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Review of The Feasibility of Democracy in Africa / Disciplining Democracy / The Congo from Leopold to Kabila


By Lionel Cliffe

The Feasibility of Democracy in Africa by Claude Ake. Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), Dakar, Senegal, 2000. 206pp. (Distributed by African Books Collective, The Jam Factory, 27 Park End St., Oxford 0X1 1HU).

Disciplining Democracy: Development Discourse and Good Governance in Africa by Rita Abrahamsen. Zed Books, London, 2000. ISBN 1 85649 858 1, £45.00/$65 (hb). ISBN 1 85649 859 X, £14.95/$22.50 (pb).

The Congo from Leopold to Kabila: A People’s History by Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja. Zed Books, London, 2002. xvi+304pp. ISBN 1 8427 052 7, £45.00/$69.95 (hb). ISBN 1 84277 053 5, £14.95/$25 (pb).

It is a great bonus to have this last posthumous contribution from Claude Ake, the great Nigerian political theorist and analysis, who was killed so tragically and prematurely in an air crash in 1996. Someone at CODESRIA has brought together unpublished materials in this new volume. It complements his 1995 book, Democracy & Development. There is some overlap; that theme is revisited as Section 2 of the book. But this new offering first roots the discussion of the prospects of democratisation in Africa in a grounding of democratic theory, going back to the ancient Greeks, through to the European liberal theorists and the US constitution’s founding fathers, and what ‘democracy’ meant to them. He also explores the historical circumstances under which the modern state and forms of democracy emerged.

What he brings out from the early conceptions of ‘democracy’ is that the ancients had a fairly uncompromising view of it as direct rule by the people and not just representative government. Even the authoritarian Aristotle saw it as meaning the ‘authority…of the poorer classes’. He sees the principles of equality and of participation being eroded with the emergence of the ‘liberal democratic’ form of the state and in the works of those who theorised it, to the point of “being trivialized…[so that] it is no longer threatening to political elites”. The resulting patterns of competitive elitism and apoliticisation follow with the parallel development of capitalism, so that the core values of liberal democracy are essentially the same as those of the market: ‘egotism, property, formal freedom and equality’. He argues that this form of democracy, reduced to multi-party electoral competition and interest groups, is not at all the kind that Africa requires. And the same trivialisation of democracy in their own countries makes the developed western governments and their international institutions wholly inappropriate as the means of delivering democratisation to Africa, whether by ‘political conditionality’ or intervention.

In particular, Ake is arguing for an emphasis on participation and accountability, and the assertion of human rights, as more relevant than merely multi-party elections. Moreover, he insists that what is required is attention to social and economic rights and not just those of citizenship and political freedom.

These imperatives he derives from his discussion of the connection between democracy and development. He notes how orthodox opinion in the West has gone full circle from the ‘modernisation’ analysis of the 1960s which assumed that African states would become more like those in the West and that economic growth would be associated with a liberal state; a view that was challenged by more conservative emphasis on ‘political order’, which would be upset if mass participation was ‘premature’. The argument for a ‘development state’ to be authoritarian was further underscored by the conclusion that if the poor had a say they would opt for consumption, including welfare services, now rather than investment. Today the aid establishment is once again asserting the need for democratisation. In particular, he stresses that whatever authoritarianism might have done for East Asia, there are so many examples of dictatorial regimes in Africa that have delivered only economic decline – thoroughly documented in Nzongola’s study. So rather than taking an essentialist position of the inevitability of ‘democracy and development’ or the reverse, he argues for an approach that seeks ‘democratising development’. He sees the advantages of the mass of the people having a voice as leading to a different kind of development path, that is not so outward-oriented, that stresses rural development. But the need is for more than people having a say in policy formulation. A fundamental reversal of attitudes and the basis of policy ‘discourse’ (as Abrahamsen would call it, see below) is needed which gets away from:

Prevailing strategies [which] tend to assume that the people and their way of life are the ‘problem’. But when people rather than development processes are problematised, development is derailed.…Policy involves an assault on their culture in a misconceived battle against ‘backwardness’.

These ideas were originally spelled out in his last book, which was specifically on Democracy & Development.

