Democracy or prosperity, which comes first for African countries?

As Africa’s democracy gradually evolves, the arguments are whether Africa should concentrate on creating prosperity first and then grow its democracy later or build up its democracy first and then use it to develop its prosperity. This thinking has come about because of the on-going democratic revolutions occurring in Africa, in places such as Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, and multi-party democratic elections after elections have become recurring rituals.

Despite its global hypothesis, in the African context, the democracy-or-prosperity arguments wheel around Africa’s largely enviably untapped wealth and the continent’s painful dark political history where totalitarianism of all brands had been the order of the day. So whether prosperity first, democracy second, or the other way around will be determined by Africa’s political history in the past 50 years.

In most parts of Africa independence from colonial rule saw authoritarian one-party-systems and military juntas dominating the political scene. The erroneous thinking, as Kofi Abrefa Busia, a former Prime Minister of Ghana, explained, was that democracy was thought to be “alien” to “Africans thought and way of life,” and that the only language Africans understands is despotism that emanates from the African culture. As Ghana under Kwame Nkrumah witnessed, the argument was that authoritarian one-party system will bring rapid prosperity by controlling all dissent and freedoms.

Still, as military juntas in Southeast Asia such as South Korea or South America such as Brazil had done, the thinking was that Africa’s then mushrooming military juntas such as Uganda under Gen. Idi Amin will either be able to use their military discipline for either speedy advancement or laid the foundation for swift progress. In all this, the so-called rapid prosperity didn’t happen – Africa became more backward materially than before despite it’s immensely endowed human and natural wealth. Rather, the military juntas and the one-party systems left in its wake muddled thinking, oppression, deaths, confusion, state paralysis and state collapse, civil wars, endemic corruptions, tribalism, and constant fear and threats.

In Libya, a key face of Africa’s current democratic revolution, despite is immense oil wealth with a population of only 6.6 million; its problem is that for 42 years it has been despotically ruled by Muammar Gaddafi. Despite having per capita income of about US$13,000, average life expectancy of 77 years, UN Human Development Index at 53th position out of 170 countries graded (high at 2010 rankings) and literacy rate of about 90 percent, the schisms between democracy and prosperity saw a civil war for democracy and freedoms break out in the face of dictatorial practices where freedoms were brutally suppressed.

On the other hand, Botswana, Africa’s longest democracy star, has about a third of Libya’s population, and a little better than Libya’s per capita income (at US$15,489). Botswana’s UN Human Development Index is at the 98th position (medium at 2010 rankings). But Botswana has been able to balance democracy and prosperity ever since it got independence from Britain in 1966 and its people enjoy greater peace, freedoms and democratic tenets for the past 44 years under the long-ruling Botswana Democratic Party. Unlike Libya, Botswana’s democracy has come with it sound accountability and transparency. Transparency International reports that Botswana is the least corrupt country in Africa. In the course of the Libyan democratic revolution, an anti-corruption worker who spoke to Transparency International’s Arab branch said, “It wasn’t safe to fight corruption. If you opposed the government, you would disappear. We were careful. But now we are ready to work.”

The lesson from the Libyan and other African states’ perturbations is that when a country is prosperous its people want more freedoms. Libya had been undemocratic for the past 42 years. Till the democratic revolution, Libya had put economic development first for prosperity but missed out in opening the democratic field (as South Korea, Chile and Taiwan did) and saw Gaddafi blew its authoritarian regime into pieces. Most Africans states, after gaining independence from European colonial rule had put democracy ahead of economic development but didn’t prosper and went back to despotism that sent most into turbulence.

Botswana and Mauritius’ experiences teach that there have to be skillful grafting of prosperity and democracy if holistic advancement is to take place without recourse to dictatorships. Botswana and Mauritius show that African governments who put democracy ahead of economic development do not slip back into tyranny. The 2009 Mo Ibrahim Index of African Governance, limited to sub-Sahara Africa, measures the health of African governance practices using different variables. The Index’s 2009 report revealed that Mauritius has the highest rank of “participation and human rights” and “sustainable economic opportunity.” With a per capita income of US$14,097, Mauritius came second in the “rule of law.” In the UN Human Development Index, Mauritius ranked 72nd out of 170 countries measured (high in the 2010 rankings).

The African understanding indicates that democracy and prosperity should be simultaneously affixed in the proposition for Africa’s sustainable progress. The Botswana and Mauritius’ successful models that are gradually been replicated Africa-wide is captured in The Prospects for Democracy in Africa (1961) by Kofi Abrefa Busia when he asked: “The question which we cannot avoid asking is whether economic development and nation building must mean authoritarianism and denial of freedom. Is it true that roads, railways, houses, harbours, factories and the like can only be quickly built under dictatorial forms of government?”

By Kofi Akosah-Sarpong

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