HomeOpinion & AnalysisColumnistsCan we reconcile democracy and development in Africa?

Can we reconcile democracy and development in Africa?


So elections will only be held after reforms. I guess the tension that was gradually gripping the economy is thawing, but reforms alone are no guarantee for peaceful elections.

The announcement might have been an admission that no one including Zanu PF is prepared for an early election.

Elections are part of a democratic practice by which people choose leaders for public office.

They are supposed to bring excitement and hope for better things to come or a show of confidence to a sitting government for meeting the needs of the people.

In Africa, they are synonymous with tsunami, earthquake or disease outbreaks.

Most African countries are left poorer after elections, requiring humanitarian aid. They leave misery and despair among the people. But there is still belief that democracy is a means to development.

Zimbabwe is what it is today as a result of the struggle between democracy and autocracy. Because autocracy doesn’t obey rules, democracy is a loser. The concept of rule of law protects autocracy more than democracy.

A democrat who topples dictator through whatever means which are not elections is guiltier than the dictator. And that’s why democracy and the people are always the losers.

Forlornly, democracy has been mistakenly tied to development, and therefore it also suffers during elections leaving many people poorer.

Africa inherited a colonial system of governance premised on oppression, expropriation and power retention.

Handing over power, without force, is not part of the agenda. This makes democracy just a pie in the sky. Political violence that characterise election campaigns is enough evidence to prove that the process is devoid of the wishes of the people.

Our situation in Zimbabwe is even more convoluted as, during the liberation struggle, there was no separation between military and political wings in what was then called Dare reChimurenga (war council).

This marriage makes democracy impossible and election just a mockery of modern day governance.
Does Africa therefore need democracy in order to develop or vice versa?

Some African leaders have tended to address this questions through what they termed guided democracy borrowed from the Asiatic pseudo-democracies.

This concept implies democracy in theory but autocracy in practice. This, they believe will create an environment conducive only for development.

Libya’s Muamer El Gaddafi once stated that, “What Africans need is not democracy but schools, hospitals, and bore wells for clean drinking water.”

This is supported by Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and several other African leaders who believe, after being voted into power through a democracy and good governance card, that need an improved standard of living more than freedom of expression.

And for that to be achieved, they argue, African countries need stronger leaders to push the development agenda than strong institutions of democracy.

Perhaps this explains why voters in Zimbabwe exchange their votes for a five-year term for a bag of maize which only lasts for a week.

Manifestos explaining political parties’ development policies are of little significance than a life saving bag of maize. Why not then reallocate the $50 million earmarked for elections, towards the purchase of maize for the hungry?

If asked to choose between development and democracy, many in Africa will surely go for development as its thrust is on improving the quality of life for the people.

Going by Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it is after accomplishing the physiological needs that a person begins to explore self-actualisation in the form of rights and freedoms.

Africa is not poor because of lack of democracy but development.

South Africa, believed to be one of the best democracies despite its vast wealth, the majority of its people still languish in poverty, while the majority in China live a far much better life than South Africans regardless of Chinese autocratic rule.

However this is not to give African leaders a blank cheque or downplay the value of democracy.

Perhaps, we achieve both democracy and development, if we go some few steps backwards.

The European model of democracy is a product of many centuries of refinement starting from when political power lied in churches and monarchies.

During the enlightenment transition, these institutions, though they had lost political power but not respect, still played crucial roles in facilitating the growth of democracy and balancing power between the people and the political leaders which helped democracy to become a people-driven concept.

Enlightenment was not a development model or a poverty alleviation concept but was concerned with the promotion of rights, freedoms and democracy as the tenancy upon which political power and legitimacy are derived.

Before we go to the polls, perhaps we should ask ourselves why invest so much in elections when we know that it may not guarantee our people a better standard of life.

Tapiwa Gomo is a development consultant based in Pretoria, South Africa

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