Is There an African Democracy?

24 July 2005 at 07:00 | 641 views

African democracy or democracy in Africa has always been a troubling proposition.Many scholars have ridiculed what passes for democracy in Africa while others have made and continue to make a strong plea for a democracy moulded and springing from Africa’s rich cultural heritage.In this thought-provoking article, writer and journalist Joseph Hanlon presents a crtical analysis of the issue and provides his own perspectives.

By Joseph Hanlon

Throughout southern Africa, the cold war has ended with the defeat of the west’s proxies in free and fair elections: Unita in Angola, Banda in Malawi, the National Party and Inkatha in South Africa, and now Renamo in Mozambique. The size of these victories has come as a surprise to some, particularly in the United States.

The message in 1994 was clear. In South Africa, it was necessary to fake the election results to ensure that the ANC did not receive two-thirds of the votes. In Namibia, Swapo easily won two-thirds in the second election, which was the first one in which the opposition did not receive extensive support from outside. In Mozambique, Frelimo president Joaquim Chissano won comfortably on the first round.

In this article, I will explore some of the democratic implications of these results. I will argue first that southern Africa has carried out western-imposed elections, but with unexpected results, and that an elected one-party state may be the basis for an African democracy; second, that Mozambique (and southern Africa) needs to democratise further, but that blind adoption of the narrow model being foisted on it is problematic; third, that local elections will play an important role; fourth, that the ’democracy’ of the industrialised world is very limited and can only be a partial guide; and finally that it is not sufficient to democratise individual countries.

The late 1980s saw the industrialised countries begin to impose political conditionality as well as economic conditionality on the Third World (including eastern Europe). As with economic demands, this was selective. It did not, for example, apply to Zaire or Liberia, where the US was supporting client dictators. But for many states, political conditionality involved multi-party elections, particularly on the US-British winner-take-all model.

When Mozambique was debating its new constitution the section on multi-party elections was included under US pressure. The wide national consultation showed that most people preferred to keep the one-party state, but pressure both from the more vocal urban population and from the US ensured that the multi-party clause was kept in the constitution.

The West did not maintain this line, because for two reasons it did not produce the results the industrialised world expected. First, economic and political conditionality proved to be contradictory: no democratically elected government could agree to the deflationary conditions imposed as part of structural adjustment.

This led to demands by the US, Britain and the World Bank for the much vaguer ’good governance’; this usually meant a government which would accept structural adjustment and other western demands, whether or not that government was elected.

Second, Anglo-Saxon winner-take-all style elections had been imposed on southern Africa in part because the US was so confident its clients would win. Many in the US government came to believe their own propaganda that the ANC, Swapo, Frelimo and MPLA were communist devils while Banda was a benevolent father loved by his people. In Angola in 1992, the British and US ambassadors were telling journalists that Unita would win until just a few days before the election. This view was probably reinforced by the 1990 election victory of US clients in Nicaragua. But the September 1992 victory of the MPLA in Angola made the West realise that in some cases the +wrong+ side might win elections.

Suddenly there was a new rhetoric. US officials began to say that Africa was not ’ready’ for full western democracy, and that there needed to be an ’African solution’. This meant a coalition or a ’government of national unity’ which included the old US clients. In South Africa, there was a pre-election deal to ensure that US client parties would get a vice-presidency or at least ministries.

For Mozambique, this western change in line came too late to affect the Rome Peace Accord, which was signed just days after the Angola election and effectively called for a two-party winner-take-all election. But the new line came into play quickly, with a two-prong strategy. First, the United Nations was to take as its primary mission the building up of Renamo into a credible political force that would not lose too disastrously. Aldo Ajello, the head of ONUMOZ, the UN Operation in Mozambique, took up the task with enthusiasm, setting up a special UN trust fund for Renamo and allowing the election to be delayed for a year to give Renamo more time. He was successful, and by the date of the election Renamo was a credible force.

Second, the US pressed Frelimo to accept a South Africa-style pre-election deal. But President Joaquim Chissano successfully resisted, and did not make a pre-election deal. After his convincing victory he did not include any non-Frelimo members in his government. He said that he could not accept even a European-style coalition government, and that it was unacceptable to have ministers nominated by other parties; he needed the right to dismiss his own ministers.

