Democracy, Development and military rule in Africa
Residents cheer on army soldiers after the uprising that led to the toppling of president Alpha Conde in Kaloum neighbourhood of Conakry, Guinea September 6, 2021 REUTERS/Souleymane Camara NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

The resurgence of coups d’etat in Africa appears to have resuscitated discussions around the acceptability and suitability of military rule as a vehicle of development for the continent. This article contends that the much favoured democratic rule is as guilty as military regimes in the business of stifling development in Africa; hence, the complicity of both dispensations in Africa’s crisis of underdevelopment questions the validity of the global imposition of Democracy as the best form of government. Accordingly, it argues that with the exception of the colonial legacy of external interference in African politics, the ineptitudes, indiscretions and intransigencies of democratic regimes especially their tendencies for election rigging and sundry maladministration provide the most attractive invitations to military rule. Consequently, it concludes that the best form of government for any African country is that form of government arising out of the country’s socio-political and economic existentialism to effectively address its prevailing realities, in contrast to any other form of government globally acclaimed to be best for the continent.

The return of military coups especially in West Africa seems to have created panic among Africa’s ruling elite with respect to the future of democratic governance on the continent. More so, the “fall” of democratic rule in Mali, Chad, Guinea, Sudan, Burkina Faso, Niger and Gabon as well as the popular assent that has greeted this development in many of the countries mentioned appears to confirm the allegation that democracy has not met the people’s needs hence, the debate about the concept of benevolent military dictatorships as the way forward for the development of the African continent has now resurfaced.  Therefore, as the citizens of many of the coups-hit countries relish the euphoria of military intervention, the impression that the worst democratic rule is better than the best military dictatorship is again put to test. Interestingly, in spite of the global historical aversion to military dictatorships, democratic rule appears not to have justified the goodwill bestowed on it as the best form of government in Africa and beyond, given its observed inability to improve the lot of the people. Accordingly, the aim of this effort is to juxtapose the dynamics of democratic and military dispensations in relation to Africa’s underdevelopment, with a view to invalidating the preference accorded to democracy as the best form of government.

Drawing from the foundations laid in Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 1 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and Article 3 of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination opines that the right to self-determination includes “the rights of all peoples to pursue freely their economic, social and cultural development without outside interference.” Thus, the pursuance of “social development” without “outside interference” should presuppose the ability of any country either in Africa or elsewhere to determine the form of government that best suits it without attracting any opprobrium from outside. If this is the case, it would then amount to external interference from this “outside” if it decides on what it thinks constitutes the best form of government for itself, extrapolates same to also mean the best form of government for others and impresses it on the comity of nations to adopt. In other words, it amounts to not just interference but international bullying when the West decides that democracy having served it well, must become the best form of government to be adopted by the rest of the world regardless of the political, existential and ideological idiosyncrasies of the various countries. Additionally, since change is constant, there is no guarantee that a particular “best form of government” could continue to best serve a people forever. Even if democracy had distinguished itself in the West as the best form of government, any reasonable analysis regarding its popularity and efficacy at inducing development in contemporary Africa would be premised on the following questions:

Has the adherence to democratic rule in many parts of Africa improved the continent’s welfare in terms of speedy and sustainable development when compared with military rule?

Have the recent military dictatorships in Africa emerged as an atavism or in response to the inability of democratic rule to provide development-based governance?

Has the notion of democracy as the best form of government been empirically substantiated?

Accordingly, our hypothetical responses to these questions are as follows:

Africa’s historical adherence to democratic rule and tenets has not really resulted in speedy and sustainable development for the continent.

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The emergence of military rule is often mainly in response to the inability democratic regimes to offer development-based governance.

The notion of Democracy as the best form of government has been      empirically disproven in many parts of the world.

