african governments

Opinion – Africa must tackle authoritarian regimes

By Muna Ndulo

A CRITICAL challenge to democratic governance is creating frameworks and processes that are genuinely inclusive of diverse populations. Most African states, from Angola to Zimbabwe, suffer from crises of national identity, characterised by gross inequalities that are rooted in the formation of pluralistic states.

Francis Deng, in his book Self-Determination and National Unity: A Challenge for Africa (2010), has observed that the state is often captured by one or more dominant groups that then define the national identity framework on their terms, giving themselves pre-eminent status as favoured citizens.

The capture of the state is characterised by a patronage-driven system in which a small ruling elite and their relatives and associates share the “spoils of power” and the “spoils of office”, such as civil service and government jobs, regardless of qualifications. Other groups are discriminated against and denied full citizenship rights.

The origins of this situation can be traced to the colonial state that merged into a unitary state framework with distinct racial or ethnic groups, many of which would have been likely to view themselves at the time of colonialism as nations in their own right.

As the colonial powers accorded preferential treatment to particular groups and regions in political and economic policies, diversity became correlative to disparities in shaping and sharing power, national wealth, social services and development opportunities.

Instead of seeking to address these disparities through constitutional or legislative arrangements that promoted equitable distribution and representation, many African governments have reinforced these disparities and imposed monolithic concepts of unity by suppressing diversity, leaving many of their populations disempowered and disenfranchised. The politics are largely dictated by short-term interests, ethnicity or factionalism, and not by long-term developmental goals.

Many African nations inherited from their colonial masters a legacy of authoritarian political structures, while those without a colonial master — such as Liberia and Ethiopia — created them. An authoritarian regime demands obedience to its laws and decrees. Accordingly, the administrative, institutional and security structures are often devised to effect the state’s exercise of authority.

In the colonial system, indigenous political systems were either destroyed or radically modified and sometimes perverted through such practices as indirect rule. Chiefs and their councils became subject to the authority and direction of government agents rather than to the will of their own people. Even where, as was the case in some former British colonies, indigenous political organisations were used, the roles were significantly changed and, to this day, operate as parallel power structures.

Today’s African traditional leaders continue to be manipulated by elites that seek to use government for personal political ends. As a result, ordinary people in African villages and towns are divorced from participating in governance at both the national and local level. In most African countries the only state operatives the people know best are the agents of coercive power — the police and the army. Other than donor-funded nongovernment organisations, they have little, if any, contact with development agents.

Without the active and massive participation of the people, it is impossible to carry out the required tasks of nation building and development. The impressive legislatures and state houses that exist in Africa today very often have no base in local communities, and present only a deceptive facade of political progress and democratic governance.

An authoritarian regime does not allow sufficiently for local participation or control. Its structures are superimposed on rather than integrated with local communities. Democratic governance requires different structures and different values. To advance national development, African states must address good governance and manage diversity constructively to promote peace, justice and inclusivity within their own borders.

The principles of democracy include: freedom of speech, including the right to criticise and to propagate against the government; freedom of assembly and association, including freedom to organise opposition parties and to propose alternative governments; freedom of the people to choose their government at general elections, and to change them peacefully; freedom of religion; freedom from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment without trial; and the rule of law.

Also important are the right to education, health and a clean environment, and guarantees for human rights and civil liberties. These principles are universal; they can be adopted, institutionalised and applied by any nation.

But governance must extend beyond the provision of basic rights to issues related to perceived and actual alienation felt by ethnic minorities, particularly those relating to power relations, revenue collection and discrimination in employment and education — issues that are often the basis of perceived injustices and belie societal conflicts.

African states must establish new institutions that are responsive to these issues and adopt measures to ensure that the composition of government and its agencies reflects societal diversity. Indeed, Prof Ben Nwabueze of Nigeria has decried the existence of what he calls “states without citizens”, in observing that the African state is often alienated from its citizens or becomes morbid, existing only as a mere geographical expression.

In most African countries, promoting democratic governance will require constitutional or legislative arrangements that promote inclusiveness. In a democratic state, the constitution establishes the parameters of state power and responsibilities, and the scope of citizens’ rights.

At the core of a democratic political environment, therefore, are the overriding constitutional rules that guide state conduct and power: respect for human rights, the protection of minorities and cultural and linguistic rights, the rule of law, the promotion of inclusiveness, participation in both local and national state organs, and the guarantee of a degree of local autonomy in the governance of local affairs. There is a need to accommodate the vast ethnic diversity that exists in every African state, to address competing identities that could undermine national cohesion, and to institutionally acknowledge the intensity of the attachment that most Africans have to their ethnicity.

Inclusive constitutions should ensure that the objective of government is to secure and protect the existence of the body politic, and to furnish the individuals who compose it the power of enjoying, in safety and tranquility, their natural rights and blessings of life.

Governance arrangements should be inspired and conditioned by the desire to give every citizen the best chance a country can give for a full, happy and useful life. Constitutional structures should empower and liberate women, minorities and underprivileged groups. They should guarantee equal opportunity for all citizens, irrespective of ethnicity, gender, race, religion, ethnic background or physical condition. Equal opportunity is a mark of true liberation, as it ensures that benefits from economic development accrue to the many and that all citizens have a chance to live up to their full potential and achieve self-fulfilment.

Importantly, adopting constitutional arrangements that foster these ideals is not sufficient. Steps must be taken to strengthen the human and institutional institutions that underpin democracy, good governance, participation in governance, devolution of power to local communities and the rule of law — particularly the judiciary and watchdog institutions such as human rights commissions.

Further, the government should create conditions to enable public participation in the legislative and governance process. Indeed, political participation should not be limited to elections, but should be promoted throughout the governing process. It is imperative that there be a wide and popular dissemination of information about human rights and the mechanisms available to protect human rights, and deliberate programmes launched to develop respect of human rights, promotion of tolerance of diversity, equality of all citizens and the rule of law.

There must be real and effective access to the courts, human rights commissions and other watchdog organisations. While constitutional protections may ensure that every citizen enjoys equally civil and political rights under the law, such protections depend to a large extent on the ability of citizens to assert these rights.

About the Author

Muna Ndulo is a professor of law at Cornell Law School and director of Cornell University’s Institute for African Development, among other positions, and a scholar in the fields of constitution-making, governance and institution building, human rights and foreign direct investment.

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One thought on “Opinion – Africa must tackle authoritarian regimes

  • AlphaHT

    (February 5, 2013 - 11:58 pm)

    What can one do if the West is directly supporting that despotic behavior? It seems so hopeless sometimes.

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