What Kenya tells us about Democracy in Africa

Saturday, January 19th, 2008

Curzon looks at What Kenya tells us about Democracy in Africa, which is something Robert Kaplan pointed out years ago (in 1997) in Was Democracy Just a Moment?democracy works best when it emerges last:

Hitler and Mussolini each came to power through democracy. Democracies do not always make societies more civil — but they do always mercilessly expose the health of the societies in which they operate.
The lesson to draw is not that dictatorship is good and democracy bad but that democracy emerges successfully only as a capstone to other social and economic achievements.

He also cites an AFP report that Kenyan broadcast programs warning that ghosts would haunt thieves of looted property were more effective in returning stolen goods than the police:

Television footage showed fearful, if not shameful, looters and their accomplices returning beds, sofa sets and other items after rumours that victims had deployed witch doctors to punish the thieves.

Back to Kaplan:

Foreign correspondents in sub-Saharan Africa who equate democracy with progress miss this point, ignoring both history and centuries of political philosophy. They seem to think that the choice is between dictators and democrats. But for many places the only choice is between bad dictators and slightly better ones. To force elections on such places may give us some instant gratification. But after a few months or years a bunch of soldiers with grenades will get bored and greedy, and will easily topple their fledgling democracy. As likely as not, the democratic government will be composed of corrupt, bickering, ineffectual politicians whose weak rule never had an institutional base to start with: modern bureaucracies generally require high literacy rates over several generations. Even India, the great exception that proves the rule, has had a mixed record of success as a democracy, with Bihar and other poverty-wracked places remaining in semi-anarchy. Ross Munro, a noted Asia expert, has documented how Chinese autocracy has better prepared China’s population for the economic rigors of the post-industrial age than Indian democracy has prepared India’s.

I recommend reading the whole Kaplan piece, but I must cite another timely passage:

In 1993 Pakistan briefly enjoyed the most successful period of governance in its history. The government was neither democratic nor authoritarian but a cross between the two. The unelected Prime Minister, Moin Qureshi, was chosen by the President, who in turn was backed by the military. Because Qureshi had no voters to please, he made bold moves that restored political stability and economic growth. Before Qureshi there had been violence and instability under the elected governments of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. Bhutto’s government was essentially an ethnic-Sindhi mafia based in the south; Sharif’s was an ethnic-Punjabi mafia from the geographic center. When Qureshi handed the country back to “the people,” elections returned Bhutto to power, and chaos resumed. Finally, in November of last year, Pakistan’s military-backed President again deposed Bhutto. The sigh of relief throughout the country was audible. Recent elections brought Sharif, the Punjabi, back to power. He is governing better than the first time, but communal violence has returned to Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi. I believe that Pakistan must find its way back to a hybrid regime like the one that worked so well in 1993; the other options are democratic anarchy and military tyranny. (Anarchy and tyranny, of course, are closely related: because power abhors a vacuum, the one necessarily leads to the other. One day in 1996 Kabul, the Afghan capital, was ruled essentially by no one; the next day it was ruled by Taliban, an austere religious movement.)

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