Thus Frelimo has used the multi-party electoral system imposed on it by the west to reinstate the one-party state. Indeed, this seems to be the phenomenon across southern Africa. In Botswana and Zimbabwe, opposition parties have never gained more than a few seats in parliament. In South Africa the new constitution now being written will probably end the national unity government, while the African National Congress seems likely to win a huge majority in 1999 elections. In Zambia and Lesotho, elections threw out the old government only to replace them with another one-party state. No where do we find a European-style coalition government or an Anglo-Saxon-style system with a strong opposition.

Perhaps the elected one-party state is the African form of multi-party democracy. Undoubtedly, elections provide some check on the ruling party - ultimately, they can, as in Lesotho and Zambia, be thrown out. More importantly, however, they force a degree of openness and internal democratisation. The growth of civil society and an independent press is part of the democratisation process, and is linked to elections. This opening up provides some check on corruption, and other forms of misconduct, which developed in the era of the unelected one-party state. Parties, too, democratised; Frelimo and the African National Congress were forced to allow an unprecedented involvement of members in choosing parliamentary candidates.

The concept of a ’democratic one-party state’ challenges a number of assumptions about the form of democracy being imposed on Africa. The industrialised world has been trying to sell Africa a very narrow concept of democracy, namely that democracy is simply holding multi-party elections.

Philosophers have been trying to define ’democracy’ for more than 2000 years, and I will not try to do it in one article. Instead I will simply use the following working premise: democracy is based on the Greek word demos meaning ’the people’ and signifies a government of all the people and not a particular elite which has power for historic, military or economic reasons. Democracy is thus to be judged by the extent to which it involves everyone in discussion, policy formulation and decision-making, and does not exclude significant groups. This necessarily involves a representative government structure, but is not limited to it, nor does it specify the form. The role of what has come to be called ’civil society’ is equally important, which points to the centrality of guarantees of freedom of assembly, speech and the press. Finally, a democratic state cannot be a dictatorship of the majority - it must guarantee the rights of individuals and minorities.


The October 1994 election was not Mozambique’s first, nor was it the start of democracy. The successful independence struggle took political power from a colonial dictatorship and gave it to Mozambicans, which was an essential first step on the road to democratisation. Frelimo then used a form of election both for party members in 1978 and for subsequent local assembly elections, in which candidates were presented to mass meetings and only elected if they had broad public acceptance. I attended election meetings and there is no question that the people elected were genuinely community leaders and were accepted as legitimate spokespeople for the community.

Similarly, at its best, Frelimo conducted remarkably widespread and open discussions about some of the key policy decisions affecting the country. This occurred before the Fourth Party Congress in 1983, before the Special Women’s Conference on social issues in 1984, and in 1990 about the new constitution.

Finally, Frelimo democratised society by reducing the power of traditional leaders, and by insisting that there had to be women on tribunals and other bodies.

All of these actions sharply increased the democratic power and participation of ordinary Mozambicans. And yet, this clearly was not enough. Frelimo controlled the nominations for the party and for local assemblies. The people could (and did) reject Frelimo nominees, but there was no place for those unacceptable to the party. Frelimo also decided which issues should be open for widespread public debate, and set the terms of those debates. And there was no independent media and no place for autonomous non-religious organisations not dominated by the party.

The practical effect of this became clear in 1981 and 1982 when the party and government failed to respond to a growing rural economic crisis. With no way to change government economic policy, peasants and other rural people were forced simply to develop a parallel economy. Without permission from the party, the media was afraid to write about these issues. For example, forced villagisation was becoming an issue in the early 1980s but the press was unable to write about it; in August 1981 the magazine Tempo carried an article about problems caused by forced villagisation in neighbouring Tanzania as the only possible way of hinting at the same problem nearer to home.

