Lack of the Structural Bases for Stable Democracy in Africa

Democracy and Development in Africa: Doubts about Democracy
By Rod Alence
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No shortage of skepticism greeted Africa’s new democracies. Many analysts questioned whether they would last—and, if so, whether they would make any significant contribution to economic recovery and poverty reduction.

One set of doubts stemmed from the absence of structural “requisites” observed in established democracies. A key premise here was that democratization has historically been part of a broader social transformation—encompassing processes like industrialization, mass education, the ascendancy of a large middle class, and at least a clear sense of national identity.

Many African countries remain at low levels of socioeconomic development and are highly ethnically fragmented, raising concerns about the structural bases for stable democracy.

A related set of doubts sprang from the perception that Africa’s political transition was externally driven, while questioning post-Cold War faith in the inherent compatibility of markets and democracy. Tensions within Africa during the late 1980s revealed a messier reality. Domestic opposition typically emanated from groups who claimed that market reforms had gone too far, while the World Bank’s own views about a “crisis of governance” implied that they had not gone far enough. In this view, democratization seemed likely to have the effect of empowering the opponents of market-oriented policies, while successful market reform would require benevolent “developmental states” insulated from the cut and thrust of democratic politics.

In general, skeptics have interpreted Africa’s wave of democracy as almost a “historical accident”—the product of wily rulers’ responses to an external reform agenda and lacking structural foundations in African societies. Just as African leaders managed to sidestep economic conditionality in the 1980s, they were now dodging the substance of political conditionality. By staging periodic elections they created a facade of democratic legitimacy and kept donor funds flowing. But even where the facade was maintained, any genuine developmental benefits of democracy seemed unlikely to materialize.

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Rod Alence is Visiting Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Michigan for the 2008-2009 academic year. He is also Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. His research focuses on the political economy of African development, and his research has appeared in publications such as theJournal of Democracy,theJournal of Modern African Studies,and theJournal of African History.

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