa none of which have to do with the colour of Africans’ skins and conclude that the problems are simply too overwhelming for Africa to ever be a success.

  • Paul Whelan


    I know what you said – my mistake was to head up my few words with both your and Will’s name without making clear that:

    @ To Will I wanted to point out that ethnic homogeneity is not a condition of ‘democracy’ and emphatically no guarantee of it.

    With you I wanted to share the view that ‘modern western-style democracy’ (ie not that from the classical world or that from any other time and place – how impossible to use this catch-all term ‘democracy’ in any generally accepted sense, or really any ‘sense’ at all) presupposes the individual.

    All manner of other cultures and ideologies have not agreed and do not agree with that view today, maintaining that ‘democracy’ insists on the collective.

  • Jon

    @Alan … Africa didn’t HAVE to re-invent the wheel as to how successful democracies are required to run and take 2000 years evolving it from the beginning.

    They had a perfectly useful template derived directly from their colonial masters.

    Upon receiving the freedom they demanded, they went in the opposite direction of their own free will and have ended up today where they are: the world’s poorest people atop the world’s richest land.

    They trot out the word “democratic” at every turn, but in practice they cherry-pick only those bits of democracy that serves their selfish ends. They’ll have “elections” but rig the outcome and riot if the rigging still failed to yield the predetermined outcome. They’ll use naked cronyism to “democratise” every significant institution and thereby ensure that every “vote” taken goes their way and extend their hegemony.

    Small wonder then that nothing changes.

  • Will


    I would agree that it is a bit of a stretch to say that ethnic homogeneity is either a condition of or a guarantee for democracy, but it certainly makes it much more feasible. Sure, there are heterogenous democracies where the state isn’t under contestation, but those would be the ones that are structured along federalist lines and with sufficient territorial autonomy for its subgroups. These conditions hold for Switzerland (contented) but not for Belgium (on the brink of divorce). (The US isn’t a counter-example, because of the continued pre-eminence of the Anglo-Saxons. Even so whites are getting uneasy with Hispanicisation of “Mexifornia”.)

  • MidaFo

    This is a very effective post.

    I am sure Friedman views it with pleasant surprise. The pessimists are ducking and diving here. But the tone in response, though cautiously defensive, is still suspiciously like a whine.

    So I repeat: Fix it!. Otherwise I don’t care WHAT you write.

    We need good ideas, generous leadership, sustained effort and the ability to recognise and develop the great potential of Africans (black and white); not despair and blame of others. After all it is not the natural god-given wealth, the ‘world’s richest land’Jon, it is the quality of people in Africa that is of the finest.
    At present the money, education and associated freedom to choose; the ability to effect the useful policies and develop or terminate the initiatives, especially with regard to access to international capital, is of the white man. With his money and access to levers he has the time to do it just as he has the time to contribute to this discussion. Look above and see the clever words! He who controls the language controls the outcomes! Whitey is empowered and has been for centuries because he stole the position in the name of Christ(God pity Jesus), all that time ago. Huge quantities of the great mineral and human wealth of Africa has been wasted or shipped out. Any failure must be laid at his doorstep(God or Jesus or White what’s the difference).
    It is as clear as crystal that he crashed it!
    Does he now fix it?
    But he does complain!!
    Avoiding blame!

    Cool It?
    Se voet!
    The heat is on.

  • Paul Whelan


    What I am saying is different from what you are, and simple.

    (It will sound complicated only because of the SAn context. The term ‘democracy’ has no agreed meaning, or really any meaning at all, but is understandably very much in vogue in SA since 1994, where everyone likes to interpret the word the way (s)he chooses, without too much embroidery. The result is rather as if we were debating whether ‘puddings’ are a good or a bad thing: the discussion starts from a generality and bogs down. But there is no other word, and so the meaningless one we all have to use appears in inverted commas.)

    ‘Democracy’ is not a common set of rules and institutions or, beyond very broad basics, arguably even a set of agreed values.

    @Jon above is misled to claim that Africa’s colonial masters left a template. There cannot be a template for ‘democracy’.

    It is a culture or, if you do not like that fancy word, a form of society that is the product of that society’s people(s), ideas, experience and interactions past and present with an external world – in a word, its history.