It was at this point that Renamo made its biggest gains in central Mozambique. A decade ago I argued that the rapid spread of Renamo was due less to active support than to ’peasant tolerance’ of Renamo and withdrawal of support for the government (Joseph Hanlon, Mozambique: The Revolution Under Fire, Zed, London, 1984, p 230). This was over a range of economic and social issues which could not be raised within the centralised structure of the unelected one-party state. It included both the rural economic crisis and the view that Frelimo had gone too far in reducing the power of so-called traditional leaders. The validity of these complaints is less important than the powerlessness felt by people who had no legitimate, democratic avenue to raise them.

Renamo’s ability in 1993-94 to recruit a significant number of people to be assessors, local officials and candidates also points to the large number of people marginalised by Frelimo during nearly two decades of centralised rule. Many of these were people were skilled and respected in the local communities, and had not supported Renamo during the war. But once there was peace and Renamo was a political party, it became the only possible place in which these people could speak out.

It is important at this point to underline my view that "the primary cause of suffering in Mozambique is destabilisation and foreign intervention" (Joseph Hanlon, Mozambique: Who Calls the Shots, James Currey, London, 1991, p 5). Without destabilisation, there would have been no war. However, the destabiliser always capitalises on the weaknesses of the victim. Many of Mozambique’s weaknesses ultimately derive from the lack of democracy, which made it impossible for a population wholly supportive of Frelimo to raise its concerns with Frelimo. Whatever moral and ethical imperatives there may be for increased democracy, there are also real, practical reasons for further democratisation.

During the four years between the adoption of the new constitution, when new parties were first permitted, and the election itsef, no serious new political parties were formed. In a phenomenon also seen in Angola and the countries of the former Soviet Union, ’parties’ were formed by individuals putting themselves forward as leaders and expecting people to follow them. It is hardly surprising that few did. The only effective parties were those which already have some kind of local base. It was another demonstration that these multi-party national elections were top-down affairs imposed from the outside.

Elsewhere in the world, parties usually grow from the base; they elect their leaders and develop their policies though some form of internal democracy. Often parties are built through local government, where party members are most active and where future party leaders gain their practical political experience. Thus local elections in South Africa in October 1995 and in Mozambique starting in 1996 will be vital in building the skills and experience of elective politics. This, in turn, will mean that 1999 national elections in both countries will be different because parties will have a local base and local experience.

It could be argued that democratisation is even more important at local level than at national level. Indeed, Frelimo’s biggest mistake may have been to convert the grupos dinamizadores (GDs) into party cells rather than local government structures. At their best, the system of GDs and mass meetings was profoundly democratic; local people in their neighbourhoods and workplaces were involved in all of the decisions that affected their lives. If Frelimo had been able to maintain some of this level of democratisation, many later problems might have been avoided.

People are more willing to be active and involved at local level because they can see issues at first hand, and because local government organs are close enough to be seen and directly influenced. It may be difficult or daunting to go to see a member of parliament, but a local councillor is likely to be a neighbour and it is much easier to go and chat. And it is local and regional issues which often cause the greatest political passions; rural people have different needs and priorities than urban ones, while regional differences became a major issue in the 1994 Mozambican election.

The issue of so-called traditional leaders is difficult precisely because the position of these people varies so much throughout the country. There are no ’traditional’ leaders in the cement cities; in rural areas some ’traditional’ leaders continue to have immense respect while other were imposed by the colonial state and have no standing. The role of such people may be better left to democratic local government to sort out.

It is important to note that throughout the world there are a wide range of local government structures, all of which are considered democratic. Indeed, local electoral systems are sometimes significantly different than national ones; in some countries there are even several different kinds of local government structures and elections. In the United States, for example, in some parts of the northeast (New England) they do not have elected councils at all, but take decisions at town meetings in which all adults can speak and vote. Some local councils or school boards (separate elected local education authorities) are elected on a non-party basis. In many countries, elected local councils also include a few nominated traditional leaders (known in English as ’aldermen’). There is no reason why every town needs the same local election system; part of democracy is that people should be able to change their local structures if they wish.


