Rethinking Africa’s “democratic” structures

By Rafiq Raji

The economists africa lawmakers

“In promoting elections the rich, liberal democracies have basically missed the point. We want to make the bottom billion look like us, but we forget how we got to where we now are. We did not do it in a single leap: dictatorship to liberal democracy. We have been unrealistic in expecting that these societies could in one step make a transition that historically has been made in several distinct steps” (Collier, 2010:49).

Paul Collier’s argument strikes a chord[1]. The term he coined to make his point was “demoCRAZY” (uppercase emphasis mine). DemoCRAZY, that is what Africa’s current “democratic” structures really engender. Poor countries cannot afford to have elections every four years. The opportunity costs are roads, hospitals and schools not built. Of course, that assumes they were going to be built in the first place. What, with all those perks of executive office? Lee Kwan Yew, the fabled father of modern-Singapore, writes in his autobiography how surprised other third-world heads of state were when they found out he flew commercial. But it made sense didn’t it? Try telling that to the presidents of some African countries. A president with no presidential jet? Now, that would be an anomaly in Africaland, wouldn’t it? I can imagine the reply of the African president to be as follows: “You want me to be the butt of jokes by other African heads of state?” In copying the American republican system, African countries did not take into consideration the wide wealth and experiential gaps between that country and the continent. Do African democraz(ies) really need bicameral legislatures? This is then replicated in some cases by as much as 30 times in tiny enclaves called states. The system is prohibitively expensive and its toll on the finances of African governments is tremendous. African countries are hemorrhaging from salaries, allowances and “security” budgets of its elected officials. The Economist did an insightful report in July 2013 that compared the basic salaries of lawmakers from countries around the world. Four of the top five countries were African: Nigeria (1st), Kenya (2nd), Ghana (3rd), and South Africa (5th). A Nigerian lawmaker earns at least 116 times the country’s 2013 GDP per capita. What about ministers? The Nigerian government appoints at least one minister from each of its 36 states. Since it appoints 2 ministers for each of its 19 ministries, it ends up having at least 38 ministers at any point in time. Each of these ministers has special advisors, special assistants, special assistant to the special assistant, etc. It is wasteful. Between 2005 and 2013, Nigeria’s federal government reports it spent one trillion naira (NGN1tn) on the national legislature. That is more than six billion dollars (USD6bn)!

What are the alternatives? The UK option probably comes close to what one could call a cost-efficient democratic system. There are no duplications. Elected members of parliament get appointed ministers and the party leader becomes Prime Minister. Parliamentary systems have a chequered history in Africa, however, because verbal conflicts tend to mutate into violent altercations, albeit that is not uniquely African. Otherwise, it is perhaps the most ideal “democratic” system for Africa in one’s view. Other alternatives are not without issues as well. China elects its leaders every ten years. The process is rigorous, meritocratic, and cost-efficient. China is not a democracy. If it were, it probably would have broken up into a few countries by now. Democracy buffs might be quick to point out human rights abuses and corruption in China. However, if you were hungry and out in the cold, worrying about “human rights” would be the least of your concerns. Of course, as a country becomes richer and its citizens’ aspirations rise, a desire for the “better” things in life take centre stage. A richer China grapples with that now. In Africa, the Ethiopian system probably comes close to replicating the Chinese model and may be what is ideal within the African context. Yes, it has many flaws. And human rights organizations have accused its authorities of China-type abuses. However, it is the only African “democrazy” that borrows a leaf from all three aforementioned models: the US Republican system, UK parliamentary system and China’s autocratic system. It is still evolving, however, with its first real test on the horizon in early 2015 as Prime Minister Desalegn tries to break way from the larger-than-life image of his predecessor. In any case, third world to second- or first-world successes like Singapore and Malaysia were not really democracies in the English or American sense; at least not during the tenures of the domineering leaders that made them the successes they are today. Why Africa really thinks it can achieve their successes without their pains is a mystery. But then African countries have largely not had the good fortune of benevolent dictatorships.

The argument made here is not for autocracies, benevolent or otherwise. However, it is obvious that Africa’s current democrazies need some tuning before they can become democracies. Some African countries have tried revising their constitutions for exactly some of the reasons earlier mentioned. Since timing of such proposals usually coincided with the sunset periods of incumbent presidents, they were rightly construed as tenure-elongation schemes. That said, these heads of state knew their systems were not efficient and suited for even the good-intentioned leader to succeed. Six to seven-year single tenures have been proposed in the current and previous constitutional conferences in Nigeria. I think it should be a ten-year single tenure. And the remainder of the process should be concentrated on ensuring only the best emerge as leaders. And maybe we don’t really need to have that many government ministries. When the current South African government wanted to demonstrate it was taking service delivery in the communications industry seriously, it created a new ministry. Extra bureaucracy, extra costs! There has to be a way to reduce the number of ministers in the cabinets of African countries. The number of national documents every adult citizen needs to have could also be reduced. Is it not possible to have a single document serve as a voter card, national identity card and national passport? It is an option worth exploring. And the number of political parties? Two? Three? I think any number above three is a waste. Bottomline, “democracy” does not have to be another factor impeding Africa’s development.

[1] Paul Collier. Wars, Guns, and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places, New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2009


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