Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria’s former president, is reported to have said that Western liberal democracy is unsuitable for Africa.
Given the last 30 years, he probably has a point. But the truth is that even the traditional authoritarian governments have largely failed in Africa, so we should not be bogged down in asking the wrong question. The form of government doesn’t really matter. Over the last four decades, we have watched Poland, until recently a relatively liberal democracy, overtake Sweden, Norway, Belgium and Ireland in terms of their economy. In that same period, we have also watched China, an authoritarian country, move from being the same size as Nigeria to becoming the second-largest economy in the world (or the largest depending on which measure you opt for). We have also watched Singapore, an illiberal democracy at the best of times, become the wealthiest country in the world at a point. From my point of view, the issue is not the kind of government we opt for in Africa but the structure of our countries.
In my opinion, Western-style democracy works best in culturally homogeneous countries or in countries that are, at best, absolutely dominated by one cultural group. The more diversity you have in a society, the more likely that fears of domination will derail democracy, especially when demographic changes are happening. That is what we are beginning to see in countries like Sweden. That is what we are seeing in Israel. The experience we have had in most African countries, especially those colonised by the UK, is that inter-ethnic competition takes up all the political oxygen.
Having said all of that, for your garden variety African country, the leadership caste doesn’t understand the concept of enlightened self-interest, so even for those countries that are largely homogeneous (Lesotho as an example) or are dominated by one ethnicity (Niger as an example) authoritarian rule has failed.
We need something that works, and it has to be a democratic form of government because the voices of the people need to matter. Whether it’s liberal democracy is another matter, but, in my view, what is most crucial is that African countries need to make sense in the first place.