    SA can no more repeat the history of Holland or Sweden and its peoples than those countries could SA’s. In terms of your and my little disagreement, then, it is not possible to claim that ethnic homogeneity or any other condition is a requirement for ‘democracy’. That is theorising. When you look at the evidence, all you can report is that sometimes it appears to have been and sometimes it appears not. How it will go in SA is not predetermined one way or the other.

    How much faster we might move if SA would debate whether we have good government. Our commentators and analysts do not care to give a lead on that because in a monocracy it is to venture onto all kinds of dangerous ground.

  • Will

    Paul, surely there are states that can by no stretching of definitions be described as democratic. The invocation of collectivism is an unfailing indicator of a non-democratic state, even if it calls itself a democracy – as most modern tyrannies are wont to do.

    All I’m saying is that ethnicity is central to understanding why some states are democratic – and hence legitimate in the eyes of its citizens – and others are not. The more ethnically homogenous states have a much higher degree of legitimacy and are much more likely to have implemented democratic processes. The exceptions, like Swaziland and Lesotho, which are ostensibly mono-ethnic states, are actually still fragmented along tribal lines, despite having attained independence long before Botswana. This I would ascribe to the fact that the former two are constitutional monarchies, an institution that implicitly grants permanent privilege to one tribe over the others and sustains primitive attitudes and values.

    Another helpful condition seems to be a Christian Protestant heritage. Those democracies that fail on the homogeneity criterium, like the UK and Switzerland, are all heirs to Protestant Humanism and its claim of sanctity for the individual conscience.

  • Paul Whelan


    Your first paragraph has my point.

    When Mugabe wins his election in March he and his supporters will call the result ‘democratic'; it will not be possible to refute that by arguing some meaning for the word that they deny.

    It is because ‘democracy’ means nothing that it can mean whatever it is said to mean and it is used by the best and the worst.

    In any event, since the word is only an abstraction – like, say, ‘justice’ – it cannot imply real conditions for its existence. Your claim that it does (ethnic homogeneity) is unsafe on this logic and, I would maintain, on such evidence as there is.

    It is vital to grasp the pitfalls in words, in ideology, creeds, revolutionary fervour, and the way politicans harness them. SAns will do better when they start making their cause good or bad government.

  • Willem

    Paul, some consolation from HL Mencken:

    Democracy is the theory that intelligence is dangerous. It assumes that no idea can be safe until those who can’t understand it have approved it.

    [I]f democracy has any genuine merit, if it shows any virtue that all other forms of government lack, it is the merit and virtue of being continuously amusing, of offering the plain people a ribald and endless show.

    the curse of the country, as well of all democracies, is precisely the fact that it treats its best men as enemies. The aim of our society, if it may be said to have an aim, is to iron them out.

    …The theory that two thieves will steal less than one.

    Democracy is the liberty of the have-nots. Its aim is to destroy the liberty of the haves.

    [I]t is one of the peculiar intellectual accompaniments of democracy that the concept of the insoluble becomes unfashionable—nay, almost infamous. To lack a remedy is to lack the very license to discuss disease. The causes of this are to be sought, without question, in the nature of democracy itself. It came into the world as as cure-all, and it remains primarily a cure-all to this day.

    …Liberty gone, there remains the majestic phenomenon of democratic law. A glance at it is sufficient to show the identity of democracy and Puritanism. The two, indeed, are but different facets of the same gem. … Both get their primal essence out of the inferior man’s fear and hatred of his betters … thus envy comes in; if you overlook it you will never understand democracy, and you will never understand Puritanism. It is not, of course, a specialty of democratic man. It is the common possession of all men of the ignoble and incompetent sort, at all times and everywhere. But it is only under democracy that it is liberated; it is only under democracy that it becomes the philosophy of the state.