18th Century Liberalism is a political and socioeconomic ideology best considered as the poster boy of the Age of Enlightenment and usually credited to the English philosopher and physician John Locke. Liberalism became a fallout of the Lockean treatise on the “social contract” and sought to replace aspects of medieval feudalism like the “divine right of kings”, political ascendancy by hereditary privileges, traditional conservatism and certain aspects of medieval absolutism like monarchy and theocracy by emphasizing the freedom of the individual and his inalienable right to pursue economic, political and social undertakings without encumbrances. As a political ideology, Liberalism is characterized by representative democracy vis-à-vis periodic elections and multiparty politics, rule of law etc. At the economic level, Liberalism puts premium on the free market economy by way of trade liberalization or “laissez faire.” However, its social plank emphasis the primacy of fundamental human rights of individuals to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Accordingly, the question as to whether democracy has fostered development on the African continent remains germane. In this regard, Terhemba (2023) argues that democracy has failed in Nigeria, hence the need for the Country to try other forms of government. Interestingly, Associate Professor of Law Sam Amadi, while analysing political issues in the West African sub-region on Arise News’ Newsnight of 24th September, 2023 attributed part of the reasons for this failure to “value debasement” which was rarely condoned in Nigeria during military regimes. To buttress this point, Amadi drew a comparison between labour unions under military regimes and those operating under democratic dispensations and concluded that labour unions under military regimes appeared to be more disciplined when compared to their compatriots under democratic regimes especially in view of the onerous task of opposing military regimes which were the order of the day. Clearly, the analysis by Dr Sam Amadi points to the emphasis on discipline as an essential ingredient in the development process and incidentally, there is evidence to show that military dictatorships – either in Africa or beyond – were often at the forefront of implementing discipline-based policies in their various jurisdictions. For instance, in Nigeria, the War Against Indiscipline (WAI) programme of the Buhari-Idiagbon junta of the early 80s was an attempt to restore orderliness in the ordinary ways of doing things albeit that the policy was criticized for its highhandedness and ruthlessness. In Ghana, Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings’ Operation “CLEAN UP” went a long way in addressing indiscipline and corruption in Ghana. Even in General Pervez Musharraf’s Pakistan, there was the “Accountability and National Reconciliation Ordinance” which engaged corruption and indiscipline particularly in public institutions. Conversely, while the anti-indiscipline policies of military regimes are often criticized for their ruthlessness, the point is that they are also known to have been visibly successful. This is in contrast to the anti-indiscipline policies of civilian democratic regimes which usually suffice in the creation of anticorruption agencies that are often deployed more in hounding political opposition. Furthermore, the analysis as to whether democracy had brought development to Africa could also be understood from a comparative study between the achievements of democratic and military regimes in African countries. In Nigeria, much of the major infrastructures in the country including most of the country’s refineries were built by military regimes. In a report in the Sun Newspaper of 21st September, 2020 David Onwuchekwa cites Iyke Uzoukwu, founder of Soul Revival Ministry, Okpunegbu, Anambra State, as saying that military regimes have performed better than democratic governments in Nigeria. According to the report, the cleric insisted that:

“No civilian dispensation has broken the record of military achievements in this country. It was the military that constructed almost 99 per cent of all the capital projects we have in this country. The military constructed the national theatre, Iganmu, Lagos; defunct NITEL; NEPA; Federal Palace Hotel; NICO-NUGA (sic) Hotel; Nigerian Ports Authority; all the military and police barracks in Nigeria; bridges in many parts of the country; highways; local and international airports, among others…But today what have the civilian administrations achieved? Nothing, absolutely nothing. They have achieved bad roads, insecurity and high cost of living. Look at our prisons (now baptized correctional centres) which are nothing to write home about. When you go to Europe to see their prisons, they are better than three-star hotels in this country. Our prisons are an eyesore.”

