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The state of democracy in Africa

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The term democracy commonly refers to a type of political system in which the people or their representatives lawfully govern themselves, rather than being governed, say, by a military dictatorship, totalitarian party or monarch (Keane,2006).

It is based on the idea that all citizens have the right and should have the means to participate in the decision making processes that affect their lives and also have the power to hold the government accountable. Also, Pennock (1979 p. 7) defines it as, “government by the people, where liberty, equality, and fraternity are secured to the greatest possible degree and in which human capacities are developed to the utmost, by means including free and full debate of common problems, differences, and interests.” The key role of citizens in a democracy is participation.

According to Arnstein in her article “A Ladder of Citizen Participation” the term citizen participation refers to the redistribution of power that enables the have-not citizens, presently excluded from the political and economic processes to be deliberately included in it. In her view, the have-nots constitute the minorities (a group of people socially alienated or segregated from the dominant forces of a society) in the society, and therefore citizen participation in effect is the means by which these minorities are included in the decision-making process, for them to stimulate significant social reforms which will enable them to share in the benefits of the affluent society. By voting in elections, debating issues, attending community meetings, becoming involved in private and voluntary organizations, and determining how policies are set among many others, citizen participation is said to be achieved. Citizens also have an obligation to become informed about public issues, to monitor the conduct of their leaders and representatives, and to express their own opinions.

According to Zachariah 1997, in an essay he wrote in Foreign Affairs titled “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy”, democracies around the world were surrendering to illiberal reforms, he argues that the strands holding the traditions of democracy and liberalism together were rapidly eroding. In his view, illiberal democracies are increasing around the world and are increasingly limiting the freedoms of the people they represent. He also points out that in the West, electoral democracy and civil liberties like the freedom of speech, religion, expression, and press among many others, go hand in hand.

However, around the world, the two concepts are falling apart. He argues that democracy without constitutional liberalism is producing centralized regimes, the erosion of liberty, ethnic competition, conflict, and war.

Libya under Muammar Gaddafi practiced a form of democracy he established in March 1977, called the JAMAHIRIYA, an Arabic term generally translated as “state of the masses”. It was based on Gaddafi’s theories outlined in his “Green Book”, published in 1975 titled “The Solution of the Problem of Democracy.” With it, he promised to rescue the world from the failures of Western democracy and Communism alike. His “Third Universal Theory” would usher in an era of mass democracy in which people would rule themselves directly. Qaddafi criticized elections, political parties, and popular representation. The only genuine form of democracy, he argues, is one where the masses come together in people’s committees, popular congresses, and professional associations. Thus, the nation State of Libya was divided into several small communities that were essentially “mini-autonomous States” within a State. The citizens did not have the luxury to vote in elections but his form of government brought democracy to the doorstep of the people, basic human rights were respected and there was a high standard of living for the Libyans. Although perceived by the West and critics as a dictator, mainly because he did not follow the Western criteria of practicing democracy, his system of government translated into a great success for the Libyan people during his tenure of office.

The state of democracy in Africa is one of the most debatable topics on the continent. Is Africa getting more or less democratic? Is there a reason why so many African countries are caught in between democracy and authoritarianism? How can democracy in Africa be redesigned to better fit the reality on the continent? What makes African democracies more distinct is because although many countries are not doing so well in practicing democracy, there are others that have nonetheless made significant progress towards establishing stable and accountable multiparty systems. Countries like Ghana, Nigeria, and South Africa have gone an extra mile in establishing multiparty political systems in their countries. In other words, a significant proportion of the continent is democratizing against the odds. It is, however, important to note that while many of these states enjoy vibrant political competition, some remain institutionally weak.

