Democracy and Africa: A Reply to Bacher

By Ian S. Spears | 1999-10-01 12:00:00

I am puzzled by some of Dr. Bacher's criticisms of the discussion of development policy reported in the summer issue of Peace, but I welcome the opportunity to consider his point of view.

First, I do not dispute Amartya Sen's claim that there may be other benefits of democracy. This forum did not allow me to discuss at length what these benefits are. However, how could I possibly be "misreading" Amartya Sen when I attribute only one statement to him - a statement with which Dr. Bacher apparently agrees? In fact, while I am unfamiliar with Sen's writings on Botswana, nothing Dr. Bacher says adds to or undermines my own interpretation of Amartya Sen; in Sen's words, a "free press, and more generally the practice of democracy, contributes greatly to bringing out the information that can have an enormous impact on policies for famine prevention...."

On the other hand, I never said that Amartya Sen argued that "localized making of day- to-day decisions" was the key to avoiding famine - though it seems unlikely that Amartya Sen would disagree. This was a question I put to my colleagues around the table and not a challenge to Sen's argument. What kind of democracy are we talking about? Does democracy entail only the election of a centralized government in the capital city? Or can it involve other more innovative mechanisms? There is room to argue that overly centralized governments - democratic or not - have not always been effective in meeting the needs of Africans and that "localized" decision making has been much more responsive. Arguing for decentralized government is hardly radical and often in line with what many African leaders and citizens are calling for.

Dr. Bacher also claims that my comments on Somalia are undermined by recent events. Amartya Sen's main argument is, of course, not that democracy prevents drought, but only that, in the event of a drought, democratic governments remain accountable and therefore more responsive to the needs of their citizens. That is why a free press is so critical. Unfortunately, ongoing violence and warlordism has not precluded hunger in some areas of Somalia. Bacher does not, however, provide evidence that Somalis are actually worse off than if such a decentralization had not taken place. According to most outside observers and Somalis I have interviewed, where such grassroots organizations have been able to establish themselves, life is considerably better than during the latter Siad Barre and immediate post-Siad Barre years.

Local Governance

I can refer Dr. Bacher to others more involved than me with the situation. Hussein Adam and others, for example, recently completed a report for the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) which, while acknowledging the ongoing need to build peace, delighted in the fact that food and consumer goods are generally available to most Somalis, that guns were out of sight, and that there were "encouraging examples of progress in local governance." Moreover, Ken Menkhaus, one of the more prolific observers of the Horn of Africa, wrote in May 1998:

What has emerged in Somalia are fluid, localized polities involving authorities as diverse as clan elders, professionals, militia leaders, businessmen, traditional Muslim clerics, Islamic fun- damentalists, and women's associations. Some political functions, such as the adjudication of disputes by clan elders, are time-honored in Somali society; other practices reflect new hybrid arrangements by communities adapting to and coping with the pressures of protracted state collapse. The results, while hardly ideal, are far from anarchy. Indeed, in some parts of Somalia, local communities enjoy more responsive and participatory governance, and a more pre- dictable, profitable, and safe commercial climate than at any time in recent decades - all without the benefits of a central government.

Dr. Bacher also claims that Congo-Zaire never had free elections. The Congo held elections in May 1960. White South Africans were reportedly rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect that the Congolese would be unable to manage an election without exacerbating the Congo's internal cleavages, thus providing a convenient justification for maintaining their own apartheid state in South Africa. Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, on the other hand, was urging the Congolese leaders to "keep their heads" so as not to derail the democratic project in the rest of Africa.

Was this a free and fair election? Given that Belgium's preferred candidate did not win and that one of its less favorite candidates, Patrice Lumumba, did, there is reason to think that it was free and fair. Of course, the Congo's early years were not helped by outside interventionists. But local actors sought outside players as much as outside players exploited existing cleavages. Indeed, it was the ongoing instability which provided an opportunity for Mobutu Sese Seko to intervene twice under the justification of restoring order. Dr. Bacher would have been more convincing to state that the Congo's democracy was never consolidated, a statement with which I might have agreed.

Region-Appropriate Democracy

In both Somalia and Nigeria, the dubious experiences with democracy led to a desire either to moderate the destructive tendencies of democracy or, preferably, to direct democratic energy towards more constructive ends. Consequently, in the case of Nigeria, Larry Diamond - no friend of dictatorial government - called for democratic government where cross-cutting cleavages minimized the polarization of Nigerian politics. Concerning the downfall of the First Republic, he writes:

...instead of complicating and crosscutting the centralized character of the ethnic structure, the federal structure heightened it by making the Yoruba, the Ibo, and the Hausa-Fulani, in effect governmental as well as ethnic categories. ... When every election and political conflict became a struggle for supremacy not just between parties but between ethnic groups and regions as well, everything was at stake and no one could afford to lose.

Diamond is not denigrating democracy per se, just the form or structure in which it existed. In other words, a form of democracy which was inappropriate to Nigeria's special situation contributed to the downfall of the First Republic.

On Somalia, authors David Laitin and Said S. Samatar describe the relief among ordinary Somalis which accompanied the announcement by Radio Mogadishu of a bloodless coup under the leadership of Siad Barre. At least for a time, Siad's government appeared to be an improvement over the "anarchic" conditions which existed during Somalia's civilian government. Even the most vociferous critics of the Siad Barre government have admitted this. Over the longer term, Somalis found that Siad Barre's "scientific socialism" - or whatever other label he conjured up to justify his rule - was also not the utopia he promised. Somalis have an opportunity to examine forms of government which will better meet their needs. No doubt, they will consider participatory forms which allow order to be maintained and yet respect local needs and Somali traditions.

Remodeling Democracy

I do not reject democracy as a form of government for Africa or elsewhere, nor am I offering any defence of African dictatorship. I am not certain, however, that the kind of high-stakes, winner-takes-all elections practiced in the West are the answer either. Nor am I necessarily calling for other forms of governance such as power-sharing. That Western models of democracy have been so difficult to consolidate in Africa should be ample warning that these models may well be inappropriate to the African context. And a democratic model which is unachievable is no better than one which is never even tried. Indeed, ongoing efforts to force Western conceptions of democracy may only arouse resentment from ordinary Africans. The kind of participatory government Africans will find acceptable, whether it be a parliamentary system or more decentralized traditional forms, is not for me to decide. That decision belongs to Africans themselves.

It seems to me that Dr. Bacher has been loose with his facts and careless with his interpretation of my comments. I think he was only spoiling for a fight.

Ian Spears is a political science professor at the University of Toronto.

Peace Magazine Fall 1999

Peace Magazine Fall 1999, page 13. Some rights reserved.

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