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Strong men vs strong institutions: Strengthening democracy in Africa

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By Olufunmbi Kehinde

Democracy has been defined as a government by the people, either directly or through representatives elected by the people. The elements of a functional democracy should therefore include the following: participation of the people either directly or indirectly, independence of the judiciary, separation of powers, the rule of law, the respect for fundamental rights, free and fair elections, freedom of the press, accountability, to name a few.

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According to the 2018 democracy index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit, based on the following democratic factors: electoral process and pluralism, the functioning of government, political participation, political culture and civil liberties; Mauritius is the only African country that qualifies as a full democracy.  All the other African countries were categorised as flawed democracies, hybrid regimes or authoritarian regimes.

African democracies are characterised and threatened mainly by electoral abuse, ethnic divisions, corruption, and the collective effects of poverty, apathy, and economic insecurity.

Way forward for democracy in Africa: strong men or strong institutions?

Strong Institutions

Democratic institutions are a set of arrangements for organising political competition, legitimating rulers and implementing rule. Strong institutions are the cornerstone of stable governments. A democracy with strong institutions would be able to produce the essential elements of a fully democratic government through proper separation of powers, thereby enabling a system which allows for checks and balances of the various arms of government. For example, ina presidential system of democracy, it is essential that the judicial, legislative and executive arms of government work hand-in hand. Furthermore, these arms of government must be independent and function separately at all times. As a matter of fact, the stronger the judiciary and its inability to be influenced by the executive arm, the better the democracy.

A credible instance of the independence of the judiciary is the South African example, where the Constitutional Court of South Africa ruled that the National Assembly of Parliament had failed in its constitutional obligation to hold President Zuma accountable. The Court ordered the erstwhile President and the National Assembly to pay the legal costs concerning the matter. South Africa’s institutions were also strong enough to investigate and indict the erstwhile President, who was put on trial for allegations of corruption leveled against him.  Having strong institutions in Africa would help to deliver free and fair elections, because the electoral commission would be independent and it would not be subject to the machinations of the executive. An independent electoral commission would enable the citizenry trust in the government and enthusiastically participate in the political process. Likewise, the rule of law thrives in a society with strong independent institutions.

Strong Men

Strong men have been ruling Africa since the departure of the colonial masters and individual countries have varied results to show for it. An example of a strong man would be Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, who held on to power for almost four decades. The aftermath of his dictatorship included gross economic mismanagement leading to the country attaining two world records for hyper inflation. The regime was characterised by human rights violations and anti-white racism.

Some may argue that there can be no strong institutions without strong men. Again, some citing the Rwandan example where President Paul Kagame has held power since 1994 and elected to a third term in 2017, may argue that it may be possible for a society to thrive with strong men even if there are no strong institutions. Some may say that in spite of the bloody manner in which he assumed power, he has delivered economic growth to Rwanda. Some may yet argue that President Kagame is another strongman merely going through the motions of democracy as elections in Rwanda have become virtually a formality as his presidency is characterised by authoritarian rule, thereby advancing a case that strong men are capable of stifling democracy.

Rather than strong men, Africa needs visionary leaders. Democratic institutions that would outlast generations can only be built by visionary leaders and not strong men. If Africa has leaders who build strong institutions, the democratic system will be strengthened in spite of the weakness or strength of the individual in authority.

A case for strong institutions

In closing, Africa requires capable and transparent institutions, an independent press, a vibrant private sector and a civil society to give life to our democracy. The economic prosperity and obedience to rule of law that exists in western countries can largely be attributed to their functional strong institutions.

 

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