When you search up “Africa” and “democracy in a web browser, you see headlines like “Fight for Democracy”, “Safeguarding Democracy”, and “Threats to Democratic Transition”; these headlines signal that there is turmoil on the continent concerning the strength and resilience of this political system. Why is there so much concern? Historically, the continent, as a whole, has had numerous struggles creating and maintaining democracies. From elections that shut out opposition parties to constitutional amendments to extend presidential terms, Africa has seen its fair share of democratic backsliding. But why has Africa, in particular, had such difficulty with the concept of democracy? The answer could very well lie in the role that Africa played in colonization and its lasting effects.
So let’s talk about Africa, specifically sub-Saharan Africa, and what appears to be failed attempts to achieve “democracy” or “economic development”. First, let’s define democracy and economic development as they will be used within this essay. Martin Seymour Lipset looks at the relationship between democracy and economic development in his essay, “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy,” and uses wealth, industrialization, urbanization, and education as markers for economic development. Democracy he defines as “a political system which supplies regular constitutional opportunities for changing the governing official,” a definition he pulls from Joseph Schumpeter and Max Weber.
Lipset’s ultimate conclusion that high levels of economic development are indeed tied to democracy serves as the bridge between political sociology and postcolonial studies and is an integral part of the argument made here. There are two basic premises taken from each discipline: the first is that democracy thrives in an economically stable climate and the second is that the legacy of colonialism has caused economic instability in Sub-Saharan Africa. By applying some fundamental logic, we can make the assumption that colonialism has resulted in economic instability that has prevented Sub-Saharan Africa from building enduring democracies.
The history of colonialism in Sub-Saharan Africa in particular is unique from any other region. The amount of exploitation, pillaging, and sheer destruction was unprecedented when looking at the scale of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and triangle trade. Colonialism by Europeans placed Africa permanently in the role of the subaltern, as less than or inferior. It has proved to be a nearly impossible task to break out of this dynamic, which is why we see such an abysmal performance of democracy and economic development on the continent. This legacy of exploitation under colonialism persists to our current times and is subconsciously or consciously integrated into many of the modern policies for development. Currently, the global flow of labor and resources depends upon raw materials that are extracted from countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, and Namibia, being shipped to western countries where they are manufactured into products that are then sold back to the same countries where the original minerals came from. This system has remained unchanged for the last several centuries and puts countries in Africa at a continual disadvantage. With this structure in place, we begin to see the direct colonial ties to economic instability on the continent.
To further illuminate this claim, we need to look at an individual case. Originally colonized by the Belgian King Leopold III, the Democratic Republic of Congo had a very rough start to its journey as an independent nation. Despite the formality of giving the nation independence in 1960, both the US and Belgium had a hand in the turmoil that resulted in the assassination of former Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, who was vocal about his disdain for western influence, in 1961. From this point on, the young nation never quite found its footing on the road to democracy, and each misstep was accompanied by western interventions. It could very well be true that all of these interventions were strictly humanitarian efforts, but there must also be significant financial incentives to stepping in to put a stop to the abuses, namely safeguarding western investments and preventing local leaders from taking action against western exploitation.
Given that the models of development and democracy are based on western economies that were predicated on exploitation under colonialism, those same models cannot work for the countries that were previously being exploited under colonialism. The decline of democracy that we associate with developing nations is the ultimate failure of a system that was never meant to work for the people it is being pushed upon. What we are recognizing as democratic erosion in these countries is actually a sign that the framework of democracy that western countries want to promote isn’t working. To see established and effective governance in Africa, sans the exploitation of another ethnic group within the region, a complete reimagination of our image of a “developed” nation is in order. A reimagination that leaves behind the shadow of colonialism and its brutal history in its wake.