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Africa's democratic pains

About the authors
Michael Holman was Africa editor of the Financial Times, 1984-2002
Greg Mills heads the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation, dedicated to strengthening African economic performance

Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa and Kenya: four African countries regarded until recently as successes of political reform and economic progress, and with wider potential.

They could - so it appeared - turn their respective regions in west, central, eastern and southern Africa around, and in so doing drive the continent forward. The resources are there: together the four contain more than one-third of sub-Saharan Africa's 750 million people and represent over half of its combined economy.

Michael Holman was Africa editor of the Financial Times, 1984-2002. He is the author of the novels Last Orders at Harrods: An African Tale (Polygon, 2005; republished by Abacus, 2007) and the sequel, Fatboy and the Dancing Ladies (Polygon, 2007)

Also by Michael Holman in openDemocracy:

"Welcome to the aid business!(20 June 2005)

"Africa: celebrity and salvation" (22 October 2006)

"Trees for Africa" (18 December 2006)

"Eugène Marais, The Soul of the White Ant" (19 February 2007)

"Dizzy worms in Zimbabwe" (19 March 2007)

"The Commonwealth: punching below weight" (3 December 2007)

"African legacies: settler-colonialism, land-politics" (11 December 2007)

But elections in each country in the eighteen months since July 2006 have reversed or at least stalled the optimism, raising a series of doubts: over the true path of these countries, the impact on their regions and the role that external actors might play in ensuring stability.

* In the DR Congo, the first elections since the end of the Mobutu regime and the war which ensued led which in October 2006 (after a two-round process extending over four months) to the election of Joseph Kabila; but this has been followed by months of instability, culminating in new rounds of fighting in the east (see David Mugnier, "How to end a war", 3 December 2007)

* In Nigeria, the government itself conceded that the election of President Umaru Yar'Adua in April 2007 was flawed

* In South Africa, the election victory of Jacob Zuma over incumbent Thabo Mbeki as the president of the ruling African National Congress in December 2007 has created new concerns over the future stability of Africa's model state

* In Kenya, problems in the aftermath of the presidential election on 27 December 2007 have resulted in an outbreak of violence of unprecedented fury, turning a country once viewed as the favourite surf-and-safari destination to just another African country, one teetering on the brink of disaster.

Four corners, five lessons

True, these are very different countries and circumstances - from Africa's largest economy (South Africa) to its largest failed state (Congo), and from a key ally in the west's war on terror (Kenya) to a giant with volatile sectarian faultlines (Nigeria). But out of each of these democratic experiences, five commonalities can be drawn.

First, tribalism and sectarianism still matter. In Kenya, the race was between Mwai Kibaki, a member of the Kikuyu tribe (the largest in Kenya) and Raila Odinga (a Luo), and battlelines were drawn countrywide according to these differences (see John Lonsdale, "Kenya: ethnicity, tribe and state", 17 January 2008).

In Congo, President Kabila responded to the prospect of electoral defeat in the second-round run-off by bolstering his support by making deals with some of the more extremist yet powerful elements in Congolese politics, and threatening the Banyamulenge in the eastern South Kivu province.


Greg Mills heads the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation, dedicated to strengthening African economic performance

Nigerian politics remains a balancing-act between the oil-rich (and largely Christian) south and populous Islamic north from where the president draws much of his support, and where Islamic law has been imposed in several states.

The South African contest has been described not only as one between the more populist Zuma against the comparatively erudite and introverted Mbeki, but also pitting Zulu against Xhosa-led factions in the African National Congress.

Second, incompetent management and corruption are present and political. When Mwai Kibaki swept to power in 2002 he was regarded not primarily as Kikuyu, but as a reformer who led a coalition that promised clean government. Barely a year later the man appointed by Kibaki to lead the campaign against graft, John Githongo, went into self-imposed exile in London. Far from tackling sleaze, the president and his cabinet allegedly initiated a further set of corrupt practices. Corruption and patronage run deep; indeed, they make the system work to a degree, if only to the benefit of the privileged. While Africa's vibrant press generally does an excellent job in highlighting the extent of malfeasance, but this also focuses on the blame on a few individuals rather than on the overall system of governance.

Also in openDemocracy on Kenya's crisis:


Peter Kimani, "A past of power more than tribe in Kenya's turmoil" (2 January 2008)

Michael Holman, "Kenya: chaos and responsibility" (3 January 2008)

Gérard Prunier, "Kenya: roots of crisis" (7 January 2008)

Roger Southall, "South African lessons for Kenya" (8 January 2008)

Wanyama Masinde, "Kenya's trauma, and how to end it" (9 January 2008)

John Lonsdale, "Ethnicity, tribe, and state in Kenya" (17 January 2008)

Angelique Haugerud, "Kenya: spaces of hope" (23 January 2008)

Third, unemployment is a critical destabiliser. To see the crisis in each of these four countries only in terms of tribalism and corruption is to miss a vital element. Today, more than forty years after the independence era, over 50% of Kenyans subsist on a couple of dollars a day, and fewer than 10% of the 400,000 school-leavers each year can expect to find jobs. The picture is worse in Nigeria and the DR Congo - so bad in fact that statistics are not available. South Africa's continuing high unemployment of around 30%, nearly a decade and a half after democracy's advent, along with the slow delivery of basic services is one reason for Jacob Zuma's elevation (see Roger Southall, "South African lessons for Kenya", 8 January 2008)).

Fourth, growth is imperative, but not enough. All four countries have - like much of the continent - been experiencing an unprecedented period of high (over 5%) growth, buoyed by high commodity prices and better macro-economic management. But the gap between the haves and have-nots has at the same time been widening. This again partly explains the South African election result and why the mood in the slums of Nairobi was overwhelmingly in favour of Odinga. For those frustrated at the polls, there is little to lose by taking to the streets - in frustration over economic circumstance and fury at the electoral system.

The key challenge for Africa as a whole remains to find a way to create jobs and growth. The rise of China and relative lack of African labour competitiveness may makes manufacturing-driven export-led growth unrealistic, but there are ways to make more of the continent's resources and opportunities (see Paul Collier, "The aid evasion: raising the ‘bottom billion'", 11 June 2007).

Fifth, democracy is not an event. A difficult election does not mean the end of progress and reform. Indeed, today's situation in Kenya - difficult and painful though it is - is far from the time when African elections (if they happened at all) were single-party charades. But politicians should also not regard their commitment to democracy and the related need for consensus-building as being limited to an occasional, internationally scrutinised election-day. Democracy is a process.

The right balance

Most non-Africans - and many Africans themselves - tend to see the continent in uniform, almost linear, terms: in which individual events inform trajectories of renaissance, recovery, decline, or failure. The reality is that Africa is far more complex than such schemas allow - and its progress, where it happens, far from linear.

This makes it even more important that foreign governments and agencies get the balance of their own policy towards Africa right. South Africa apart, the other three states highlight the failure of external actors to expose graft and help deliver better governance. These goals are often sacrificed to the greater (apparent) good of maintaining a smooth relationship and regime stability. A major lesson of these sobering eighteen months is that non-Africans should not attempt to pick and back winners. The starting-point of a good role, rather, is for external actors to be honest in their deliberations about and with these countries.


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