I live in central London. People live on the streets here, as they do in so-called Third World cities such as Bombay and Rio. At night, in each shop doorway, there are people sleeping. These people cannot participate even in a limited electoral democracy; they have no address so they cannot register to vote. Britain cannot be considered democratic until these people are also part of the decision-making process. Indeed, by a series of laws approved during past 15 years, the British government has created a situation in which the homeless cannot vote and cannot participate in the democratic process, and thus cannot defend their own interests through that process.

In the United States, less than half of adults even bother to vote in elections; the rest are excluded or choose not to vote, feeling that the system has become so undemocratic that their interests are not served.

John Kenneth Galbraith in his book The Culture of Contentment (Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1992) argued that this is not accidental. The contented in the US and Britain have manipulated the electoral process to ensure that they are a voting majority and thus that all parties must serve the better off by promising tax cuts, etc. An underclass is created which is excluded from democracy.

The challenge to Africans trying to develop a more effective democracy is to find a system which does not exclude large numbers of people, and which ensures that even the poorest and most marginal can play an active role and defend their own interests.

It is useful to look at the wide variety of electoral systems in the industrialised countries. The US and Britain both use a two-party, winner-take-all system which seems to encourage Galbraith’s Culture of Contentment, and tends to encourage parties to move toward a middle ground which excludes the poor. Japan and most of the rest of Europe use multi-party proportional representation systems which, in part due to long electoral traditions, tend to produce more than two strong parties and thus to require coalition governments. The rise of green (environment) parties shows that this system does allow special interests to be represented. In Switzerland, an anti-environmentalist Car Drivers Party succeeded in electing members to the national parliament. Thus these systems tend to be less exclusive, as smaller parties try to gain the votes of people who are excluded in the US/British two-party systems. Nonetheless, as the recent rise of racism and anti-immigration pressure in Europe shows, the elected majority can discriminate and exclude minorities even in these systems. Indeed, these electoral systems seem to encourage parties to advocate intolerance and division in order to gain votes.

Some industrialised countries have moved to a form of consensus social democracy, in which coalition governments may change (often frequently) but the same set of parties remain in government and there is a basic accord between all participants. This reached its most extreme form in Italy and Japan; in both countries there was a four-way accord between capital, labour, organised crime and the military and security apparatus. This resulted in a rapid economic growth in a tightly controlled market economy. Many in Mozambique will have seen how Italian aid contracts were carefully allocated to companies and cooperatives linked to the various parties, including the communists even though they were excluded from formal participation in government. In both Japan and Italy, corruption formed a central part of the accord, but it was often redistributive, because it created jobs. In some ways, this form of consensus has been highly democratic, because decisions are only taken when there is widespread agreement and the benefits are widely distributed. But these democracies, too, are exclusive. In Japan, the homes destroyed in the recent Kobe earthquake were mostly those of the poor and marginalised which Japan pretends does not exist; it served as a reminder that Japan, too, has an underclass excluded from the system. In Italy, the organs of consensus used the security services and organised crime to kill anyone who stepped too far out of line. In both countries corruption reached a level which was unacceptable and no longer distributive, because it was hard to challenge the consensus line.

Whatever their shortcomings, all of the industrialised countries are substantially more democratic than they were 50 or 100 years ago. But few rulers give up power voluntarily. People are rarely given democratic rights; usually they must take them. The people of Portugal, and women all over the industrialised world, fought and died for the right to vote.

Even maintaining present levels of democracy is a constant struggle. In defence of freedom of the press, many journalists are jailed or killed each year. Britain, in particular, has become much less democratic in the past 15 years. Britain is often described as an +elective dictatorship+ because people are able to vote once very five years, but after that the elected parliament is unchecked; there is no written constitution and no court can override parliament. In recent years, parliament has effectively excluded minorities and the poorest from the electoral process. In the mid 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, she objected to the fact that London continued to elect a left local council, and she simply instructed parliament to abolish the Greater London Council. It was a dictatorial action to remove an entire level of local democracy, and the people of London had no say in the decision. In 1994, Britain passed a law (’The Criminal Justice Act’) sharply restricting the right to peaceful protest. Even in allegedly democratic countries, democratic rights can always be taken away.

