A Tale of Democracy and Lions

Rethinking the relationship between democracy and development in the context of East Africa’s successful authoritarianism

Graffiti in Cairo's Tahrir Square, following the fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Photo by Denis Bocquet via Flickr.

Graffiti in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, following the fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Photo by Denis Bocquet via Flickr.

Democracy was born in Ancient Greece, fell asleep, and awoke centuries later with a glorious cry. She learned to speak in the thick of coffee houses— even before she could walk, and took up arms in the gardens of Versailles. She has since sailed the seven seas on ships of commerce and war. Though stained in blood, Democracy stood victorious in the end and has become the patroness of freedom and prosperity. But the 21st century is one of uncertainty, and this suggests that we question the efficacy of established notions.

The ongoing economic and financial crisis puts the liberal democracies of the West under enormous pressure. U.S. bi-partisanism and European particularism—not to mention the adventures of Silvio Berlusconi—have led one to question the worth of democracy as a model for development in periods of crisis. Conversely, China’s relatively smooth hand-over of power last year and continued economic success has provided an alternative to the Washington consensus: the Beijing consensus. The events prior to and following the Arab Spring, however, illustrate the inherent fragility of the authoritarian alternative. Now how do lions enter this tale?

Three East African countries have witnessed remarkable economic growth in recent years: averaging 8.1%, 7.4%, and 9.7% over the previous five years. These countries are Rwanda, Uganda, and Ethiopia, respectively, and have accordingly been termed as African lions, following the example of Asia’s tigers. Such growth figures far surpass the 4.6 percent average of Sub-Saharan Africa. Yet, Rwanda, Uganda, and Ethiopia have also all made a habit of imprisoning critics, censoring the media, intimidation and torture.

Africa’s lions are ruled by political strongmen: Paul Kagame has called the shots in Rwanda since 1994, Yoweri Museveni has been in power in Uganda since 1986, and Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi, who just recently passed away, acted as Prime Minister from 1995 to 2012. Freedom House, an independent watchdog advocating for democracy, ranked Rwanda and Ethiopia in their 2012 report as not free, and Uganda as partly free. According to the report, the situation in Uganda has in fact worsened in the last year, while economic growth increased. Is democracy a luxury that developing countries simply cannot afford?

There is a strong cross-country correlation between democracy and income, but no evidence of causal effects. Instead, a 2008 study by Acemoglu et al concluded that: “Omitted historical factors appear to have shaped the divergent political and economic development paths of various societies, leading to the positive association between democracy and economic performance.” Historical factors may also explain why democracy is often inadequate in a developing country context. Consider the following: national boundaries are drawn arbitrarily by colonial agents and a national identity never gained ascendancy over an ethnic or religious one.

Electoral democracy does not easily function in a deeply segmented society, as is frequently the case in Sub-Saharan Africa. A prime example of ethnic favoritism is Kenya, where in the most recent elections 98 percent of all Luo votes went to the candidate of that tribe. Against the backdrop of highly fragmented societies, some experts have argued that single party rule is the only immediate remedy for the pervasive ethnic divides in Rwanda and Uganda. There certainly exist benefits to reducing power struggles between political parties and doing away with election cycles: chiefly, enlightened leaders can direct greater attention towards pressing issues in achieving development.

The catch, however, is that authoritarianism has historically not proven itself a liable alternative to democracy. Post-independence Africa witnessed a myriad of strongmen who seemed to have meant well at the beginning, yet led their economies into fiasco and, while falling, tore a countless number of people with them. Sadly, the majority of these leaders began as champions of liberation struggles against colonialism, but with power they themselves became the hands of oppression. Take the example of Robert Mugabe. The promising future of Zimbabwe was piece by piece dismantled during the 1990s and 2000s by a number of disastrous economic policies that were naturally complemented by political repression. Authoritarian rule is cursed by arbitrariness – Willkürherrschaft – which stems from the unilateral decision-making of one man or political group.

The legitimacy of any government boils down primarily to the relationship with its people, i.e. the social contract. Democracy is a comprehensive synthesis of political institutions—a way of organising a government. In its ideal state, democracy demands competition for political power, inclusive political participation, leaders can be held accountable, the rule of law is enforced, and where people share a culture of democracy, accepting that democracy is “the only game in town”. But there is no assurance of prosperity. In authoritarianism, on the other hand, the ruler promises his people stability and prosperity in return for compliance—or rather, obedience. It is when the social contract is broken that government’s either fall, mostly by force, or turn to oppression.

In the short to medium term, democracies may falter and autocracies may progress, especially in countries with weak institutions and where periods of protracted political and economic crisis undermine people’s belief in democratic governance. But because every government is bound to its citizenship via a social contract, authoritarian regimes are inherently instable. Such regimes promise prosperity in return for compliance, but past experience has shown that economic growth goes through stages of booms and busts. This pattern is likely to persist even with sound economic policies due to the complexities of the world economy and the increasing economic integration heralded by globalisation. Thus, with economies bound to experience impasses, the social contract is bound to fail. And when it fails, institutions need to exist that saturate discontent rather than suppress it. For the suppression of thought attacks the universal right of the individual: the right to livelihood, to dignity, to self-respect. Protecting, respecting, and promoting human rights makes sense, not only for the sake of long term political stability and social peace but also economic development.

Democracy therefore continues to be understood in Western thought as “the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried”—à la Winston Churchill. But the complexities of currents within countries have time and time again given rise to achievements that have questioned the efficacy of established notions. And while the economic success of Africa’s lions – Rwanda, Uganda, and Ethiopia – has instigated a more recent debate on the relationship between democracy and development, it has not changed the fact that authoritarianism is inherently coupled by repression: the unsustainable dogma of history.

Elias Kühn von Burgsdorff is studying for a Bachelor’s degree in Economics and History at McGill University, Montreal. This article originally appeared on our partner website, Graphite Publications, here: http://graphitepublications.com/a-tale-of-democracy-and-lions/