NewsNorth AfricaRethinking democracy and development


Posted on Thursday, 26 November 2015 16:59

Rethinking democracy and development

Franklin Cudjoe, head of Ghana thinktank IMANI, points to the phenomenon of the 'imperial presidency'. Photo©Francis KokorokoResults from surveys show that an answer to the question of what should take precedence - democracy or development - couldn't be more burning.

The inaugural debate of The Africa Report magazine, in partnership with the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, in front of a glittering crowd at the Movenpick Hotel in Accra on 20 November, took as its starting point the great economic sprint that Africa needs to make if it is going to provide jobs for the 300 million people expected to join the labour force over the next 15 years.

A democracy that doesn't produce results is an empty promise

"The problem with dictatorships is that you don't get to choose which dictator you are going to get", said Ghana President John Mahama as he launched the debate.

But he pointed out that many Asian countries have had "authoritarian governments that are able to make quick decisions and bring about immediate change or unprecedented growth".

So should Africa look to countries like Rwanda and Ethiopia, where economic growth takes precedent over political pluralism? It is hard to argue with the development record of the administrations in Kigali and Addis Ababa, on many different metrics, be it shared growth, education or maternal health.

So do people want bread or justice? Is there danger that African countries may want a Lee Kwan Yew, but end up with a Vladimir Putin? On the ground, the call for tangible progress often wins the argument. In conjunction with GeoPoll, The Africa Report surveyed people in Ghana, South Africa, Uganda and Cameroon.

In Ghana, 31% want democracy prioritised, whereas 67% want development – a result echoed across the other countries. This shows the disillusion many have with their governments.

"A democracy that doesn't produce results is an empty promise", says Arancha Gonzalez, head of the International Trade Centre, during the debate. "Can we say that there is freedom when so many politicians spend so much money to contest elections?"

For former South African minister and labour activist Jay Naidoo, the continued push of money and power into democracy is dangerous, and is corrupting governments, leading to 'demokratura', where you have the window-dressing of democracy without genuine representation of the people. "We are seeing electoral authoritarianism."

Ultimately, the panelists on both sides of the debate agreed that the quality of the democracy was the answer, and provided concrete solutions for reform.

Franklin Cudjoe, head of Ghana thinktank IMANI, points to the phenomenon of the 'imperial presidency', whereby the president has the ability to directly appoint 4,000 officials, leaving huge room for corruption and partisan choices.

Likewise, a question from the hall asked, "How do we get a democracy of ideas and issues rather than a democracy of tribalism and identity?

In the end the debate was summed up by Adnahom Tedros, the Ethiopia Foreign minister, who was keen to stress Ethiopia's commitment to both sides of the argument: "Bread without democracy is bitter. Democracy without bread is fragile."

Nicholas Norbrook

Nicholas Norbrook

Nicholas Norbrook is Managing Editor of The Africa Report, helping to set up the magazine in 2005. He has been a producer for Radio France International, and has lived and worked in West Africa. In 2011 he won the Diageo Business Reporting award for Journalist of the Year.

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