The origins of the primitive democracy can be traced back to the pre-Babylon Mesopotamia. Sketching out the rules to what is right and what is wrong conforming to the opinion of the majority, we have developed intricately on the concepts of constitution and democracy. Various schools of thought have since developed with striking ideological battles between democracy and other forms of government; highlighting a race for a system that helps achieve maximum growth and development for an economy. A neat case to study this phenomenon is the Dark Continent. Africa, the mysterious land, is the perfect contender to examine the effects of democracy and reasons as to why democracy has moreover faltered in the continent.

Two questions that are vital to explore the relation between the form of government across the continent are:

  1. What are the reasons for so many authoritarian form of governments in the region?
  2. How did [do] these leaders/parties sustain this form of government? 

The very first question can be answered simply by highlighting the conquests carried out in the continent by multiple foreign parties. When the states of France and Britain [and others alike] pulled out from their colonies, they left behind a crude form of government concentrated in the hands of a very select few. Portugal, a dictatorship until 1975, left its colonies in Mozambique and Angola mired in civil war. ‘Sir’ Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Nigeria’s first prime minister, closed his speech at Nigeria’s independence ceremony with the words, “God Save Our Queen”.

A form of crude and pessimistic nationalism spread over the recently freed nations. Lack of proper resources with aspirations to achieve the treasures of the relatively richer countries made the general public succumb to the rather hollow speeches made by leaders who knew what was coming for their respective selves: years of unfathomable riches provided the power was kept in check. Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana paved the way for this form of government urging people to put national unity in front of multi-party democracy and established one-party systems that soon morphed in autocracies. Africa was consumed by the ‘Big Man’ system. In 1989 the region (south of the Sahara and excluding island microstates) was home to only three “electoral democracies”—Botswana, Gambia, and Mauritius—with a combined population of less than 3.5 million. By this count, less than one in every hundred Africans lived in countries that met minimum standards of free and fair electoral competition.

Coming to the second question of how these systems have survived the test of time and global pressure, we need to throw light on the forms of income. Africa is a continent replete with natural resources. A number of countries are commodity exporters and not very diversified. Concentration of commodity related industries in the hands of politicians/state has let them divert the income for personal gains. In addition to that, an absence of moral policing on the part of the world community is reason for further exploitation. In December 2015, Chinese president Xi Jinping offered a whopping $60 billion loan and aid package to Africa with few or no strings attached in terms of the rule of law and human rights, according to Voice of America.

The Change

The advent of the democratic system in Africa came after the end of the cold war. The year 1994 was a historic year when thousands of South Africans queued for hours to bury a horrific system of apartheid and embrace the new democratic system under the able leadership of Nelson Mandela in the country’s first all-race vote. A wave swept through the continent. It ousted incumbents of the time namely: Mengistu Haile Mariam of Ethiopia in 1991; Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) in 1997; Sani Abacha of Nigeria (who apparently died in the arms of prostitutes.)  Freedom House, an American think-tank, reckons that in 1988, just before the cold war ended, only 16 countries in sub-Saharan Africa could be classified as “free” or “partly free”. Since then, the organisation reckons that 29 of the 48 countries in the region can be considered “free” or “partly free”.

With a change in finances, the system of autocracies changed. Lack of funds from the Chinese  (following a slowing economy and lost commodity boom), European states and Russia, autocrats have been forced to turn to international organisations such as the World Bank and the IMF. With the end of the commodity boom, growing numbers of countries faced a balance-of-payments crisis. Any fresh loans were to be conditional which opened up the accounts of autocrats to scrutiny. The fall of the USSR was another game changer for it came with a lack of funding, ideologically and financially. Ivory Coast had a multi-party poll in 1990; Benin and Zambia followed in 1991; then Kenya in 1992 and Tanzania in 1995. Ghana and Nigeria reverted to civilian rule with multi-party elections in 1996 and 1999 respectively. Since 1991 incumbents have been ejected peacefully at the ballot box at least 36 times. Among Arabs the figure is still remained to be zero.


Even after this turn of events, a very poignant point arises: Can Africa sustain its democratic systems? Take Zambia for instance. It was one of the first African countries to undergo a democratic transition, when Kenneth Kaunda stepped down after losing an election in 1991. However only recently, Edgar Lungu was re-elected president with a paper-thin majority in a campaign marred by the harassment of the opposition, the closure of the country’s leading independent newspaper, accusations of vote-rigging and street protests.

Next in line, undoubtedly, is South Africa. The country has weathered almost everything it can under the presidency of Jacob Zuma. From charges of corruption to protection of a person charged with violation of human rights (Salva Kiir), he has done it all. The gross domestic growth last year was around half of one per cent. The country’s currency has been in free fall for the past year, and its bonds face an imminent downgrade to ‘junk’ status [according to The Pioneer].

Even though statisticians point out that three decades ago almost no African countries had term limits; since then, some 33 of 48 new constitutions enacted in Africa have included them, things look different from paper. Voting has failed in Zimbabwe and Mozambique to push out two of the most spectacularly corrupt regimes, and Swaziland is ruled by an absolute monarch.

A majority of the population is living in critical conditions under autocratic rulers who have garnered support by exploiting the ethnic disparities. Gerard Padro i Miquel, lecturer at the London School of Economics, demonstrated that African dictators distort their economies and steal foreign aid as the means to buy support from selected segments of the populace. In addition to that majority of the revenue is earned through commodities instead of taxes, eliminating the need to execute policies that favour the majority. The world community, IMF and World Bank in particular, must force the borrowing autocratic nations to make their budgets more transparent and prevent bachkchanneling of funds to these states by other power-conscious nations.