Political openness in post authoritarian sub-Saharan Africa (SSA): domestic and external pressure to conformity.

Author:Aideyan, Osaore


More than two decades after the third wave of global democratization broke on Africa's shores starting in 1985, (1) there is ample evidence that the extent to which these African states have imbibed democratic principles is mixed. The process of political reform or democratization at best has been a very long-term, complicated and messy affair. A wide variety of states has headed along the path from authoritarianism towards, ostensibly, democracy. Some states, like South Africa and Benin, have transitioned quite well. Many others like Togo have faltered, and some like Gambia have collapsed back into authoritarianism.

This combination of outcomes of democratization in Africa has led to an emphasis on issues of consolidation in the literature on democratization. (2) These different outcomes raise one important question: what accounts for these divergent paths of consolidation? Aside from the cross-national study by Englebert and Boduszynski, (3) there has been no effort to compare countries in the context of a common world, political economy within which they operate. Approaches that treat all countries as fundamentally similar provide only limited insights into the variations in democratic experiences. This article attempts to start filling in this space. In doing so, our approach (following Englebert and Boduszynski and Diamond, (4)) is to first classify all sub-Saharan African countries into sets of political regimes by looking at their democratic performance over the 1985-2010 period.

We then review the degree to which dominant modernization and Modern World System (MWS) theories account for differences among these categories. The findings of this article suggest that most of the conventional variables, particularly of the modernization type, do not adequately explain the divergent processes of democratic consolidation in each country because they place too much emphasis on internal affairs, societal pressures, and developments within the nation-states themselves. (5)

Instead, the degree to which an African country is tied politically, economically, and socially to western countries and western-led multilateral institutions is a crucial factor in explaining democratic success or failure. (6)

Assessing Africa's Third Wave?

In response to earlier feedback, the authors are convinced that assessing Africa's democratization challenges scholars to pursue potentially contradictory conceptual goals. Consequently, we identify three potential sources of these goals. (7) The first is the development of a differentiated conceptualization of democracy and democratic consolidation that captures the diverse experiences of countries. The second is the identification of a complex set of national and global variables/dynamics that translates into the ability to consolidate the post-1990 transitions. A third source of contradictory goals involves identifying a theoretical perspective that provides significant analytical mileage toward an understanding of the explicit causal path between the international and domestic factors affecting democratic consolidation in Africa.

Before fleshing out what we consider to be the relevant aspects of these conceptual issues, we wish to note the following: first, ours is not an effort to address every aspect of the democratization process in sub-Saharan Africa, in particular regime transitions. There is no shortage of systematic explanations of domestic and international factors of political regime changes in Africa in the period under review (Bratton and van de Walle; Dunning; Lindberg; Diamond and Plattner, to name but a few). (8) Second, we acknowledge that the consolidation of democracy in Africa involves indigenous political values, and the establishment of many other valued domestic institutions such as civilian control of the military, independent legislatures and courts, viable opposition parties, and a free press. In the same way, we note the limited capacity of Western powers and corporations to promote democracy abroad. Against this cautious tone, we are however of the view, not unlike others (Pridham; Nwajiaku; Herbst and Decalo, for example), (9) that vulnerability to the democratic demands of Western donors helps to mold democratic outcomes, even though this does not fully explain them.

The major issue raised by the first potential source of contradiction is how to reach a definitional consensus of the terms democracy and democratic consolidation. The two terms are endowed with assorted meanings. Of crucial consideration to these assorted meanings is:

  1. Whether democracy is best distinguished according to the form of its procedures in the tradition of Joseph Schumpeter and Robert Dahl, (10) or by the substance of its results in the tradition of Inkeles and Sirowy, Przeworski and Limongi, and Healy and Robinson? (11) It is important to note that this question is at the heart of the current debate of the two competing visions of economic management, i.e. The Washington Consensus and The Beijing Consensus. When evaluated according to the standard of promoting the welfare of citizens, the records of both visions are quite mixed. In the ranks of democracies and dictatorships, we can find countries that are remarkable economic successes and others that are massive failures. As Sen puts it, "the selective anecdotal evidence goes in contrary directions, and the statistical picture does not yield any clear relationship at all." (12) It does appear that the jury is still out.

  2. Does the definition of democracy and consolidation embody a minimal set of essential requirements? Or does it provide in the words of Bratton and van de Walle a comprehensive characterization that exhausts their full complexity? (13)

    Given this background and the fact that these concepts continue to go through historical convolutions where theorists and political practitioners have given diverse contents to them, (14) we are of the view that a standardized definition for our purpose would be useful to the extent that it avoids stretching and constriction. To achieve conceptual validity, scholars are reminded to avoid the problem of conceptual stretching that arises when, for example, the concept of democracy is applied to cases for which, by relevant scholarly standards, it is not applicable. (15)

    Focusing on the qualitative and quantitative categories employed in the study of recent cases on democratization at the level of national political regimes in Africa, the conceptualization of democracy used in this article is Robert Dahl's standard of democracy, which takes into consideration three necessary attributes: political opposition, public participation, and law-based civil liberty. (16) Following the work of Schedler, (17) democratic consolidation as used in this article refers to the avoidance of democratic breakdown and erosion.

    We turn now to some of the issues associated with the second and third contradictory conceptual goals. The long-term prospects of African democratization are affected by a complex set of domestic and global variables. This complexity creates a problem of identifying and treating different factors as ends in themselves. In this sense, we identify two problems: first, how to locate the relevant levels--local, national, regional and global--and, second, deciding what explanatory weight should be distributed among them. (18) Consequently, there exists what might be called a levels-of-analysis problem and a levels-of-explanation problem. (19) To address these problems, we utilize a framework offered by Boas and Dunn, and by Williams, (20) which we believe has the most relevance to understanding the dynamics of democratic consolidation in Africa.

    This framework, Modern World Systems, in contrast to the modernization and dependency frameworks, takes a more holistic perspective by locating countries as parts of larger international systems, subject to powerful influences beyond their borders. So Alvin argues that despite sharing a few similar traits, these three dominant schools of development still maintain their individual features. (21) This might suggest the usefulness of the interrelationship between these theories in explaining democratic consolidation in Africa, but it does not tell us how, or if, they might be combined to arrive at one overall explanation of the democratic consolidation process in Africa. The breadth of these conceptual issues/contradictions and the distinctiveness of specific cases of democracy in Africa require some selectivity in reflecting on democracy and democratic consolidation in sub-Saharan Africa.

    The era of globalization makes it difficult to separate the internal and external processes that shape democratization. Democratization is an integral component of the Western-led phenomenon of globalization of economics, politics, and culture. To sufficiently comprehend the changes taking place both globally and within countries entails situating them in the context of the integrated and interdependent capitalist world-economy that constitutes a fundamental component of the modern world system. (22) Democratic consolidation is of utmost importance in any new and fragile democracy. In Africa, a continent with a poor record and where economic and societal strife often exacerbate threats to democratic survival, it becomes especially important to understand the processes of democratic consolidation and to keep a vigilant watch for the signs of democratic erosion against which Schedler warns. (23)

    Democratic Performance in Sub-Saharan Africa 1985-2010

    After almost two decades of political openings in Africa, democratic performance shows a mixed performance between what has been called full-fledged democracies and outright dictatorships. (24) A measure that can be used as an indicator of how a country's consolidation is progressing is the Freedom House survey of political rights and civil liberties, which designates countries as being...

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