From Africa: From democracy to development - Karen MacGregor

Elections are becoming the norm not the exception in Africa, but if this is to positively influence development, ensuring that those who win power deliver on their pre-election promises is the major challenge for states across the continent.

Last year, 13 African countries staged largely peaceful elections and this year there are more than two dozen national-level polls being held in some 20 countries, more than ever before. Violent conflicts are down, electoral turnouts are impressive, and there is popular support for democracy and a growing civil society voice. Turning democracy into development, however, could prove considerably more difficult and governance and leadership have been identified as key challenges facing Africa in the decades to come.

‘Elections have become the norm, not the exception in Africa’, write Jakkie Cilliers, Barry Hughes and Jonathan Moyer of the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, in a report African Futures 2050: The next forty years, published early this year. While during the 1960s and 1970s Africa averaged only 28 elections per decade, by the 1990s this had grown to 65 per decade and between 2000 and 2005 there were 41 elections.

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There has also been an increase in free and fair polls, indicating that the electoral process is strengthening with the holding of more elections. While electoral legitimacy remains low, it too is improving; losers have been more willing to accept outcomes and peaceful elections have become more frequent, write Cilliers, Hughes and Moyer.

Nevertheless, a recent World Bank report argues that accountability – ‘ensuring that politicians and civil servants do what they say they will do’ – is Africa’s major governance challenge. Political leaders seek to retain power by dispensing money and access to resources rather than delivering public goods and services. Parliaments and courts have often not been able to provide the checks and balances that are necessary to restrain poor governance, says Africa’s Future and the World Bank’s Support to it.

It has been a tumultuous year so far. Peaceful popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, and South Sudan’s relatively smooth referendum and independence from North Sudan in July, have been high points. Violence in Côte d’Ivoire after a contested presidential election, and the rebellion in Libya, have been troughs. Nigeria’s April elections delivered mixed results: the International Crisis Group reported in September that while the country somewhat broke its cycle of deeply flawed polls, there were still ‘serious problems’ including questionable majorities and extensive violence that claimed more than 1,000 lives.

Still, research has shown widespread popular demand and support for democracy across the continent, that ‘Africans value democracy both as an end and as a means to improved government policies, performance and social well-being’, and that people see democracy in procedural as well as substantive terms. Turnout figures are encouraging and both popular and elite participation are rising, with opposition parties competing more at the polls and strategic boycotting waning.

‘Popular understandings of democracy are based on liberal notions and include the protection of civil rights and liberties, participation in decision-making, rules for elections and electoral participation. Africans, therefore, believe civil liberties are essential, central to their overall quality of life,’ African Futures 2050 reports. ‘There appears to be a wholesale rejection of the failed political systems of the past’.


Regional, pan-African and global forces are all at work to see the continent through its socio-political transitions. There is good reason to be cautiously optimistic that this critical element of the development process will mostly continue to change positively


Despite these gains, the authors stress, there are concerns over the depth of democratic attachment, ‘preferences for democracy coexist with pockets of authoritarianism’ and there is not total rejection of authoritarian rule. Also, while people support democracy as the best form of government, ‘relatively few are satisfied with the way it actually works. Citizens demonstrate disappointment with the supply of democracy and policy outputs by their governments, and disappointment with the performances of elected representatives.’

One in four elections have been affected by violence, there has been election rigging, limited transition from ruling to opposition parties and a number of elections have ended in stalemate and a negotiated government of national unity, write Cilliers, Hughes and Moyer.

Democratic gains in Africa have been welcomed. But there is no evidence that democracy leads directly to economic growth and development – although globally, rising per capita income has been shown to relate to greater democracy. Economic growth is more closely linked to other aspects of improved governance.

For this reason, the focus on Africa has been shifting from promotion of democracy to concerns about the quality of governance. It has been argued that improved governance is a precondition for development, with governance including democracy and the protection of rights, the rule of law and low levels of corruption, and the efficiency and quality of policies.

The World Bank believes Africa’s governance challenge is acute for three reasons. First, it has a large number of fragile states (20 of the world’s 33 most fragile) with extremely weak public sectors. Second is political instability, with too many contested elections followed by crises and conflict (Kenya, Zimbabwe and Côte d’Ivoire in recent years) and lingering instances of coups and non-democratic transfers of power (Guinea, Mauritania, Niger and Madagascar). Third is the ‘resource curse’ of resource-rich countries, which have experienced widespread corruption and civil conflict.

But while the link between democracy and development is ambiguous, says African Futures 2050, it is widely accepted that democratic institutions improve ‘developmental governance’ including economic policy, public sector effectiveness and reduced corruption. There is also evidence that accountable governments are better at dealing with challenges and better at allocating scarce resources towards development, for instance in health and education.

‘And while the relationship between democracy and economic growth may be poor in the short term, over time democracy generates electoral incentives for politicians to compete by advocating redistribution and expanded welfare commitments.’

Human security is crucial to good governance and development, and here too the news is mixed. In the past decade there has been a dramatic decline in violent conflicts in Africa, thanks largely to peace support operations. By mid-2010, eight out of 16 UN peacekeeping operations and 103,000 personnel were in Africa. The African Union has set up an African Standby Force, and last year some $5.7bn was spent on peace support in Africa.

On the other hand, says African Futures 2050, there are disruptive forces facing the continent. ‘Movements to urban areas may bring improvements in economic activity, but also can be destabilising. While militarised violence has decreased, crime has increased. The impact of the drug trade through West Africa will also have increasingly disruptive impacts. And climate change may give rise to increased migration and conflict.’

The problems of armed conflict and state fragility are unlikely to disappear but they are likely to decrease, as per capita income rises across the continent. Ultimately, security will depend not only on states but also on the resilience of societies to change. ‘The good news is that key foundations of such resilience, including human development, economic growth and better governance, appear likely to strengthen,’ write Cilliers, Hughes and Moyer.

Ironically, the development process itself is reinforcing old challenges, including conflict over the wealth that commodity production generates, and it is giving rise to new challenges. ‘Yet domestic, regional, pan-African and global forces are all at work to see the continent through its socio-political transitions. There is good reason to be cautiously optimistic that this critical element of the development process will mostly continue to change positively.’ 



Karen MacGregor is a freelance journalist. She can be contacted at

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