David-Ngendo Tshimba on African Elections

Africa must look beyond election obsession

Written by DAVID-NGENDO TSHIMBA

 

A human generation has come to full cycle since elites from the West decided, in their wisdom or folly, to dictate a new global political, economic and social order, midwifed by the (in) famous Structural Adjustments Policies (SAPs). 

Jeffrey David Sachs, an American economist and one of the world’s leading experts on economic development and the fight against poverty, was an important contributor to the design of the SAPs.

Coming from the context of a bipolar world from where the crisis and the collapse of one side (Communism) seemed to have validated the victory and superiority of the other (Capitalism), the political death of bureaucratic socialism propelled the parliamentary mode of politics to a hegemonic position.

Celebrants of capitalism in the West, according to Congolese political scientist and former rebel leader Ernest Wamba-dia-Wamba, have seized “the occasion to intensify the propaganda for a free market economy and multi-party democracy.” 

Particularly for Africa, the underlying assumption for SAPs is that integration of African economies into the global capitalist (free market) economy is the best way to engender economic opportunities and raise standards of living for Africans.

Sachs, for instance, argued that countries that maintained a democratic system of government and open economies grew faster than those that remained closed and authoritarian.

The economic imperatives of SAPs, which were superintended by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), were mediated by good governance and respect for human rights.

At the heart of this buzz terminology of ‘good governance’ was the democratisation process, which, shockingly, has emphasized internal/domestic factors in peripheral (read African) states, while paying scant attention to both the direct and indirect impact of the global (read Western) capitalist economy. 

Believers in SAPs like Jeffrey Herbst have argued that liberal democracy, which occupies a central position in the good governance frame, “has won the intellectual debate.” In the aftermath of the Cold War, therefore, there was a rapidly-growing reliance on electoral processes in sub-Saharan Africa as the principal way to legitimise governance at national, regional, and local levels. 

But this debate should be far from over; in fact, there is every reason to cast sheer doubts onto this pretentious victory of liberal democracy as experimented in many African countries today.

As this liberal democratisation process in most of today’s Africa continues to unfold, it is evident that it was an illusion for both designers of and believers in SAPs to hope that proper elections would immediately lead to a proper democracy.

In the words of Belgian contemporary historian David Van Reybrouck, “the West has been experimenting with forms of democratic administration for the last two and a half millennia, but it has been less than a century since it has started putting its faith in universal suffrage through free elections.”

But what is even more insightful in Van Reybrouck’s argument is that Western political experts often suffer from what can be termed as ‘electoral fundamentalism’ in the same way macroeconomists from the IMF and the World Bank not-so-long-ago suffered collectively from market fundamentalism. 

Little wonder, therefore, that elections have not proven to be a fully-effective device for holding these SAPs-regime African political leaders to account. Politically, the implementation of SAPs in most of Africa has simply fashioned post-Cold War Africans into regular voters, but not yet full citizens.

This is not to pardon post-Cold War African political leaders for their shortcomings – having made public policy a totally elitist affair characterised by factions, fractions, corruption, and hence incapable of constructing a viable national political project even in their own narrow interests.

It is, rather, to remind both the designers and followers of the SAPs-script that political institutionalization in terms of organization and procedures of political action encompassing all social forces across the governed territory is, as Huntington rightly put it, “the foundation of political stability and thus the precondition of political liberty.” 

But if the African electorate was, in the first place, duped by the problematic promise of SAPs and hence turned into believers in electoral fundamentalism (conduct of regular, popular and free elections), the period of close to three decades of such ‘democratic fidgeting’ brings into question the optimism of liberal democracy as the way to establish political order in most of today’s Africa. 

Particularly important for countries of the African Great Lakes region today (many of which are about to undergo or have just undergone yet another ‘democratic fidgeting’), the question regarding how the legitimacy needed to govern could be established other than through holding popular elections must be brought forth to the debate many SAPs-believers prefer to see closed. 

 dntshimba@gmail.com 

The author is a PhD fellow at the Makerere Institute for Social Research.

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