Development Policy Analysis No. 12

The State of Liberal Democracy in Africa: Resurgence or Retreat?

By Tony Leon
April 26, 2010

For much of the post-colonial period, Africans tended to live under one-party dictatorships. Today, even the most despotic of African leaders wish to have their leadership affirmed by elections. Democracy is increasingly seen as the only legitimate form of government in Africa, but regular multiparty elections are not synonymous with good government, rule of law, and economic development. Indeed, corruption, repression, and underdevelopment continue to scar much of Africa.

Instead of paying attention only to the trappings of democracy, African reformers should focus on building free societies characterized by the separation of powers, checks and balances, an independent media and judiciary, restriction on presidential power, term limits, and so on.

Africa’s transition to liberal democracy is unlikely to happen without far-reaching economic reforms; in fact, all liberal democracies are also market-oriented economies. Regrettably, many African countries are not only politically repressive but also economically dirigiste. Increased economic freedom and the emergence of a vibrant private sector can bring about direct economic benefits, such as higher incomes, and indirect benefits, such as decentralization of power.

As the cases of Kenya, South Africa, and Zimbabwe show, the spread of liberal democracy in Africa can be checked by a number of important inhibitors. Unresolved inter-ethnic power struggles often lead to tensions or conflicts. Abundant natural resources can shield irresponsible governments from the necessity of economic reforms and pressure from taxpayers. Similar problems bedevil foreign-aid programs in Africa. Finally, Africa continues to suffer from “big-man” politics or “imperial” presidents.

Fortunately, as the case of Botswana shows, most of the aforementioned inhibitors need not be fatal to the emergence of a relatively liberal democracy. Inter-ethnic tensions could be successfully handled through devolution of power and genuine federalism, along the Swiss lines, while corruption could be better combated by laws that limit the power of the executive and increase government transparency.

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Tony Leon was a visiting fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity in 2008. He was a member of the South African Parliament between 1989 and 2009 and the leader of the opposition between 1999 and 2007. This paper was written before his appointment as South African ambassador to Argentina in August 2009, and the views expressed herein are his own.