Representative democracy is a “system of government in which citizens elect representatives who propose and vote on legislation or policy initiatives on their behalf. It’s a form of indirect democracy, as opposed to a direct democracy, in which people vote directly on policy initiatives” The debate as to whether representative democracy is the best system of government for Africa is not new. Since the independence of most African countries starting in the 1960s, the system of government remains one of the most difficult questions the continent continues to grapple with. With a history of colonialism, it is rather unfortunate that the debate often takes a dimension that reflects the political philosophy and practices of their former colonial masters.
It is true that heads-of-state in Algeria, Angola, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Guinea (which is trying once more in 2020), Rwanda, Senegal, Togo, Tunisia, Uganda, and Zimbabwe have overstayed beyond their term limits via (un)constitutional revisions. But if we go by the argument that democracy is determined by presidential term limits, what are we going to say about countries like Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Luxemburg, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and United Kingdom) where “the prime minister could remain in office for as long as their parliamentary majority is retained and the majority party wants them there, which is exactly what is currently practised in Angola, except that the Angolan constitution allows two maximum terms.” Perhaps, the problem with the African version of democracy is not the presidential term limits but putting presidential term limits that will never be respected.
On the question of elections which is one of the core values of a democratic system of government, many African leaders have failed the test not because they do not organise elections but elections in Africa is a shadow of itself. First and foremost, the level of political apathy in Africa as the electorate either does not have the education to make informed political choices or prefer not to vote since they have lost faith in the electoral systems. Even when a few decide to exercise their civic rights by participating in elections, what determines the outcome of the elections are not the ballot boxes but who has control over it. Going by this argument and with the recent presidential elections in Cameroon and Ghana, one can rightly say that there is no need for elections in Africa since the representative aspect of democracy is never fulfilled. Most supposedly elected governments in Africa to represent a few voices as opposed to the majority. This has often led to the formation of governments that have little respect for individual rights and freedoms, disregard human rights, due process and the rule of law with little transparency and accountability.
Another important point to examine is the relationship between economic development and the system of government. Some have stated that most economically advanced countries in the world today practice democratic forms of government. This is not a lie but if we go by the proposition in paragraph two, we begin to question if these countries are truly democratic. Even if they are democratic as claimed, did they develop before or after adopting their said democratic forms of government? What about others such as Algeria, Tunisia who have developed under different systems of government?
According to the Human Development Index 2021, the top 10 most developed countries in Africa in order of merit include Seychelles, Mauritius, Algeria, Tunisia, Botswana, Libya, South Africa, Gabon, Egypt, and Morocco whereas the least developed from the bottom include Somalia, Niger, Chad, South Sudan, Burundi, Mali, Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Sierra Leone, and Guinea Bissau. On the other hand, the 10 most democratic countries in Africa are Mauritius, Cape Verde, Botswana, South Africa, Namibia, Ghana, Lesotho, Malawi, Madagascar, and Senegal as reported by Statista 2020 while at the bottom of the list are Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Burundi, Eritrea, Guinea Bissau, Djibouti, Cameroon, and Togo.
Though a nexus exists between economic growth and democracy as demonstrated by the case of European and North American countries as well as some isolated cases like Japan, the situation is a little different for Africa. Mauritius proves the economic growth and democracy nexus thesis by appearing amongst the first three in both human development and democracy indexes on the African continent. It is surprising that Seychelles which happens to come first in the human development index is not included on the democracy index list citing the 2019 ranking of democracies in Africa according to the EIU, and Statista 2020. Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Gabon, Egypt, and Morocco, which are among the first 10 most developed countries in Africa, fail to appear on the list of the 10 most democratic countries in Africa. Cape Verde, Namibia, Ghana, Lesotho, Malawi, Madagascar and Senegal which are amongst the top 10 most democratic countries in Africa fail to also appear amongst the 10 most developed countries. With this, we can question whether economic growth is truly connected to political advancement. That notwithstanding, none of the countries which comes at the bottom of the democracy index in Africa also appear on the first 10 of the most developed but neither are they on the least developed as well except for Chad, Burundi, Eritrea and Guinea Bissau which further illustrates the mismatch between development and democracy in Africa.
Back to the debate of whether representative democracy is the best option for Africa, we can see that based on the presidential term limits and human development indicators, the continent seems to be an exceptional case. A good reason for this could be the continent’s colonial history as mentioned in the introduction, and the fact that democracy as philosophy differs from democracy as a practice. One other interesting question we can ask proponents of the development and democracy nexus is which comes first? Development of democracy? If the most advanced democracies in the world today attained a certain level of economic development before embracing democratic institutions or had democratic institutions to drive development, we can question how true their hypothesis is because development often comes at the cost of violating human rights, invading other countries and restricting freedoms. For example, America was built on a history of slavery and Europe on a history of colonialism. So how true are these countries democratic in both the philosophical and practical sense of the word especially given the fact they are those very critical of Africa. Therefore it is right to argue that representative democracy remains an ideal form of government for Africa but it is not true that it is best. In conclusion, I would argue that whatever form of government that guarantees the development of any African country without infringing on human rights, transparency, the rule of law and freedoms is best for that country.