As the title suggests, the book is not content to be prescriptive. In part it is a study of what he clearly sees as ‘the democratic movement’ in Africa, that grew up from the late 1980s. If he were writing now rather than in the mid-1990s Ake might be a little more sanguine about what that movement has achieved. In some countries the few tentative steps toward democratisation have been reversed. In many others even the partial gains of multi-Party competitive elections have not been sustained as the bases of power of the same elites, and the clientelism and corruption often associated with them, have simply been given a different institutional form in a predominant party system and manipulated elections – what I call the ‘one-and-a-bit party state’. Nevertheless, there is a movement, of varying strengths and based on an amorphous  set of bodies and processes, that is alive and must be sustained in its work.

It is in the primacy that Ake gives to these forces as the explanation of the actual democratisation process – it has been “predominantly internally generated” (p. 35) – that he is at odds with Abrahamsen’s main argument. To be sure Ake does treat the external factors seriously and devotes a lot of attention to the post-Cold War forces and the imposition and failure of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) by the international financial institutions (IFIs). But part of his argument is that after the Cold War the North could be more open to democratic pressures rather than seeing everything in terms of which side a state was on geo-strategically. There he might with hindsight have granted the West more credit than it deserves. Abrahamsen explicitly offers “a critique of conventional explanations of democratisation [that]…maintain that the main causes of political change in the early 1990s were internal to Africa [and]…challenges this relegation of external factors to secondary importance”. Her arguments are, first, the sheer number of countries that simultaneously take the same kinds of steps. A second strand is also well taken: “the interplay and interconnectedness of states and political forces in a global era” (p.1). Elsewhere she puts a similar argument this way: “the international is always present in domestic politics” (p. xi). But this latter formulation goes even further toward the position that the ‘internal’ and ‘external’ are distinctions hard to make in practice, which thus makes the whole argument about primacy of causes into a false dichotomy. I would think that a more helpful mode of analysis, especially if one is concerned to explore the prospects for the kind of democracy that Ake advocates, is to analyse the nature and strength of both dimensions and go on to examine their interconnectedness. Herein also lies a formula for granting the usefulness of two studies on this crucial theme.

Abrahamsen’s third argument is that conventional accounts underplay the power of a discourse that “donors and creditors in the North all subscribe to and advocate as the model to be followed in the South” (p. x), a discourse that in the present takes the form of the familiar SAP package wedded to ‘good governance’, and which also serves to justify the North’s intervention to impose that model, in their own eyes. The existence of such an orthodoxy cannot be denied and an exploration of the interconnection of its political and economic components is welcome. That is the whole purpose of the book. But a ‘discourse analysis’ whatever it reveals about those connections can itself only assert its power. So it will have to be left to historical, structural analysis to prove how powerful discourse and other international factors have been as causes.

The ‘seductiveness’ of some of the good governance arguments and their false assumptions are especially well brought out. In exploring the complementarity between good governance and SAPs, there are other revealing insights. More perhaps could be made of some of the ‘class’ assumptions of IFIs: that getting agricultural prices right was seen as a key component of SAPs, and that meant giving peasant producers a voice. It would also have been good to see more African contributors to the political economy debate, like Olokushi, Adedeji, and Ake himself, given more mention in what was in part a review of current explanations. But all in all this is a valuable addition to that literature.

Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja must be counted alongside Ake as one of the most distinguished African political scientists, and like him has had to spend much of his career in exile. Like other DRC academics he has also sought to involve himself in the ‘democratic movement’ and not just sit on the sidelines – an ‘activist scholar’ he calls himself. His involvement perhaps colours a little his conclusion that the internal initiative of the early 1990s was more inherently democratic than subsequent movements led by and against Kabila. That makes him a somewhat marginal actor in present efforts to resolve the tragic conflict today and the putting together of a single and hopefully democratic state. It is to be hoped that as that process gets further along the road, someone of his qualities and wide pan-African experience can play an increasing role. His perspective is also one that sees the recent conflicts as as much an ‘invasion’ by Rwanda and Uganda as a civil war. While he does grant that Zimbabwe, Angola, and others do develop their own interests, he sees them as ‘defenders of the state’, whose intervention is more legitimate than the neighbours to north and west.

There is not space here to do justice to this rich insider’s account of the Mobutu years, to the democracy movement in all its forms or to the ‘instant liberation struggles’ that mushroomed in the last years. He does in fact enter some of the debates dealt with in the other books reviewed, for instance when he points to the international forces as crucial through the different stages of DRC’s history. In the most recent period he characterises them as the indifference of the international community, while stressing the harm of the largely non-state actors, ‘the transnational networks of pillage and corruption’ – features of the global system that don’t receive their due in either of the other books.


[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 65 (March 2003), pp. 64-67]

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