Also, since democracy itself is a foreign ideology, based on western culture and beliefs, its applicability in Africa is quite challenging because of the difficulty in fusing the Western system of government with the African system of government. According to Alemayehu G. Mariam in her article “The Democracy Before Democracy in Africa”, the problem facing democracies in Africa stems from the fact that, democracy in Africa is a different species of democracy which has roots in African culture and history. Since African societies are plagued by ethnic, tribal and religious conflicts which can be solved within the framework of the traditional African institution of consensus building, elder mediation, and conciliation and not by Western-style democracy which is inappropriate for Africans because the necessary preconditions for such a system are not present in Africa. Thus in Libya, Muammar Gaddafi sought to practice a form of democracy which he felt suited his country. According to him, Western-style democracy was not appropriate for Africa. He believed that all people must manage their country according to the cultural and social environment and that the people of Africa live in tribes and every tribe has a leader, so the system of elections and political parties suits Europe and America more than it does Africa. The task facing our representatives who draft state constitutions is thus to decide an appropriate form of democracy, one that allows for sufficient accommodation which enables all parties involved to feel they have a stake in the system, in order to promote accountability and economic prosperity for the African people.

This research focuses on illiberal democracy in Africa. How far Africa as a continent has come in practicing democracy, its prospects and challenges, therefore, the study will focus on democracy under Gaddafi, dubbed The Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya from 1977-2011.

Democracy in Africa has been shaped by the colonial powers that ran Africa until African countries began gaining their independence in the 1960’s and therefore, its practice has become problematic because Western-style democracy does not in any way address the needs of the African people since it was developed based on Western culture and beliefs. It is therefore difficult to apply it in the African setting. This research, therefore, seeks to determine, based on the cultural and social environment of African countries, the type of democracy that is likely to be suitable for the continent.

For the purpose of this thesis, the concept of good governance will be employed. Good governance as a concept rests on the premise that government is committed to making decisions which are effective, inclusive and transparent. It is a commitment to doing the best with the resources available within the context of the challenges facing governance. The concept of good governance often emerges as a model to compare ineffective economies or political bodies with viable economies and political bodies. The concept centers on the responsibility of governments and governing bodies to meet the needs of the masses as opposed to select groups in society. This is because countries often described as “most successful” are Western liberal democratic states, concentrated in Europe and the Americas, good governance standards often measure other state institutions against these states.

According to Grindle (2004), the relevance of getting good governance comes precisely from its relationship with the development of a country and the reduction of poverty. Setting an agenda for reaching good governance is of the huge interest but also a complex task, which makes this author propose rather a “good enough governance” agenda as a starting point. In the construction of this “simpler” agenda, the idea is to revisit policies that have worked in the past, set priorities in a strategically way, consider policies with greater impact in alleviating poverty and reaching development, and look for innovative ways of implementing such policies.

A critique of this concept, however, is that there are varied definitions of what good governance exactly is or should entail and therefore it becomes difficult to measure. Also, the measurement of good governance is often depicted in terms of economic growth in developing countries. The critique against this is obvious and often heard from both academia and other supranational institutions. Despite the criticisms leveled against this concept, it is relevant to the research because democracy cannot flourish in the absence of good governance. One of the pre-conditions for good governance is effective democratic institutions for democratizing the society. Improvement of the living standard of people cannot happen where people cannot participate in governance, human rights are not respected, information does not flow, and civil society and the judiciary are weak.

Existing literature is particularly focused on democracy, its basic tenets and what determines if a country is practicing democracy or not. However, as part of this dissertation, it is imperative to first understand what illiberal democracy is as opposed to liberal democracy is, its characteristics and if indeed there is evidence that shows it is on the rise.

Fareed Zakaria in his essay “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy”, points out that, in recent times, bigoted or tyrannical groups all around the world seize power through democratic means and then ignore constitutional limits, thereby denying them of their natural rights. The general understanding of democracy is “liberal democracy” which is a political system marked by free and fair elections, rule of law and the respect of the basic rights and freedoms of citizens. Separation of powers exists in order to keep one branch of government from gaining too much power. According to Zakariah, these unalienable rights define what a true constitutional liberal democracy is. He then goes on to argue that most democracies aren’t liberal anymore and that they have taken the path of illiberal democracy by denying the citizens their basic rights.

