FEATURE ARTICLE


Chamberlain S. Peterside, Ph.DWednesday, May 19, 2004
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New York, NY, USA

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ECONOMIC IMPERATIVE AND POLITICAL PLURALISM IN AFRICA
...A CASE FOR MODERATION AND REALISM IN GOVERNANCE

…Long Journey to Freedom.

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conomically, Africa has remained in the doldrums over the last two decades, however, it is comforting to note that despite the preponderance of despotic regimes and the maze of civil/tribal conflicts besieging the continent during the last quarter century, Africa has achieved some measure of progress in imbuing democratic values and embracing free-market reform - South Africa has just had its second truly democratic election, President Kibaki and the opposition parties in Kenya won a free and fair election against a deeply entrenched ruling party last year. Sierra Leone has remained on the path of democracy after a bitter civil war. Nigeria broke the jinx by having the first-ever civilian election run by a civilian government (albeit an incumbent government). Senegal and Mali are both recognized for their sustained democratic rule. President John Kufuor handily defeated the ruling party in Ghana few years ago.

Even Rwanda held its own successful general elections recently. The same is true in Algeria. Despite sporadic attempts by armed miscreants around the continent to scuttle the course of democracy, their efforts have so far resulting to nothing -- as at the beginning of 2004 all but a few member countries of the African Union (AU) have civilian governments. The Union has adopted a charter never to recognize a military regime that forces its way to power.

The single-minded pursuit of socialist utopia by communist regimes and socialist parties in some African countries like Ethiopia - under Mengistu Mariam, Tanzania - with the so-called "Ujamma" Policy under Julius Nyerere, Libya - still under Ghadafi, Angola - under Edward Dos Sontos, Mozambique - under Samora Michel, Congo - under Dennis Souso-Ngueso during the 1980s has given way to a new free-market realism and the emergence of a vocal civil society and non-ideologically biased trade union organizations in the 1990s and beyond. …The Price of Democracy.
Some of this achievements have come at a steep price for the citizenry -- since the transition to civilian rule in Nigeria 5 years ago, over 10,000 people have lost their lives to civil disturbances according to some estimates, north-south bickering and religious tension is assuming a new dimension. Cote d' Ivories has been devastated by rebel uprising. So-called democratic dividend is yet to trickle down in most Africa countries. Average life expectancy has continued to fall as the standard of living continues to dwindle. The scourge of HIV/AID has continued to ravage the continent. Therefore, it might be understandable why some would question whether democracy is suitable for Africa or whether the people have actually been benefiting from freedom of speech and free enterprise. Some people are of the opinion that, "freedom of speech won't feed them," but as a famous Briton - George Orwell, ones said, " Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows."

After being deprived of sustainable livelihood and freedom of choice by their leaders for so long, a majority of Africans would be tempted to equate the emergence of democratic governance with being unleashed from a cage -- the result of which we are witnessing today, what for the high crime rate, senseless killings and inflammatory utterances by some political figures. This lawlessness and lack of restrain often fans the embers of ethnic and religious discord at the detriment of a common national interest.

Except in very few countries, successive governments had performed so poorly in equitably distributing wealth and creating economic opportunities in Africa and so much harm done to the popular psyche that when people are forced to express their sense of frustration it often turns violent. I dear say that most of the ethnic and religious clashes over the last 5 years in Nigeria are a result of that pent-up frustration and despair.

…The Essence of life.
In his critically acclaimed work -- "Capital," the German philosopher whose treatise found a fertile ground in Russia and China, Karl Marx wrote that, "Societal consciousness is shaped by its well-being." Who could argue with that assertion? - Not the communists at least. According to erstwhile proponents of socialism in Africa, of what essence is western-style democracy or free-market if it can't deliver the basic human needs to our society? Granted that the overriding imperative of life is the satisfaction of basic human needs first and foremost and to pursue such satisfaction in a free, safe and harmonious manner. Experiments in democracy in the African continent had failed so far due in part to wholesale transplantation of alien political ideology, outmoded cultural inhibitions and lack of proper understanding of basic tenets of democracy by the political class.

