Promoting democracy in ethnically-divided fragile states can be a recipe for violent conflict. Recent democratic progress in sub-Saharan Africa has seen an increase in the number of relatively free and fair elections and improvements in human, associational and other political rights. Most of sub-Saharan Africa, largely authoritarian at the start of the 1990s, is today either “partly free” or “free,” according to Freedom House, except for the two Congo republics, Rwanda, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Angola, and Somalia.
Africa’s democratic shift has been remarkable, writes analyst Joshua Kurlantzick, noting that “for years, Western democracy-promotion outfits, like America’s National Endowment for Democracy, had invested in building freer societies across the continent. But, while welcoming the demise of extreme kleptocracies like Mobutu’s Congo (then Zaire) and the “flowering of NGOs, trade unions, press outlets, and other types of civil society”, he is sanguine about future trends:
… with a few exceptions, like Botswana and South Africa, most of these countries have failed to create truly inclusive or stable democracies. Instead, they have created systems in which leaders, representing one ethnic group or religious group, win elections and then use their time in office to enrich only their tribe or religious cohort. These divisions, exacerbated by elections, make some newer democracies more conflict-prone than old-fashioned autocracies.
But failure to develop legitimate state institutions is threatening the sustainability of these gains and, in some cases, state failure may precipitate genocidal violence.
Some commentators have gone as far as to suggest that Africa and democracy ‘don’t mix’ while others provide a more nuanced approach. “The democratic politics that matter are not the process of how power is acquired, but the checks and balances that limit how it is used,” argues Paul Collier, author of The Bottom Billion.
International intervention may accelerate the slippery road to state decline, cautions analyst Gabi Hesselbein, through pressures for liberalization that undermine elite bargains. “With no resources in the state, rivals to state authority could gain influence in their regions or ally with foreign powers to overthrow a government without replacing it, as the case of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) illustrates,” she contends, in a symposium on failing states:
Blind to institutional multiplicity, pressures to “democratize” may have contributed to unleashing forces that led to disintegration, war, or even genocide. Rwanda is a powerful example of the latter. Removing one regime from power, even if it is exclusive, is not always the best advice, particularly when there is no national coalition and organization that can substitute for the toppled one. It has to be kept in mind that the organization of political parties usually does not occur around political programs, but rather on an ethnic basis. This can be further promoted by the pressure to “decentralize,” ignoring the extreme decentralization that came with the disintegration of the state. The restoration of central authority, control, and overview would work to create a new elite bargain and centralize patronage.
Democracy assistance practitioners, of course, never assert that elections are a panacea. “No one ever claimed that elections in the Congo would prevent various militia groups from continuing their depredations, nor did anyone expect the new government would automatically clean up its act in terms of corruption,” says Dave Peterson, Senior Director of the NED’s Africa program. He points to Sierra Leone and Liberia as presenting a similar problem with a different outcome, albeit on a smaller scale. “Armed rebellions forced a transition and election process that has resulted in better government, gradual economic recovery, and security,” he notes. “But the elections were absolutely a key component” in legitimizing the process.
An appreciation of the new challenges is generating shifts in practice, Kurlantzick suggests. “For some democracy-promotion organizations,” he notes, “this will mean broadening their work, to include promoting inter-ethnic dialogue and supporting other aspects of democracy, like free media, so that they are not relying on polls alone to bring societies together.”
Strengthening weak states is ‘‘a 21st century imperative”, Susan E. Rice has argued. Rice, today appointed as the new administration’s U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, has advocated ‘‘elevating state capacity building to a key pillar of US security policy” and ‘‘properly diagnosing the drivers of state weakness.”
“Making long-term, global investments in the unglamorous but essential work of grass-roots democracy-building” is the most effective means of promoting democracy, she has argued, in calling for “a historic increase in funding for democracy promotion programs — a next-generation Marshall Plan to build civil society, political parties and durable democratic institutions around the world.”