The future of democracy in Africa – enabler or albatross?

Democratic elections are hailed as the ultimate peoples’ decision making process to determine a country’s future. The extension of this argument is that good politicians with sound ideas agendas get voted in, whilst bad politicians get voted out. If this is indeed true, then the road to democracy in Africa appears now to be paved with more than good intentions! In fact, our recent robust but fair South African elections appear to confirm that democracy in Africa is gaining a strong foothold, building apparent foundations for future economic growth. Even the Sunday Times crows, ‘In many African countries, elections are a ticking box exercise aimed at pleasing outside players – but in SA they capture the will of an uncowed, free people.’

The Daily Maverick however, in a recent article, asks the pertinent question as to whether or not democracy comes at the price of economic growth. Rwanda, one of the world’s fastest growing economies with an annual growth rate of over 7.5% since 2001 under the autocratic leadership of Paul Kagame, is hailed as challenging the conventional notion the democracy is a prerequisite for economic growth. It argues, ‘The number of African electoral democracies has increased from two in 1980 to more than 40 within the last quarter century. The increase in democratic practice has not necessarily translated into prosperity for the majority of Africans, hence a reverse correlation between democracy and development.’

Yet, as a counterpoint, Mauritius and Botswana, bastions of democracy, have also achieved considerable success. The reality is that democracy alone is no guarantee of success, the tenets of democracy need to be in place including an independent judiciary, the rule of law, transparency and access to reliable information. Democracy also needs to serve the needs and interests of the population, not just a select few.

The irony is that, although Africa may not enjoy all of the high-tech infrastructure found elsewhere in developed countries, it is not immune to social media linked digital political manipulation. Facebook has recently banned 265 accounts originating in Israel, as well as a company behind these accounts, for targeting African nations and politicians. Targeted nations appear to be Nigeria, Senegal, Togo, Angola, Niger and Tunisia. Recently, although unsubstantiated, Russia has also been accused of digital interference in South Africa’s elections.

It would appear that not only will Africa need to build capability internally to support its democratic processes and institutions, it will also need to establish digital watchdogs to oversee the lethargic efforts of social media giants to ensure that their platforms are not used for nefarious political purposes.

At the end of the day, Adam Branch and Zachariah Mapilly in JACOBIN, argue that whilst elections are important it is the experience that should be celebrated, ‘they have become the occasion for outpourings of political energy around which debates arise, new visions are advanced, people throng the streets – and elites make clear just how much violence they are willing to deploy to hold onto power.’

Looking to the future it is clear that democracy creates the energy and debate required for positive change but cannot flourish without the focused building of true democratic capabilities. Capabilities that bolster and share the fair expression of the will of the people, protect from manipulation and hold in check the unfettered power of ruling elites.

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