If you ask me, the worst democratic system is better than the best military dictatorship, but when democracy and pluralism fail to yield positive consequences, then its desirability and purpose is called to question, like in Nigeria today where wrongfully or not, widespread angst and cynicism is beginning to set in.

To be sure, critics point to historical analogies to buttress the reason why an unadulterated western-style democracy might be not so good for Africa, especially at this stage of its political development. Chile under General Pinochet - a regime known for blatant abuse of human rights achieved remarkable economic progress during the 1970s/80s. Cuba has made so much progress in meeting the basic needs of its populace and in health care delivery that, it boast of one of the most advanced healthcare systems in the world today, yet there has been nothing close to democracy or free choice in that island for over 40 years now.

Some feudalistic Central Asian Republics like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in the former Soviet Union attained levels of advancement comparable to Eastern and Central European countries through the autarkic and totalitarian command system of the communist empire, yet those countries were as backward as Africa before their annexation after the Russian socialist revolution of 1917.

…Policy Options.
Historically, democratic principles and free speech has shown its superiority to totalitarianism and suitability for humanity including African societies. The communist experience of the last 70 years in Eastern Europe failed woefully; hence someone rightly said that, "Communism is the best system, but not good for human society." Therefore, the real issue should not be about political doctrines but about how democratic governance could be fine-tuned to suite the historical, cultural and religious peculiarities of African societies in the face of such multi-ethnicity. Needless to say that Africa might never be devoid of ethnic conflict or intertribal rivalry -- democracy would be meaningless unless such rivalries can be put to check and ameliorated through offering fair and equal opportunity to all and sundry.

Economic modernization and social progress would neither occur under Africa's feudalistic and primordial tribal leadership nor in midst of social inequality and political unrest even in the most democratic of circumstances. Whereas even with a slight dose of freedom and grassroots economic empowerment combined with visionary leadership and higher level of power diffusion you could achieve substantial economic progress that could then become a launch-pad for a viral democratic society -- case in point China. In 2002, China experienced a huge foreign capital inflow of over $50 billion with double-digit economic growth. China is hardly a pluralistic or democratic country in the Western sense of the word, yet it is able to feed over 1.5 billion people. Because the right-mix of factors seem to be in place that is propelling progress. I'd argue that with time China would ultimately become more politically pluralistic.

…Africa's Reality.
Industrialized countries and the multilateral financial institutions - IMF/World bank would want the world to believe that the cocksure route to economic progress in Africa is through democratization and unfettered free market. That has been proven wrong in, laissez-faire, as we know it has not succeeded in Africa, therefore unrestrained pluralism and free market isn't necessarily the only sine qua non for poverty eradication in Africa. Developed countries rather than merely paying lip service should do more to open their markets to African exports, curtail unnecessary agricultural subsidies to their farmers, encourage capital flow to the continent and focus on creating real economic opportunities rather than dolling out aids. There couldn't be a better way to encourage the growth of Africa on the path of democracy.

On the other hand, the clamor to attract foreign investments or develop domestic economic potentials by African countries can't succeed in an atmosphere of uncertainty and kleptocracy. The nature of foreign capital is very capricious and such that investors could easily be scared away by incessant political violence and instability even in the most aggressive free-market environment.

Taking cognizance of Africa's history and peculiarities, there has to be a measured process of democratization and pluralisation -- domestic superstructures and democratic institutions must be continuously nurtured and strengthened. So long as I believe that democratic and open government remains the only viable alternative for addressing most of the ailments of African society and catering to the interest of ethnic and political groups of all stripes, policy makers must continue to seek an optimum balance between economic imperative and political pluralism.

Chamberlain is the Founder/CEO of New Era Capital Corporation and MyCompleteFinance.com. He was previously a Financial Advisor in the Global Private Client Group of Merrill Lynch in NY. [email protected]