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A primer for democracy in Africa

Isaac Kaledzi | Cristina Krippahl
January 22, 2019

For most experts, it is a given that lack of democracy stunts economic growth. But how can sustainable democracies be ensured throughout Africa? A new book by several African authors has some useful pointers.

Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, Professor Gyimah-Boadi of Afrobarometer, co-author Greg Mills and Ghanaian Vice President Mahamadu Bawumia at the book's presentation
Image: DW/I. Kaledzi

"Democracy Works: Rewiring Politics to Africa's Advantage" was written by prominent personalities including former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo and former Finance Minister of Zimbabwe Tendai Biti. The authors maintain that Africa could have achieved much more economic success had more countries promoted and built strong democratic governance systems.

Ghana's vice president, Mahamadu Bawumia, who attended Monday's launch as a special guest, explained how the book provides lessons in enhancing democracy in Africa. "Part One discusses the possible virtues of a democratic rule by reviewing cases where attention to popular preferences in the establishment of countervailing institutions have allowed for constructive economic policy development. Part Two analyzes the challenges to constructing African democracy in different transitional circumstances. And Part Three examines how elections can be made more free and fair." Bawumia then added in an aside: "I'm sure the people in Congo would like to hear more about this."

Democratic progress in Africa

A worker on an oil platform
Economic development also depends on diversificationImage: Getty Images/AFP/P. Utomi Ekpei

Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo said the reason for writing the book was not just to find fault with current modules and governance systems in Africa but to also celebrate the continent's progress in adopting democracy. Obasanjo pointed out that only 30 years ago, free and democratic elections in Africa were seen as something of a miracle. "Whereas today, not to have election in any country will be unacceptable. So we should not underrate what we have achieved. I say that a disputed election result which is resolved in a court of law is better than no election at all," he told DW.

According to the think tank Afrobarometer, the number of African countries considered to be free went from two in 1980 to currently 10. Twenty-two countries are seen as partly free and another 22 as unfree.

'Only an idiot would steal an election on election day'

A woman casting her vote
Elections alone do not make a democracyImage: Getty Images/AFP

Co-author Greg Mills of the Brenthurst Foundation in South Africa said during the launch that research confirms that "the more open the country, the more free, the better the economic performance." The record is even better, the more diversified the economies are, he added. But elections alone are not the universal panacea to societies' ills, he pointed out. Many conditions must be met for a country to be truly free, including strong democratic institutions, good governance, the fight against corruption and a strong political opposition. The former cannot exist passively for its own sake. Opposition parties "need to have their own narrative," and offer real alternatives for people to have a reason to vote for them.

Mills also said that outside electoral observers needed to expand their brief. Observing the voting process itself is not enough. "Only an idiot would steal an election on election day," the researcher said. The whole process of organizing and financing elections should be observed closely to make it as transparent as possible, and the same applies to the aftermath of any poll.

Two-thirds of Africans want to live in a democracy

Last but not least, a democracy needs a dynamic civil society, especially considering that two-thirds of Africans wish to live in a democracy. "I think citizens have to keep people honest; I think we have been little bit too apathetic in Africa. I think we let politicians get away with stuff too much," Mills told DW. He suggested that Africans make it too easy for dishonest leaders to divide the people over questions of race, religion, or ethnic and regional differences. "We probably need to become more assertive," he concluded

It is the hope of the authors and those behind the publication of the book that young Africans, who represent the future of the continent, will be inspired by it to become actively involved in Africa's democracy.