Even if the cleric may have exaggerated his claims, the point remains that he is not far from the truth. The Aso Rock Villa which is the Nigerian seat of power was conceived by the military regime of General Murtala Mohammed and executed by the military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida within 13 months; contrary to the situation in Ivory Coast where Ghanaian politician and former Chairman of the Peoples’ National Convention Bernard Mornah alleges in a TV interview that the democratic regime of Alassane Quattara still pays rent to France in respect of the Country’s presidential palace and supposed seat of power. In Libya, the achievements of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi as military dictator remain unparalleled in the history of that country. Gaddafi’s “Great Manmade River” project brought water to all regions of the desert country. Under Gaddafi, education, electricity and healthcare were free in Libya. Government provided land, livestock, seeds and even a farmhouse free of charge for any citizen interested in pursuing a career in agriculture. Gaddafi gave a bursary of $5000 to every woman delivered of a baby to cater for her and her child and despite the global fluctuation of oil prices at the world market, the price of petrol in Libya remained the lowest in the world. Additionally, Gaddafi gave a bursary to the tune of $50,000 to all newly-weds and made sure that no interests were attached to loans. The Gaddafi regime subsidized the price of cars by 50% and ensured that Libya incurred no external debt during its era. It is instructive to note that the Libyan Gross domestic Product (GDP) per capita was highest under the Gaddafi era at $15,000 while total reserves in the period amounted to $150 billion. Furthermore, the Gaddafi regime instituted the unemployment fee for all unemployed graduates in Libya while his policies also guaranteed food security for all Libyans. In the area of economic growth, the Libyan economy was observed to have grown at a rate of 10% in 2010. Most importantly, Gaddafi’s idea of the gold-backed Dinar as common currency for the African continent rattled the West and was viewed in many quarters to be capable of liberating the continent from the stranglehold of “globalization” thereby ushering it into an era of economic significance – if not supremacy – in the world economy. Interestingly, Gaddafi also made frantic efforts to rid Libya of the vestiges of flag independence by removing British and American bases from the country, as well as repatriating Italian settlers. These giant strides have never been seen to be accomplished by just one country anywhere on the continent.  In Burkina Faso, the government of Captain Thomas Sankara also performed wonders. Described as Africa’s “Che” Guevara, Sankara is credited to have achieved monumental success in the entrenchment of probity and accountability in the Burkinabe public service as well as ensuring the redistribution of land to remove inequality and enhance food security. Furthermore, Sankara outlawed female genital mutilation and embarked on a holistic campaign of free and compulsory education to fight illiteracy. Despite the criticisms about the aggressiveness of his policies, it cannot be said that there was any government in Burkinabe history that achieved so much within such a short time. Incidentally, it cannot also be said that there were no progressive democratic governments in Africa like those of Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Julius Nyerere and John Magufuli both of Tanzania, Nelson Mandela of South Africa or even the Balewa government of Nigeria. However, we make the point that whenever a numerical comparison is made, progressive military regimes clearly outnumber their civilian counterparts both in terms of existence and also in the number of achievements.

Another point that is often left out in the analysis of democracy and development with respect to military regimes is the fact that military regimes have sometimes made more impact on the advancement of democracy in Africa albeit that the democracy so advanced has hardly made gigantic contributions to Africa’s development. For instance, the General Ibrahim Babangida-led military regime is the only administration credited to have conducted the freest and fairest elections in the history of Nigeria. Although the Babangida regime has been perennially criticized for adopting the Western-imposed structural adjustment programme with attendant negative implications for the Naira, it should be noted that General Babangida’s timely decision to “step aside” in the heat of the “June 12” debacle probably saved the country from what would have become its worst political catastrophe since the Civil War. Additionally, General Abdulsalam Abubakar’s decision to hand over power to a democratically elected government in 1999 was a major boost to the state of democracy in sub-Saharan Africa, in the same way that the activities of the Rawlings junta in Ghana are seen to have greatly stabilized democratic practice in that country till date. However, while democratic apologists are quick to crucify military regimes for highhandedness, they forget most times to also vilify the “illiberalism” of many African democracies which often begins with partisan tyranny. In other words, a situation in which prominent “chieftains” of political parties handpick and impose their preferred candidates for elective and appointive positions on the parties cannot be said to be reflective of a purely democratic culture. Unfortunately, the imposition of candidates would create a lot of distractions for a new government and stifle development because many members of the party would feel aggrieved and would probably sabotage the interests of their own party and government if they have the opportunity. This is one reason for the inability of democratic rule to elicit development in Africa. In contrast, the political and administrative machinery in a military regime is as per “one body” hence, there is no room for factionalism or dissent. Therefore, once a decision is made, everybody is expected to follow. This structure guarantees timely solutions to prevailing problems, reduces administrative bottlenecks and positions the military regime at a better advantage to achieve speedy development.

Furthermore, the tendency of analysts to accuse military regimes of massive corruption appears to have become redundant, in view of the gargantuan corruption that has been discovered in some of the countries where democracy has been recently overthrown, with embarrassing cases of former rulers or their relatives/cronies being caught neck deep in the public till, while trying to move loads of currencies out of those jurisdictions in the event of their ouster.