Just when the industrialised world was putting the strongest pressure on the Third World to adopt its electoral systems, many of those systems proved to be in serious difficulty. The consensus politics of both Japan and Italy are collapsing, while in 1994 the electoral systems of both the United States and Italy produced results which created chaos and confusion, as well as intolerance and right-wing anti-democratic actions.

Because democracy is the result of constant struggle, the range and level of democratic institutions throughout the world is not surprising. Africans who threw off colonial rule can look to the experience of the industrialised world for some lessons. But Britain, the US, Italy and Japan cannot provide models. Africans will need to struggle for further democratic rights and for fairer and more appropriate electoral systems.

The myth that democracy is merely having elections hides the central fact that the most powerful people in the world are unelected and not publicly accountable for their actions. They control the large transnational corporations, the media, the major international agencies, and the armies and security services. There can be no democracy in any country if these institutions are not democratised.

Whoever had been elected president of Mozambique in October 1994 would have had to follow the same economic policy, because it is set in detail by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. These two bodies are totally undemocratic, and are, to a large extent, controlled by the United States. Technically both are United Nations agencies. And from the 1993-94 experience of ONUMOZ, Mozambicans know well the unchecked, undemocratic, colonial power of the UN.

The United Nations Charter says it should "promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom", and in particular that it should promote "full employment, and conditions of economic and social progress". The Charter also says that the UN is based on the "sovereign equality of all members". In a recent book, Erskine Childers, who was for 22 years a high level UN official, says these lofty goals can only be realised if the United Nations itself is democratised. He calls for an elected "United Nations Parliamentary Assembly" to control the UN (Erskine Childers, Challenges to the United Nations, Catholic Institute for International Relations, London, 1994, p 205).

A UN parliament would have curbed World Bank excesses many years ago, and saved untold lives and suffering. But the US and the other big powers will not give up their control over the UN and the IMF without a fight.

Within the economic constraints set by the World Bank and IMF, private companies have the most freedom of action. But the investors in Mozambique are increasingly British or South Africa companies, or rootless transnational corporations. Their decisions can affect hundreds of thousands of people, yet they are not accountable to anyone in Mozambique.

A key demand of the United States in the Uruguay Round of talks on the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) which was finally agreed in 1994 was to increase the power of transnational corporations (TNCs). Two aspects of the new treaty are particularly undemocratic. First, the new accord gives TNCs the right to own the genetic material of plants and to control entire crops; developing countries which supplied the material in the first place, and the farmers who want to grow the crops have no power. Many in the Third World have lost total control of their livelihoods, and no single elected government (other than the US, itself) can change that.

Second, the US insisted that information be included in GATT. Thus individual countries now have very few rights to restrict the import of foreign films, television and other media, or to prevent foreign companies from taking control of local media. Undemocratic control of media is becoming increasingly important, as was shown in Italy by the way Silvio Berlusconi was able to use television stations and magazines he owned to be elected prime minister. Similar media manipulation has influenced elections in Britain and the United States.

The international news agencies are controlled by a handful of large corporations. They manipulate the picture we see of other countries. For example, alternative forms of democracy are never ’newsworthy’; only conventional elections are widely reported.

Media control is of central importance to democracy because people can only exert effective power if they understand the issues; censorship either by government or by corporate owners makes understanding impossible. And freedom of the press means relatively little when it is only the freedom of the poor to compete with media organisations which can wield hundreds of millions of dollars and crush any competition that threatens to be effective.

Thus creating democracy in one country is as impossible a task as creating socialism in one country. Progress can be made in one country, but success depends on democratising the wider world.

The end of the colonial era and the end of the cold war has brought a major advance in democratisation in southern Africa. Despite immense pressure from the industrialised world, the people of southern Africa have used inappropriate structures imposed from outside to throw their support behind the liberation movements that brought the initial democratic advances.

The challenge now is to find a more suitable form of democracy. First, it must allow demos - the people - to have a real say in the local and national decisions which affect them. And second, it must genuinely empower southern Africans to work together to fight for international democratisation. Perhaps Africa can lead the way to a democratic world.

Joesph Hanlon is editor of Mozambican Peace Process Bulletin.This article was written in 1996.