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Vesalius College

At the time of writing, the Commonwealth leaders are meeting in South Africa for their annual summit. It was interesting to hear on the BBC news how BBC political editor Robin Oakley was arguing that in the Sixties, there were "a handful of dictators" yet today, "there are none." He went on to say that one of the biggest countries in Africa – Nigeria—today is a novel democracy, and that its progress heralds augurs positively for the future of the rest of African nations. Yet ironically, Pakistan – India’s archetypal foe which gained independence a decade before the African countries – was absent because of its predilection for military rule, rather than "the ballot box."


                Although the Commonwealth only came into fruition shortly after World War Two, it was in the late fifties that the proverbial winds of change ushered throughout the African continent – starting first with Ghana, which, in 1957, obtained independence from the British. She was followed later by Nigeria in 1960, "and then by a steady stream of African admissions to the Commonwealth, until only Rhodesia remained."; the following year, Sierra Leone followed suit. However, countries in South-Eastern and Eastern Africa – Uganda, Kenya, Malawi, Zambia – were to wait between 1962 and ’64 before being granted independence.


                Today, all these countries in question – with the exception of war-torn Sierrra Leone – are democracies, but only as understood in the generic term. This is because most of these countries lack certain qualities/features that are fundamentally part and parcel of Western liberal democracies.


                According to a quote in Brian McNair’s book, democracy presumes "an open state in which people are allowed to participate in decision-making, and are given access to the media, and other information networks through which advocacy occurs." McNair himself argues that liberal democratic countries are predicated on three core issues: "constitutionality, participation and rational choice."


                Constitutionality, according to the author, is a concession that there will be rules "governing the conduct of elections, the behaviour of those who win them, and the legitimate activities of dissenters." Secondly, liberal democracies in general are constructed such that "those who participate in the democratic process must comprise…"a ‘substantial’ proportion of the people." This means that anyone can vote – irrespective of gender, race and social standing. This contrasts with Western Europe after the French Revolution, when liberty, fraternity and equality were promulgated by liberal democratic theorists, but were only associated with the "rise of the bourgeoisie." It is only in this century that franchise was eventually extended to lower classes, and finally, women."


                Finally, rational choice is paramount in a democracy because the fact that one can either chose the Republican over the Democratic Party, Labour versus Conservative, etc, is an indication that one can not only identify with the ideology that best represents his political affiliation, but also that one has freedom of expression without fear of persecution by the state – unfortunately a staple of many developing countries’ political diet.


                In contrast to Western states, many African countries do not sufficiently fall into the ambit of the latter three terms, despite being ostensibly democratic.


First of all, with respect to constitutionality, the only African countries that would most probably fit in this model are those that adopted the Westminister model from the British Empire. However, given that this means there is no "written " constitution,, it has made regulation for elections incredibly problematic. Small wonder, then, those many of these countries – Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, to name but three – all have experienced military coup. Although today they profess to be democratic, their historical landscape is replete with frequent coups, which almost inevitably meant one-party rule.


                Secondly, that many liberal democratic countries encourage widespread participation in politics implies that many are therefore sufficiently educated to understand how, at least, the electoral process works even if political apathy is their predilection.


                This, however, is not the case in many African countries, because most citizens – "Africa’s other identifiable classes are the peasantry and what may loosely be called the urban proletariat" -- are illiterate. Unlike in the West, such people often lack political knowledge that is part and parcel of the structure of Western democracies, and therefore, resort to patronage politics.


                According to Cammack et al, patronage politics is politics "whereby those in control of the state reward their supporters, and these supporters (the "clients") themselves act as patrons to dependants at lower state levels." In other words, "economic resources {are} used as political currency to enable the leadership to buy support for their policies." In my opinion, this is not just theory.


                For example elections are imminent – in March 2000 – in Ghana. However, despite all the pontificating by political analysts in the Ghanaian Press, very few have really pointed to the fact that the next person to succeed the incumbent Jerry Rawlings, does not have a bread-and-butter issue to promulgate in his manifesto. I feel that this absence of a leitmotiv to sound sweetly – or not – in the electorate’s ears, pales into comparison with that of a country like, say, Britain, where one can memorably recall British Prime Minister Blair’s mantra being "Education, education, education."


                Finally, even if there is the so-called "rational choice" that is prevalent in liberal democracies, that the political parties are one that mainly operate on patronage politics, or clientelism, often frustrates the mechanisms by which rational choice can be exercised. McNair writes "a fourth {factor} is the ability of citizens to exercise that choice rationally", and that this "in turn presupposes a knowledgeable educated citizenry."




Political parties in any country – whether in the West or the Global South – are imperfect machines, but inherent in the philosophy of each party is the mechanism for changing society for the good of the people. Despite the fact that many liberal democratic political parties have been tainted with corruption – or what the British like to call sleaze – at some point in their history, most of the time, they have been catalysts for change. In Africa, this must also be the mentality – not just a source of economic exchange. But in order for the electorate to understand this, they must inevitably listen to Blair’s leitmotiv with considerable attention: "Education, education, education."





Cammack, Paul et al. Third World Politics. A Comparative Introduction. Second Edition. (Macmillan Press Ltd: London) 1993.


McNair, Brian. An Introduction to Political Communication. Second Edition. (Routledge: London) 1999.


Watson, Jack. Success in Twentieth Century World Affairs. Third Edition. (John Murray (Publishers) Ltd: London) 1984.














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