More importantly, it is widely accepted in many quarters that democracy would never engender sustainable development in Africa as long as African democracy continues to differ markedly from its Western counterpart, and mainly because for many Africans, democracy is beginning to represent an aspect of neo-colonialism which compels the people to adopt a particular organization of government even when such form of government does not attend to their socio-political and economic needs. More so, democracy would not engender development because a lot of the liabilities it has brought with it have tended to worsen the African condition. For example, the free market economy stifles local industries and predisposes the country to becoming a dumping ground for all manner of goods. “Representative democracy” means that not all the people would give their consent to government all the time while the emphasis on periodic elections tends to fixate the minds of the extant political leadership on maintaining their hold on power rather than using such power for the benefit of the masses. Additionally, supremacy of the rule of law would not be achieved because many of the African countries are bogged down by social inequality, so that the higher the inequality, the more impossible or absurd it becomes for some privileged members of society to subject themselves to the same laws with “commoners” and so on.

The next plank of the discussion suggests that more than anything else, the indiscretions of democratic regimes constitute the most attractive invitations to military rule. These indiscretions could be in the form of governmental highhandedness and insensitivity to the plight of the citizens, brazen and unbridled corruption, lack of development-based governance, poor management of post-election crises or even a direct invitation to the military to take over power as seen in Nigeria’s First Republic. Incidentally, many of the ills outlined in Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu’s speech heralding Nigeria’s first military coup in 1966 are still relevant till date. There are still 10 percenters on the corridors of power, political profiteers and swindlers still exist – possibly in more advanced forms, nepotists and those who divide Nigeria in order to continue to rule it are still alive and well. Interestingly, democratic regimes in all their puritanism often failed to solve these problems, such that when the coup speeches of successive military regimes in Nigeria are compared, they are seen to have largely followed the lines of Nzeogwu’s grievances. Additionally, a close look at the grievances of the coup plotters in the African countries where coups have recently occurred shows a similarity in frustration about the incompetence of democratically elected governments to revamp the economy, tackle fundamentalist insurgencies among other reasons.

On the question as to whether democracy is the best form of government, this author insists that the best form of government for any country is that which best addresses its aspirations based on a keen appreciation of the peculiar challenges of its citizens. Interestingly, in some of the countries that push for the global acceptance of democracy as the best form of government, adherence to democratic tenets cannot be said to be fully democratic. For instance, the United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy while the US is gradually been accused of descending into “illiberalism” particularly exemplified in the administration of the Republican Party under Donald Trump, as opined by a study conducted by the V-Dem Institute. Additionally, the US Electoral College system of conducting elections has been criticised as raising questions about the depth of democracy in the “heart” of democracy. Invariably, one wonders why the UK has not completely discarded the element of monarchy in its political system if democracy was as wonderful as it was projected to be. In point of fact, if democracy was so wonderful, why did Aristotle prefer monarchy? Why did Plato consider it dangerous? Was it by accident that Socrates became critical about democracy as a form of government which could inhibit the learned and educated from ruling society given its propensity for demagoguery, where an eloquent politician could influence the citizens to vote in an irrational way?

Aside the aforementioned, it has to be noted that China under Mao was not a democracy but Mao’s communism brought China all the glory and splendour it enjoys today. Similarly, no one can divorce Russia’s greatness from the Bolshevik revolution which established and entrenched socialism. In the same vein, England, France, Portugal, etc., were the great countries of medieval Europe. This is an eloquent testament to the fact that even monarchical absolutism possessed the tendencies to propel a country to greatness. Therefore, if communism and monarchical absolutism could prosper countries, what is the guarantee that military rule could not do so, particularly in Africa where the military regimes of Colonels Nasser and Gaddafi, Captian Thomas Sankara, Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings etc., are all known to have made the difference when democracy or other forms of government failed the people? Colonels Nasser and Gaddafi overthrew monarchies which were not doing well to bring prosperity to their countries but in Europe, monarchies were transforming nations. The point to be made is that there is no form of government that is not prone to failure; and in like manner, there is no form of government that could be adjudged the best. If this is so, we could posit that the forms of government in themselves are not sufficient to guarantee a country’s greatness. It is the degree of their compatibility to the peoples’ yearnings that would make the difference.

The pattern of analysis is based on the Liberal Democratic method.

The ‘Alternative Viewpoint,’ penned by Flight Lieutenant Christopher Uchenna Obasi (Retired), is a sophisticated weekly column that delves into the complex dimensions of socio-political issues. While it concentrates primarily on the African context, the column also casts a wider analytical net to encompass global affairs. Through incisive commentary and in-depth analysis, it aims to offer alternative perspectives that challenge mainstream narratives and provoke thoughtful discourse on critical matters.

Africa Today News, New York

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