This is an old debate, but it merits revisiting for at least two reasons.
First, the neoconservative and globalist African intelligentsia, whose leading figures today include the Zambian-born economist Dambisa Moyo, is at it again: Africa needs benevolent dictatorship that can focus on economic growth and growth, nothing but growth! The ad nauseam in this assertion is as nauseating as it is simplistic.
Second, there is the reality of disappointing experience with practice of democracy on the African continent, especially over the past three decades starting in the early 1990s and the ‘third wave’ of democratisation. The problems of democracy, its failings and flaws, are seldom new and unique to Africa.
The argument for so-called benevolent dictatorship rests on invariably shaky ground. First, it is woefully ahistorical. Africa has been down this road for long and to devastating effects.
In the 1970s and 1980s much of Africa was under dictatorships of different stripes, some venal and vicious as Jean-Bedel Bokassa in the Central African Republic and Idi Amin in Uganda, others less brutal and more modernising as Felix Houphouet-Boigny in the Ivory Coast and the Emperor Haile Selassie in Ethiopia.
Easily the most successful and pronounced case of what has been referred to as ‘developmental patrimonialism’ was Houphouet-Boigny’s Ivory Coast. But the country went up in flames not too long after Houphouet-Boigny left the political stage. It is yet to recover from years of civil war.
There is the presumptuous claim that dictators know what the people want and can best deliver on the people’s needs when unencumbered by the motions of democracy and the rigidities of rule-based conduct.
But if rulers needed to be shielded against the democratic checks and constraints to be able to do good and bring about transformation, Africa would be paradise because this is precisely the story of post-independent Africa – rulers and small coteries of the ruling class have often conducted business in a personalised manner with little regard for rules and laws. A large part of the ills of Africa turn on personalist rule and unaccountable leadership.
Also, the idea that rulers or the ruling classes more generally should be shielded from public pressures and influence harkens to old-fashioned paternalism.
This was in fact at the heart of colonial rule: the colonists claimed to know what the ‘backward and savage’ colonised subjects needed; so, there was no need for representation or any kind of democratic voice.
Contrary to what revisionist (and racist) commentators have attempted in recent years, colonialism in its absolute authoritarian strand delivered plunder and despoliation, and not growth and development of the African continent.
The very modus operandi and systems of rule, justified on account of bringing about ‘civilisation,’ that were set in motion by colonialism remained in place or were reproduced by post-independence rulers. There was but only a slight modification of the justification, from civilisation to development.
Today, there is an intriguing sleight of hand that sees the scapegoat in democracy. And this is where Dambisa Moyo and others have rallied to engage in an extreme form of intellectual dishonesty. Scapegoating democracy might at face value appear easier to do. But laying out exactly how democracy is a problem turns out rather difficult to persuasively argue.
We may well call it another name, but the idea and value of democratic government is to have public accountability and the mechanisms of ensuring that individuals and organisations entrusted with public office answer to those on whose behalf they manage.
To realise accountability, transparency and adherence to the set rules, there has to be citizen participation, free expression and the right to decide who should hold what office. How on earth then does being held accountable and securing from citizens the right to govern run counter to the quest for economic growth?
What is often used to scapegoat democracy is nothing more than parodies of genuine democratic practice, like populist policies and actions that play to the gallery, opportunistically used by political entrepreneurs to hoodwink the public to retain power and privilege. The instrumental use of such democratic principles as popular participation and the people’s will is a travesty, and not the essence of democracy.
There is no doubt that any democratic system has deeply ingrained flaws. It is prone to slow decision-making and can lead to undesirable outcomes. It has inherent instabilities and occasional uncertainties. But there is little historical evidence to suggest that Africa can do better under nondemocratic systems.
The tendency to jump to citing Asian countries, the so-called Tigers and now China, fails to appreciate the distinct histories and societal circumstances of those countries. Then the reference to Europe and North America which ostensibly attained socioeconomic transformation before becoming liberal, democratic societies. The claim here is either ignorantly wrong or simply disingenuous.
The early path to European (and by extension North American) transformation was built on the principles of rule of law and public accountability. England was the frontrunner in this. The form and degree of democracy was not what it eventually became, but that rulers and governments were subjected to public accountability is undeniable.
The author is an assistant professor of political science at North Carolina State University.