    … Democracy is shot through with this delight in the incredible, this banal mysticism. One cannot discuss it without colliding with preposterous postulates, all of them cherished like authentic hairs from the whiskers of Moses himself. I have alluded to its touching acceptance of the faith that progress is illimitable and ordained of God—that every human problem, in the very nature of things, may be solved. There are corrollaries that are even more naive. One, for example, is to the general effect that optimism is a virtue in itself—that there is a mysterious merit in being hopeful and of glad heart, even in the presence of adverse and immovable facts. This curious notion turns the glittering wheels of Rotary, and is the motive power of the politial New Thoughters called Liberals. … The man who hopes absurdly, it appears, is in some fantastic and gaseous manner a better citizen than the man who detects and exposes the truth.

  • Paul Whelan

    Willem –

    Thanks for this.

    Mencken is terrific stuff, great fun, but a man of his times and – without being boring about it – I do not find any consolation in him myself. He represents an elitism, an ‘aristocracy’ of ‘high culture’, that was dealt a death blow by WWI and finally interred by WWII. In the UK, TS Eliot was of the same cast of mind; by the 1950s it was really all over. ‘Democracy’ had moved on again. (Little thought: perhaps Thabo Mbeki is the closest to it on the contemporary SA scene.)

    The post-modern world is where we are – some already say the post-post modern world. There is plenty wrong with it but there was always plenty wrong with the old worlds too.

    I presume these are Mencken’s own scornful words you quote:

    ‘The man who hopes absurdly is in some fantastic manner a better citizen than the man who detects and exposes the truth.’

    It is wrong, isn’t it? There is obviously room for both.

  • Xolani

    I would have welcomed this expository text with greater belief and substance should the author of this text have cited academic sources to his opinion of Africa’s Democracy and the many civil wars that continue to reign our continent.

    Moving forward, if Steven used less opinion and more facets and research into this text it would most definately be a concrete critique into African politics. However the lack of academic composition in this text delivers a sense of caution into the views and opinions of the author. I must say that I am a keen reader of Steven’s insight into politics and in most cases he writes very credibly however this particular passage leaves me with great doubt.

    On the other hand, African politics tend to be centered around a particular leader who in most cases almost never wants to relinquish his\her- as this is the case in Zimbabwe. However this is no reason to despair and become pessimistic.

    In conclusion, an article that has academic referencing such as many that Steven has accurately and sufficiently referenced adds substance, content and some degree of accuracy. As a result the text becomes more usable and creditable for criticism and scrutiny.

  • cool down.

    We don’t have to re-invent the wheel (democracy).
    Africa has the the advantage that it can look and
    learn from succesful democracies.

    Countries like America underwent dramatic Social
    changes before it became a democracy,not perfect,
    but better than anything else established.

    If democracy in simple form is ‘a system of government in which people vote in elections to
    choose the people who will govern them’ the people
    must first be educated to understand this.

    They must learn that their vote is not something
    they should exercise lightly and in persuit of
    popular choice but is something that effects their
    today and tomorrow.

    This can only be achieved by a good,unbiased education system that produces independent thinkers
    and not parrots.

    As long as our education system keeps on failing
    the longer true democracy will remain a pipe dream
    because with an AK47 in one hand and a loaf of
    bread in the other, those holding the Ak-47(power) and loaf of bread (resources)will always get the ‘yes’ vote.

    This unfortunately is in many cases the limited
    choice on the African continent voters have.

  • http://RSSfeeder Old, female, pale face.

    I wait eagerly to see his response to our beloved country’s rulers action of 14/2/2008.
    Parliament is – in their opinion – a big bluff its
    ‘cosmetic – window dressing – a front ”
    Sorry, not my words – just giving back their continuous arguments for lack of transformation.

  • Errol Goetsch

    Steven, this looks like spin. Rebutting afro-pessissm shouldn’t involve reinventing reality. How does Zim show “growing democracy”, a people fighting for their rights? The “people” responded to suppression in Zim by fleeing to SA, and we see a whole middle class bribed into brutality by political office and the promise of free farms and businesses. The violence we see looks less like a growing democracy than the Nazis pushing anti-Sermitism to steal their shops and avoid repaying loans i.e. we are not seeing young democrats, we are seeing seeing peope at their worst. You are right to argue against racists who blame African failures on “the nature” of Blacks, but you seem to be saying that the passive-aggressive BEHAVIOUR we see is OK – and its not.