30 September 2012

Day 108: Virtual Democracies

This Blog is a continuation to:
Day 106: Structural Adjustment

In the above-mentioned blog-post the main types of economical reforms that are demanded by the IMF and the World Bank from developing countries have been laid out. Though, the IMF/World Bank don't keep to only demanding economic reforms. They also demand political reforms. Specifically, authoritarian regimes are asked to install liberal democracies in their countries - and if they don't, they won't receive further aid.

Once this demand for political reforms was declared, many, if not most, African countries started holding elections, started allowing opposition parties, started allowing independent media and freedom of speech, etc. On the surface, it seemed like the whole of Africa had converted to liberal values and principles - however, how substantial were the democracies and to what extent were they just an image, a projection, to keep the rich nations happy and willing to continue providing aid?

The holding of elections in African nations has often being applauded as a sign of successful democratic transition. However, most elections were problematic and the validity of their outcomes sincerely doubtful. Incumbents regimes (incumbent means 'currently in power') in many cases manipulated the electoral process in any way they could to be able to remain in power. They handpicked partisans to serve on so-called 'independent' electoral commissions, they denied opposition parties access to state-owned media, they used state resources to fund their electoral campaigns, invented new electoral rules and qualifications to exclude critical segments of the opposition and used the police and other security agencies to intimidate and harass opposition candidates. This frustrating of the electoral process often led to the boycotting of elections and the rejection of election results.

One of the consequences is that because the incumbent regime was now apparently re-elected by the people, the authoritarian rulers were given a form of legitimacy, further anchoring themselves into their power-seats.

In terms of opposition parties - as has already been shown - they often did not have a real chance at winning the elections. One of the problems was self-inflicted, where every disgruntled elite and aspirant president formed their own opposition party. At some point in Zaire there were over 200 opposition parties. The opposition parties did not really have a clear agenda or standpoint, except that they were 'against' the current rulers - and thus they didn't provide any desirable alternatives. Also, any 'loss of votes' on the part of the incumbent regime were distributed amongst all of these different opposition parties, not allowing any of them to gather sufficient votes to stand as a real 'threat' to the incumbent regime.

The upholding and protecting of human rights is seen as an important part of democracy - yet, in the 'newly converted' nations, human rights have continued to be breached - where the rights of outspoken critics, members of the opposition and independent media to free speech, association and fair hearings were regularly denied - where they were even harassed and detained without charge or trial for extended periods of time.

Accountability to the population is what democracy is all about - yet this is often completely absent in the African 'democracies'. They are generally entirely insensitive of the demands and welfare of their citizens, corruption, clientelism and violations of the rule of law are the general way of doing things. Furthermore, to what extent can national governments be accountable to their population if their loyalties lie with international donors and agencies upon which they depend for money?

We really only mentioned a few points in this blog - but this alone should clarify how the newly reformed African 'democracies' are in fact still the same old authoritarian governments, dressed up in a democratic costume. On the surface they will play the game of elections and opposition parties, but when it comes down to it, any method is used to remain in power and do whatever benefits themselves.

Such hypocrisy is, of course, to be expected if change is imposed from the outside. I don't know what the international community was thinking in forcing others to adopt democratic 'forms' of government. Yes, the form has changed, but the content is still the same. Change must be sincere and driven from within to be valid and long-lasting. To say: become democratic or you are cut off is not going to give birth to true democracy - anyone can see that...

Osaghae, E. 1999. Democratisation in sub-Saharan Africa: faltering prospects, new hopes.  Journal of Contemporary African Studies. 17(1): 5-28. Reprinted with permission from Dalro.

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