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Democracy and governance: participation, transparency and accountability

Time (GMT +01) 11:30 13:00


Professor Jack Spence - Royal Institute of International Affairs / Royal College of Defence Studies


Simon Maxwell - Director, ODI.

  • Jack Spence hoped that the Africa seminar series would offer a range of practical recommendations for the G8 summit in June. Tony Blair had played a key role in keeping Africa on the agenda. It was important that it should remain there.
  • All people had a right to decent governance. Were there African values? Certain values had universal significance. How they were translated depended on the particular country.
  • There were the core universal values of democracy. They included representation, transparency and accountability. The presence and observance of such principles provides legitimacy for the political system. However free and fair elections are also a key component but are not ends in themselves. Elections do not bring about legitimacy and good governance.
  • There was a danger in trying to export democratic models from the West to Africa. First, there are significant differences between western models of democracy and trying to apply any one model to a continent is hugely problematic. Local traditions and conditions must be taken into account. In South Africa today, for example, the new political elites drew heavily on political traditions such as strong statehood and parliamentary government. To quote Oakshot there was the "habit of parliamentary governments". Despite the myriad problems and abuses of power and privilege during the Apartheid era, democracy and the rule of law never died completely. It was vital to recognise that in devising and defining new constitutional arrangements, there is no single right pattern of social, economic and political structure for Africa.
  • What can western governments do to assist African countries in the process of constitutional development? Encourage the growth and participation of civil society, the development of a free press (which was often a substitute for the opposition) education programmes and skills training. 
  • The cessation of Africas civil wars was also vital. There were two key responses: "give war a chance" and liberal imperialism restored by the West Jack Spence cited Kosovo and Bosnia as examples of such intervention but noted that this had only occurred because they were of strategic value to the west. He did not believe that either of these responses was suitable for Africa and noted that even if countries found it desirable, a lack of resources and political will would preclude the liberal imperialist model from being applied.
  • What is important for Africa now? Development of a contact group comprised of disinterested states encouraging leaders to move towards a sustainable peace and a democratic polity. Also to encourage a deeper understanding of the adverse impact of war on regional stability, economic development and foreign investment by creating an "enabling environment". Development cannot occur in a context of regional chaos and instability. Poor governance is a major constraint on development in Africa and must be addressed.
Michael Chege welcomed Western interest in Africa adding that it was long overdue. He began by focusing on NEPAD (New Partnership for Africas Development) and stated that there are many good points about the document but that a strategy for implementation was lacking. Like Jack Spence he believed that without good governance there could be no sustainable development in the region. He lamented that while around US$100 million in foreign aid had been poured into Africa during the 1980s there remains little evidence of its benefits. Michael Chege noted that while there were more democratic governments in Africa today than there were 13 years ago: out of 52 states, 8 allow free and fair elections, respect civil liberties and the right to a free press and so on. Many states have descended into civil war and become "illiberal democracies". There is a trend for countries to use the façade of democratic elections, examples include Kenya, Zimbabwe and Côté dIvoire. He reiterated the importance of the principles that go with democratic elections individual rights, freedom of the press, of movement, of assembly and worship. These principles were as important if not more important than the elections themselves. Turning once again to Nepad, Chege acknowledged that the rhetoric of good governance and democracy was positive as was the fact that the document looks at addressing corruption, economic governance and poverty reduction. In itself the document is a positive initiative by Africans for Africans. The problem remains that there appears to be no coherent strategy for implementation. There is a general failure to realise that democracy in ethnically pluralistic societies is extremely difficult to achieve. Chege made reference to the work of W. Arthur Lewis (Politics in Western Africa) who believed that "the fastest way to kill democracy in an ethnically pluralistic society is to adopt the United States system of first past the post ". Problems of representation are at the epicentre. If democracy is to exist in such societies, then politics must not be seen as a zero sum game. The idea of winning and losing should be banished from African politics. Coalitions were vital as had been shown in Switzerland, the Netherlands, Austria and Belgium. Ethnic expression must be dealt with by coalitions and proportional representation, such as the case in India. In some cases though secession may be the only real solution. Chege reiterated his concern that there is an absence of a locomotive force in Africa. The driving force behind Nepad (Nigeria, Algeria, Egypt, South Africa, Senegal) may not be the right group to take this forward. The credibility of African leaders was central to the process Obasanjo, Mbeki and Wahid should be at the helm. Regarding the provision of Aid to the continent, there was a need for a critical appraisal of donor behaviour. Chege believed both donors and recipients had made and continue to make mistakes. Donor nations to Africa have lost some credibility in dealing with some African democracies because of their double standards. For example, Western nations will not engage with Zimbabwe but deem Mois Kenya acceptable, despite the history of human rights violations and political illegitimacy. Since the 1960s Africa has received more aid than Asia and Latin America but continues to be plagued by a plethora of problems inhibiting the growth and development of viable democracies. A number of points were raised in the discussion:
    1. The issue of corruption needed to be tackled. There was the capacity problem and was there the political will to drive the process forward?
    2. Did Africa need more aid? There was already a vast amount of capital on the continent but it was being drained away. How could this be prevented?
    3. There was also a virtual brain drain with widespread skills being lost to developed countries
    4. Many of the problems needed to be dealt with from within.


A key commitment given in the New Partnership for Africa is the importance of democratisation and good governance. This event was a discussion on what have been the major obstacles, breakthroughs and the key challenges that are lying ahead.