Cheeseman (2015) suggests “Africanising” democracy, arguing some of the “most successful innovations on the continent, such as zoning in Nigeria or the best loser system in Mauritius, have been homegrown.” Cheeseman (2015) advocates “a more indigenous set of political arrangements” is best suited for Africa’s peculiarities.

For better or worse, democracy has become the preferred form of government in Africa. If, as it has been found, it does not always deliver development, the obvious next step is to determine how to ensure that it does. Even so, there are a number of democratic exemplars on the continent. What have Mauritius, Cape Verde, Botswana done differently? These top three African democracies are, in addition to being models of good governance, also economic successes. They also have one common characteristic: they are small countries. South Africa, which is Africa’s most advanced country and one of its largest, while having relatively strong democratic institutions, suffers from rampant corruption, poverty and anaemic growth. South Africa’s increasing economic decline exemplifies how institutional design could still fail to deliver expected economic benefits. This background is useful for contextualising any proposed reform.

Top 10 African Democracies
1. Mauritius
2. Cape Verde
3. Botswana
4. South Africa
5. Lesotho
6. Ghana
7. Tunisia
8. Namibia
9. Senegal
10. Benin
Source: 2018 EIU Democracy Index

Nonetheless, there is a strong case for urgent political reforms in many currently floundering African democracies. Making the electoral process more credible and less expensive might be a good place to start. A sense of urgency with such reforms would be crucial to stemming the increasing slide to autocracy on the continent. More importantly, it would ensure that current African democracies endure long enough to deliver the expected developmental benefits that the literature suggests tend to take time to come to fruition. With palpable benefits from democratisation over time, these should then spur yearnings for democracy in current African autocracies.

Tune African Democracies For Greater Development

I propose solutions to the earlier identified challenges faced by African democracies, of lack of accountability, political exclusion, weak state capacity, and the perception and practical realities of democracy as still a foreign concept.

I recommend a truly representative and egalitarian unicameral “People’s Assembly” legislative system where lawmakers would all be independents and not belong to any political party. That way, no party controls the legislature. Registration and other formalities for election into the legislature would be free or for pittance and via the electoral body.

Improve the Electoral Process

Osaghae (2004) recommends the following measures for improving the electoral process, upon “which the stability and survival of democracy ultimately hinges: “Control of electoral commissions should reside with the legislature and/or judiciary rather than with the executive” and “the first-past-the-post electoral system should, wherever possible, be replaced by the proportional representation system, which guarantees more opportunities for power sharing and bargaining among competing parties.”

I believe electronic voting would also help a great deal in reducing electoral fraud; albeit it has not been quite successful in doing so in the few African countries that have tried thus far. For instance, the 2018 presidential election in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was adjudged to have been easily rigged because of e-voting. In the more recent 2019 Namibian presidential election, where electronic voting was similarly used, there were hiccups here and there. Still, these challenges could be easily fixed. And even in the DRC example, just as the electronic system probably made it easier to manipulate the results, it made a forensic determination of fraud relatively easier as well.

More Direct Democracy For Greater Accountability

According to Matsusaka (2005), “direct democracy works.” “The spread of direct democracy is fueled in part by the revolution in communications technology that has given ordinary citizens unprecedented access to information and heightened the desire to participate directly in policy decisions.” What is direct democracy? Matsusaka (2005) defines this as “an umbrella term that covers a variety of political processes, all of which allow ordinary citizens to vote directly on laws rather than candidates for office.” Bottomline, there is a growing need for more effective, representative and participatory political systems; especially in Africa.

I recommend a truly representative and egalitarian unicameral “People’s Assembly” legislative system where lawmakers would all be independents and not belong to any political party. That way, no party controls the legislature. Registration and other formalities for election into the legislature would be free or for pittance and via the electoral body. And while independent candidates would still be qualified and eligible to participate in elections to executive positions (president, governors, premier, etc.), political parties would be the primary vehicle for executive positions. If the rational assumption, in light of history thus far, that political parties are likely already captured by the rich elite, an egalitarian and truly representative People’s Assembly of independents would be a well-suited counterbalance.

Kenya is another example of an African country continually evolving its political system with its realities. As politics is ethnically entrenched in Kenya, with elections almost always strictly along ethnic lines, a process is now underway to ensure the typical bickering and violence in the aftermath of elections are reduced or avoided altogether.

Foreign Technical Assistance To Strengthen State Capacity

This would have to be an ongoing process, for sure. That is, even as the effectiveness of aid is debatable. For instance, while on the face of it, aid could potentially contribute to democratisation through technical assistance with electoral processes, capacity-building for legislatures and judiciary, conditionality, and education, Knack (2004) finds no evidence that it promotes democracy. When properly designed, however, it could be effective. In fact, Gibson, Hoffman & Jablonski (2015) argue that foreign aid, not easily converted to patronage by incumbents like technical assistance, enabled greater, economic and political freedom in African countries. That said, the international community must look beyond election monitoring and other mostly ex post measures to more cogent ones aimed at preventing electoral irregularities in the first place.

Africa Should Develop Its Own Form of Democracy

Cheeseman (2015) suggests “Africanising” democracy, arguing some of the “most successful innovations on the continent, such as zoning in Nigeria or the best loser system in Mauritius, have been homegrown.” Cheeseman (2015) advocates “a more indigenous set of political arrangements” is best suited for Africa’s peculiarities. In Ghana, “the integration of traditional rulers into the formal political system has helped to generate a sense of inclusion, and has made it easier to manage intercommunal tensions around elections” (Cheeseman, 2015). Recall, Mauritius and Ghana are in the top 10 of African democracies.

Kenya is another example of an African country continually evolving its political system with its realities. As politics is ethnically entrenched in Kenya, with elections almost always strictly along ethnic lines, a process is now underway to ensure the typical bickering and violence in the aftermath of elections are reduced or avoided altogether. The Kenyan proposal would ensure that both winners and losers end up feeling their efforts are not in vain. True, the likely outcome would be administratively expensive, a triumvirate of sorts, with a president, deputy president and prime minister and an official leader of the opposition. Still, the potential benefits outweigh the costs. Cheeseman (2015) also notes the incorporation of traditional norms on social relationships and decision-making into the formal political structure and system of Somaliland.

The point is that democracy engenders development when the government it produces is truly representative of the will of the people, is less expensive to manage than other forms of governance, with elected officials truly held accountable, and all of its institutions having legitimacy with all stakeholders. Perhaps, western liberal democracy in its unadulterated form has not quite succeeded in doing that in Africa because it runs at variance with some local cultural entrenchments.

Rafiq Raji, a writer and researcher, is based in Lagos, Nigeria. Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

References available at https://rafiqraji.com/2019/12/27/macroafricaintel-democracy-african-development/