Election posters on Yoweri Museveni

Politics in Africa works differently than in Europe, writes Professor Göran Hydén. Here are election posters in Uganda ahead of the 2011 election. Photo: Gabriel White (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Guest chronicle

Democracy support for Africa needs to be reshaped

Thirty years have passed since the waves of democracy swept across the earth. It was the third in the order and differed from previous waves by hitting all continents. There are reasons to review the results.

Its influence remains strongest in Latin America and Eastern Europe, where military and communist dictatorships have given way and democracy, albeit threatened, is now prevalent. This positive development is in contrast to what has happened in Africa, despite the fact that international democracy support has been greatest right there.

This suggests that the breeding ground for democracy is not as favorable everywhere. Local social constellations mean something. External efforts must be adapted to this. How best to assist democratization in Africa remains a challenge, but the reasons for this are strong.

Unlike other regions, sub-Saharan Africa's societies are not shaped by a modern system of government that rationally creates and drives society. With the possible exception of South Africa, these societies have never undergone an agrarian revolution, not even a real agricultural reform. The ownership and division of the land still follow pre-colonial principles. Instead of merging small farms into larger units, the trend is in the opposite direction: a division into ever smaller components. The result is an unsustainable development which, among other things, is a reason for fleeing the countryside.

The cities lack a strong bourgeoisie that, by virtue of equity, can create jobs and steer the development of society in a modern direction. Foreign investors remain outside and therefore have no influence on how the public sphere is designed.

Against this background, it is not surprising that the state - despite the lack of a ruling class with the ability to modernize society - easily takes on an overly decisive role in politics. It is not reflected in the form of harsh system dictatorships but rather erratic personal rule. Instead of leading, the state is often subjected to arbitrary looting intended to benefit certain ethnic groups at the expense of others.

The African countries are still under construction. The social forces that in Europe and later other regions have contributed to a society based on conflicting economic interests rather than rival cultural perceptions are still weak. Political parties in Africa are not based on ideologies that reflect definite positions on crucial societal issues.

In this environment, politics works differently than in Europe and our own approach is not always the best guide. Of course, there is a hearing for this in civil society, but the support for its organizations sharpens relations with the African governments. Governments in some countries react negatively and interpret democratization as a threat.

The consequence is that one cannot take democracy for granted but must understand its special African context. Individual projects must be planned in their larger context with the help of, for example, regularly conducted overview studies. These must have the task of identifying both opportunities and obstacles to the development of democracy based on the African conditions and not just their own political priorities.

Such a balance is not easy to achieve but is a prerequisite for the spread of democracy. This process must be designed with the help of democracy's own local knights but also the importance of being able to see the forest despite all the trees. A challenge of both weight and urgency!

Seminar on democracy assistance to Africa

On January 14, the Expert Group for Development Aid will organize a seminar in Stockholm, based on their new investigation report on democracy aid to Africa. Göran Hydén is one of the speakers.

Sign up for the seminar »

This is a guest column. The writer is responsible for analysis and opinions in the text.

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