LM Archives
  7:38 AM BST
LM Commentary Review Search
Comment Current LM Web review Mailing
lists Discuss Chat Events Search Archives Subject index Links Merchandise Overview FAQ Feedback Toolbar

Africa's sham democracy

Barry Crawford on how Africa is being recolonised and ruined under the banners of multi-party democracy

Over the past two years dictatorial presidents in more than 20 African states have been overthrown, voted out of power, or forced to agree to elections. The pace of change is unprecedented in the post-colonial era, and there seems to be no stopping the multi-party bandwagon. But this is not Africa's second liberation, nor is it real democratisation. In effect, Africa is being recolonised.

The West has initiated the reform process. The transition to multi-party politics is a top-down affair with the masses either indifferent or quietly applauding from the sidelines. For example, the celebrated electoral defeat of Zambia's president Kenneth Kaunda took place after the participation of only half the electorate. The same apathy was evident more recently in Alpha Oumar Konare's election as president of Mali. The new political agenda has been drafted in the West, adopted by a new African elite schooled in the economics of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and presented to the masses for rubber stamping.

Notice of the West's new agenda for Africa was given last July by the World Bank's outgoing chairman, Barber Conable. He told the heads of state at the Organisation of African Unity summit in Nigeria that Western decisions about debt rescheduling and aid would now be based on the criteria of 'good governance' and 'transparency'. In other words, if you want Western support, open your country up to Western supervision.

The twin weapons of aid suspension and debt repayment have forced through reforms with remarkable ease. On 28 November last year the aid donors' meeting in Paris, chaired by the World Bank, suspended all new assistance to Kenya. It then took president Moi all of five days to lift the ban on opposition parties. This follows the precedent the West set in Zambia, and Moi seems destined to go the same way as Kaunda. So too are Malawi's president Banda and Congo's president Mobutu.

The Western financiers justify stopping aid by saying that they cannot stand by while African regimes abuse human rights. The idea that the West has become squeamish after decades of underwriting corrupt despots and sponsoring terrorist groups like Unita stretches all credibility. This new-found affection for human rights and democracy is a cover for an agenda which promotes neither. The old guard of Africa is being swept aside because its function was specific to the Cold War. The West no longer requires the corrupt old client regimes that it sponsored to contain Soviet influence and wage war against African liberation movements.

Instead, what is demanded today is the removal of all barriers to Western economic penetration. The Western bankers are imposing programmes of privatisation, currency devaluation and the abolition of state subsidies, supposedly to attract foreign investment and stimulate competition. But in the middle of a slump, Africa is just about the last place Western capitalists will invest in. All that these 'structural adjustment' programmes have produced is mass redundancies and immiseration. Eight years of structural adjustment have halved Ghana's gross domestic product. Nigeria's per capita income has fallen by two thirds over the past decade. The IMF now has similar agreements with 23 African governments. Not one has been carried through to completion and economic take-off.

This failure and the resulting human misery have not deterred the West. Instead, the programmes are moving into higher gear, using multi-party democracy to smooth the way. As the Economist cynically put it, 'people tend to accept painful policies more readily from elected governments than from dictators'. Zambia is a case in point. Violent food riots thwarted Kaunda's attempts to cut the maize subsidy in 1986 and 1990; the 100 per cent price hike following Chiluba's election produced no protests. The subsidy is now likely to be ended altogether.

By making a break with its old stooges and sponsoring the democracy debate, the West seeks to key into the popular revulsion against corruption and nepotism. The collapse of Stalinism has brought down with it all ideological barriers to Western domination. Since a Western solution is now accepted on all sides, at least by default, so too is the idea of African blame. Instead of exposing Western responsibility for Africa's crisis, the democracy debate is putting Africa in the dock.

All kinds of theories are being advanced as to why democracy has had such a bad time in Africa. The Economist suggests that democracy is alien to African culture, arguing that there isn't 'any African language whose political lexicon includes the concept of a leader of the loyal opposition. Instead there is a clear concept of a political enemy' (22 February 1992). Newsweek asks whether democracy in Africa is 'just an alien spell that is bound to wear off?' and adds that 'making the leap from the palaver tree to multi-party politics is made harder by the often volatile ethnic mix of African states' (9 December 1991).

The Western-defined terms of the democracy debate have been accepted by the African intelligentsia. They promote the image of the 1990s as the era of Africa's second liberation. The argument is that Africa's marginalisation in the New World Order is indicative of a loosening of Western control, giving Africans the breathing space to build their own political and economic institutions. This is turning reality on its head. Africa's lowly international status is the result of firmer Western domination in the post-Cold War world.

Instead of fantasising about liberation, the evidence of recolonisation needs to be honestly examined. Ghana has had World Bank officials sitting in on its cabinet meetings; an ex-World Bank technocrat is prime minister of Cameroon; Benin's IMF representative is now caretaker prime minister; Angola is looking into compensating Portuguese farmers for having seized land from them 17 years ago; Mozambique is inviting them back to their old sugar estates; South Africa controls the sales of Angolan and Botswanan diamonds. And so it goes on.

The current preoccupation with dictatorship and corruption is misplaced. African governments implementing Western strategies all have these attributes. The overriding issue in Africa today should be the obscenity of imposing austerity economics upon a starving continent. The democracy debate obscures this criminal process. Worse, it endows those who are responsible for it with legitimacy. Let us have no more of this sham debate about democracy.

Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 47, September 1992

Subscribe to LM




Mail: webmaster@mail.informinc.co.uk