Africa’s experiences in managing political diversity and competitive electoral politics

If politics is about who gets what, when, and how, then the political economy of managing diversity, especially in the era of competitive electoral politics, is also crucial to reflect upon.

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ACCORD COVID-19 Conflict & Resilience Monitor
Photo: UK Mission to the UN/Lorey Campese

The experience on the African continent in terms of managing diversity, and consolidating democracy has been fraught with stops and starts. Most recently, we have  witnessed significant setbacks in terms of constitutional manipulation, for the purpose of extending terms of political office, military coups in specific West and Central African countries, and seemingly unending low intensity conflict and low-grade warfare in a number of countries. These are often connected to electoral processes. 

The make-or-break question in terms of democratic consolidation in Africa is going to be the issue of whether democracy can deliver economic wellbeing to citizens

There have been also some significant success stories, including peaceful handovers of political power and political transitions, as well as institutional fortitude in the face of extreme political pressure. What this tells us therefore, is that on the African continent and globally, democracy is never an event but a process. Connected to this idea of democracy as a process is the idea of political economy. 

If politics is about who gets what, when, and how, then the political economy of managing diversity, especially in the era of competitive electoral politics, is also crucial to reflect upon. In terms of historical context, late in the 1980s, and into the 1990s, we experienced a period of profound change on the continent and there was the fundamental questioning of constitutional arrangements of contemporary African states and societies during the post-colonial period. But I think it is also important to recall that during the same period, we witnessed, what I would call, ‘a forced marriage’, between structural adjustment programmes and democratisation. We had on the one hand, the implementation of very draconian, very unpopular measures, currency devaluations, and drastic reductions in state expenditure, the privatisation of state-owned enterprises, all of these required implementation and action, requiring more, not less, coercion by the state. This invariably created resistance, domestic forces struggled against both internal forces of oppression, and external forces of oppression. The process of democratisation, therefore, was affected significantly by both internal but also significant international events and developments. 

As material resources and symbolic resources shrank, so did many African states’ ability to deliver on economic development, political stability, social justice, and freedom. In this era, and related to the one-party state, the question of the articulation of class contradictions, social, gender, and ethnic interests, were all frowned upon. In a reaction to this, social movements began to flex their muscles during this period. This was actually an era of contestation and an era where the New Partnership for Africa’s Development came into being. Following a series of debates during the 1990s, the idea behind the conceptualisation of NEPAD was that Africa can and must forge its own models and modes of good governance, and its own development model. It was timely then and is even more relevant today.

When we look at some of the significant setbacks, we are faced with the question of the demonstration effect on the African continent and this has to be looked at in terms of this view of consolidating democracy, especially in electoral processes, the democratisation of political power, the equalisation of economic opportunities, and the redistribution of productive resources. These have been and continues to be a key demand of the African populace. However, this is not disconnected from the ghosts of Africa’s history, which include poverty, debt, schisms on the socio-economic front, political front and ethnic front. The state has been both the target and the instrument of these frustrations, and when we discuss the question of diversity from the viewpoint of inter-ethnic conflict, it is important to highlight the fact that the mere existence of ethnic groups was never the problem in and of itself. If this were the case, all of our 55 African states would perpetually be at war. Here, we have to talk about the modes of transition and consolidation, as well as institutional arrangements, where certain modes of transition can attenuate, if not neutralise, various conflicts. Others can intensify them, and especially in cases where a group of elites is determined to cling on to power despite the decline in their legitimate claim to power, and often where the opposition is divided, regardless of the intensity of the popular hunger for democratic change. 

This is where we have to deal with the question of institutional arrangements and whether this promotes or minimises conflict. We have seen the salience of a variety of socio-economic ideologies in African political thought, African political values, and ideas that have survived in many ways, despite the destruction of a variety of continental political institutions. The question of constitutional engineering is key. A competitive electoral process cannot be equated per se with democracy. But it’s obviously a cardinal precept in terms of democratic theory and practice, and how we use electoral processes to reproduce state authority. The challenge to state authority is key in terms of this question of democratic consolidation. It has been a situation where although nominal choice has been presented, incumbent machines have adapted institutional engineering very cleverly. For those of us who participated on electoral observation missions on the continent, this truism is very real. Elections are won or lost long before the election itself. 

It is hard to draw sweeping conclusions about where we are in terms of democratic consolidation. However, the future holds a constellation of state forms, social movements, class and ethnic forces, regional and international developments, with which all countries are going to be faced. Democracy is a virtue we all claim to cherish, but its meaning is often, as they say, in the eye of the beholder. As we know, even dictators swear by it. So, pluralism in this case, is casting more than one ballot once every four or five years. The make-or-break question in terms of democratic consolidation in Africa is going to be the issue of whether democracy can deliver economic wellbeing to its citizens.

Professor Tandeka Nkiwane is the Special Advisor to the CEO of NEPAD.

This article was adapted from a speech presented by Prof. Nkiwane at a webinar on the state of democratic consolidation in Africa, hosted by ACCORD in partnership with the Embassy of the Republic of Korea to South Africa.

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