In my opinion, Zakariah’s article provides a great understanding of the flaws of democracies around the world. The current state of democracy in the world is gradually shifting more towards the illiberal trend, where governments although gain power through free and fair elections, follow some of the basic tenets of democracy, they curtail certain rights and freedoms of their citizens, like the freedom of association.

Also in his book “The Future Of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy At Home And Abroad”, he argues that twentieth century was marked by two broad trends: the regulation of capitalism and the deregulation of democracy. He also makes a point that in recent times, public respect for politics and political system in every advanced society is at an all-time low. This is because there is a lack of trust among the people and the government which can be attributed to a corrupt and flawed electoral process heavily influenced by the way the image of the running candidate is projected. Often, as a leader who would cater to the needs of the citizens, ensure that their rights and responsibilities are respected and ultimately make the society a good place to be. The opposite is true when they are elected into office. Constitutional provisions are ignored, press freedom and freedoms of the citizens are curtailed among others.

On the rise of illiberal democracies in non- Western societies, Zakaria poses a question as to whether democracy produces as an Islamic theocracy. Theocracy is the belief that one religion should be absolutely culturally dominant. Islam is a religion that wants to be very firmly established. It wants to be the official religion of a nation or empire. It rejects the notion that politics should be conducted without reference to religion, and it rejects the notion that various different religions should be treated equally. As a result, many of their practices do not conform to the western style democracies as since their religion is fused with democracy.

Alemayehu G. Mariam in her article “The Democracy Before Democracy In Africa”, she states that African democracy is rooted in African culture and history and that before Africa can have a political democracy, it must have economic democracy. Widespread poverty, low per capita incomes, a tiny middle class and the absence of a democratic civic culture render the system of Western-style democracy incompatible with African realities. Liberal democracy could come to Africa only after significant economic development has been achieved

Robert Dahl’s book titled “on democracy” also gives an account of what an ideal democracy is and whether there is such a thing as in ideal democracy in the world. According to him, five criteria exist which describe a democratic form of government. Effective participation, where citizens are able to contribute to the decision making process and its outcome. Secondly, enlightened understanding where he defines it as “ Each citizen ought to have adequate and equal opportunities for discovering and validating (within the time permitted by the need for a decision) the choice on the matter to be decided that would best serve the citizen’s interests” (Dahl 1989: 112). Voting equality at the decisive stage where each citizen must be ensured an equal opportunity to express a choice that would be equal to the choice expressed by other citizens. That is all citizens should be equal before the law. Control of the agenda which talks about the power vested in the citizens to decide how matters are to be placed on the agenda by the democratic process and lastly, an inclusion which allows for all eligible citizens to be included in the decision-making process in the society.

This data will rely on secondary data in the form of books and journal articles. In addition, reports and statistics from institutions and NGO’s relevant to the topic will be employed.

The method that will be used in this dissertation will be purely qualitative which will comprise primary and secondary data. Since primary data is concerned with obtaining data from the first-hand experience, I would be, through purposive sampling, conduct elite interviews with between 5-10 International Relations Scholars.

Secondary data I will obtain from desk reviewing existing literature on the concept and by an analysis of existing indices of democracy which I will get from The Rule Of Law Index by the World Justice Project, Governance Index and The Social Progress index by the World Bank and lastly the Human Development Index.

The study is in four chapters. Chapter one covers the research design. It entails the background to the study, statement of the research problem, the research objectives of the study, the research questions of the study, the scope of the study, the significance of the study, the hypothesis, theoretical framework, literature review, and methodology. Chapter two discusses Democracy Africa. Chapter Three discusses Democracy in Libya under Gaddafi, its merits, and demerits and also how it affected the relationship Libya had with the west. Chapter Four comprises the summary of findings, conclusions, and some recommendations with regards to the research topic.

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