Fractured democracies in Africa

Flawed, manipulated and poorly capacitated political institutions undermine African countries’ efforts to build equitable and prosperous democracies. Yet, unless Africa’s political institutions are turned around, democracy, peace and prosperity will remain elusive.

Institutions are systems, rules and laws that govern behaviour. They include structures such as parliaments, political parties and police services; also the formal laws, rules and socially accepted norms.

Departing colonial powers often left newly independent African states with few political institutions which could underpin the building of strong democracies. Most were attuned to suppressing the indigenous people.

Many post-liberation African governments did not try to go beyond the abysmal political institutions inherited, either by adapting them or creating new sustainable ones. Africa’s democracy deficit – and resultant lack of peace, grinding poverty and national divisions – has much to do with the fact that governments have not prioritised fostering quality political institutions.

The internal shock of the end of colonialism was a missed opportunity for African governments to introduce quality political institutions. The deformed institutions work perfectly for Africa’s ruling elites – they benefit them personally, so they are not going to let go of them easily.

African governments inherited parliaments which were structured to prioritise the issues of the colonial settler elites only. Representation in legislatures was confined to the colonial elites. Policies and issues debated were mostly about or favoured them.

Colonial parliaments were essentially lame-ducks dominated either by the local governor or “prime minister”. In the post-independence, post-liberation or post-colonial era, the roles of the colonial elite were often taken over by the new political elite, whether aligned to the independence or liberation movement or the leader.

These new African elites used the political institutions which were limited, flawed and skewed against the black majority, to govern, just like their colonial predecessors, in the interests of a small elite.

In many post-independence societies, those elected often hand-pick public representatives from their own networks, concentrate decision-making among their networks, and often make policies and decisions which favour their networks, rather than in the wider interest of society.

Parliaments in most African countries in the post-independence era have mostly been lame-ducks – as they were during the colonial era; or dominated by the party leader in the same way the colonial governor, prime minister or head of the colonial office, dominated.

Many post-independence African governments kept laws which suppressed indigenous people.

In colonial society, the governor or colonial administrator or prime minister, is essentially above the law and local institutions – such as parliament. Sadly, African independence leaders more often than not copy this behaviour, and see themselves as above the formal laws and political institutions.

During the colonial era, police institutions were oppressive against the indigenous communities. Post-independence, the police act in a similar oppressive manner, under instructions from the new leaders, against ordinary black citizens.

The judiciary in most colonial governments was an arm of the colonial mother country, colonial governor or administrator. In the post-independence period, African governments and leaders often appoint pliant judiciary and expect it to be an appendage of the governing party or leader.

Many African countries, where liberation or independence movements played a leading role in the struggle for freedom, play the same dominant role over the government and society as former the colonial office, setting the laws, rules and governance systems. The rules, laws and behaviour codes of the liberation or independence party become the real laws, rules and codes of behaviour.

During colonialism, there were often two sets of governance systems: the formal one for the colonial settler elite; and a separate governance system applicable only to the indigenous community.

The latter is African customary or traditional law, rules and institutions which applied to the indigenous communities. Ironically, the colonial governments took the most undemocratic elements of customary or traditional laws and rules, and elevated these, essentially rewriting African traditional and customary law to suit the colonial government.

According to eminent African scholar Mahmood Mamdani, the colonial governments used customary, traditional law and institutions to indirectly rule the indigenous through proxies – the proxies being pliant traditional leaders, chiefs, kings and institutions.

The colonial governments often hand-picked traditional leaders, chiefs and kings or installed their own, and set new “traditional” rules, laws and institutions which made people subservient to the colonial government and the colonial government-endorsed “traditional” leaders, chiefs, kings and institutions.

In post-independence Africa, the “traditional” rules and institutions continue alongside the countries’ formal laws and political institutions. The traditional leaders, chiefs, kings and traditional institutions oversee the implementation of these traditional laws, rules and institutions – and their subjects – on condition that they (traditional leaders, chiefs and kings) support the governing party and leader.

Colonial governments suppressed independent civil society and demanded obeisance to the government. Post-independent governments have copied this approach. Civil society critical of government, post-independence, are quickly proscribed.

The media during the colonial era were rarely independent, supporting the colonial system and the dual colonial citizenhood, the segregation of white and black society and the oppression of the indigenous people. In the post-independence era, African governments often nationalise the media or indigenise them – handing them over to indigenous locals, who are often close to the leader or the governing party.

If the media is transferred to black private hands, it is done so on condition the media will support the government and leader. If it is nationalised, it is expected to be uncritical of the government.

Scholars such as Ha-Joon Chang and Peter Evans argue that institutions that have been around for some time have change-resistance elements and are interdependent, with a change in one institution impacting on another, and which therefore may be opposed by those wanting the status quo to remain.

This is the case for the flawed political institutions in many African countries.

Yet, unless African countries adapt political institutions to be more representative, accountable and responsive – or create new ones that are – peace and prosperity will remain distant dreams.

*This article was published in the African Independent. To view the article on their website click here

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the author of several number 1 bestsellers. His more recent books include: Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg); and South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination (Tafelberg).

To read publications by William Gumede on our website please click here.

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