Mohamed Beshir Hamid

Perspectives on Democratization

This chapter was published in Population and Economic Growth: Perspectives from the Global South: (Reports and Papers No 7), Center for the Study of the Global South, School of International Service, The American University in Washington D.C. (March 30. 1994)


Some African Perspectives on Democratization and Development:
The Implications of Adjustment and Conditionality


Mohamed Beshir Hamid


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I. Introduction


The end of the Cold War, and subsequent transformations in the global order, has given rise to new external pressures on African states to democratize. These pressures have taken the form of political conditionality – the linkage of bilateral and multilateral aid to political and economic liberalization. The rationalization of this new approach – the so-called “democratization carrot” – is that political reform is necessary for economic development. This reform is usually envisaged in the form of multiparty liberal democracy with the emphasis on cultivating a political culture anchored in Western democratic values.


Attitudes of African scholars and political activists towards this conditionality have been ambivalent, to say the least. While pro-democracy groups generally welcome the linkage of aid to democratization as a useful weapon in the fight against authoritarianism, there are still considerable suspicions about the motivations behind the conditionality, and much uneasiness over the ambiguity surrounding it. There is also growing concern over the political and economic implications of implementing the new approach.


The major limitation of conditionality is its linkage, in the minds of both the general public and specialists, with the structural adjustment programs (SAPs) deemed since the early 1980s by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as the necessary mechanism to sustain economic growth and development. The overall African impression is that conditionality is merely the new phase (or face) of adjustment.


To understand the ambivalent African attitude, it is imperative to see these external pressures for democratization from an African perspective. In the bipolar world of the Cold War, foreign pressures in the form of aid, or covert and overt interventions, were meant to win friends and neutralize enemies. In this context, the West was almost always identified, in African eyes, with the support of some of the most unpopular and repressive regimes. The Soviet Union, by contrast, was seen as the ally of progressive states and liberation movements battling the forces of reaction and colonialism. The demise of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet bloc came as a rude shock to many Africans. The collapse has triggered in its wake a multitude of interrelated ideological and socioeconomic crises in many African countries. The bankruptcy of the Soviet development model has called into question the validity of the one-party system, while the loss of the countervailing Soviet presence has rendered African governments extremely vulnerable to Western pressures. Indeed, the West has gained considerably greater leverage over Africa’s governments than the usual patron-client relationships of the last two decades. “The growing external debt and economic difficulties of many African states, their status in some cases as clients of the major powers, and the economic and geopolitics of global power has increasingly undermined the national sovereignty of many African states.”


Yet the present unchallenged hegemony of the West has tended to complicate the contradictions in the transformed global order rather than to resolve them. The simultaneous and multiple global transformations have coincided with, and profoundly influenced, the indigenously-rooted democratization process in two contradictory ways. On the one hand, the impact of these transitions has demonstrated that popular resistance and action can overthrow the most entrenched dictatorships. On the other, the effect has been to raise grave concerns that rapid democratization may rekindle, within Africa’s essentially tribal society, the kind of disintegrative forces that are already plaguing the emergent democracies in Eastern and Central Europe. The still unfolding events in the countries of the former Soviet bloc have highlighted the dilemma of how to reconcile the contradictions inherent in liberal-democratic pluralism and ethno-cultural pluralism.


The backdrop to these political and social concerns is the acute development crisis that has generated cycles of severe economic hardships affecting virtually every country in Africa. The accumulative effects of natural and man-made disasters (ranging from drought and famine to civil wars) have combined to produce what is called, perhaps rather charitably, Africa’s “lost decade.”


It is under these destabilizing conditions that the West has thrust conditionality on Africa, more or less on a “take-it or leave-it” basis. This may explain, in large part, the ambivalence, contradictions and even resentments in African attitudes and reactions. The impact of these pressures so far, has largely served to enhance a sense of uncertainty, confusion and unpredictability. 


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