Buying democracy: he who pays the piper ...

Author:Schneider, James
Position:Cover Story: DEMOCRACY - Cover story

Africa has made impressive democratic advances in the past two decades. But, as James Schneider and reGina Jane Jere report in this Cover Story, in a world where money rules the roost, funding democracy in Africa is often not only opaque and murky, but plays a huge role in the outcome of voting. So who is buying democracy in Africa? At what cost? And whose democracy is it anyway?

It is not that long since Africa was engulfed in the so-called "fledgling democracies' era--the 1990s, when most of Africa ushered in multi-party politics, replacing post-independence military rule or one-party political systems. Thanks to a wave of pro-democracy pressure by Africans themselves, coupled with the end of the Cold War, plural democracy as Africans know and see it in many parts of the continent today, was established.

Africa's doomsayers did not give much hope to the new political dispensation, but more than 20 years on, democracy in Africa, as prescribed by global powerplayers, is still cresting the wave.

Gone are the days when in some African countries voters were offered the choice of picking a presidential or a parliamentary candidate on a ballot paper that carried just ruling-party candidates, or even worse, one candidate pitted against a symbol. Gone are the days of inexplicable political terms and ideologies such as "one-party-participatory-democracy". Many will recall the Yes" or "No" votes that were widespread.

Fast-forward to 2015, and African democracy has truly come of age. This year, as many as 17 African countries are expected go to the polls in multi-party elections.

Not only are elections taking place, they are improving from election to election, although it has not always been plain sailing. Most importantly, these elections have been a vehicle for power to change hands peacefully. A notable example is the 1991 first multi-party elections in Zambia, which saw the revered Kenneth Kaunda fall at the polls after 27 years in power. He exited graciously and gave up office to the trade unionist Fredrick Chiluba. Kaunda's peaceful departure from power became a reference point for democratic transition. Also worth a mention are the 2000 and 2008 Ghana elections, Zambia's again in 2011, Senegal's in 2012, and Malawi's in 2014, to name a few.

Electoral commissions are at the heart of the changing face of elections in Africa. Despite the fact that they still face challenges, they are increasingly asserting independence, which is crucial to cementing electoral reforms. And there is also the growth of civil society, which is getting stronger and better coordinated in championing both human and democratic rights.

All this bedding in of democratic norms is helping to build improved governance across the continent. According to the Ibrahim Index of African Governance (II AG), the overall quality of governance across the continent has been improving. Each country's successes create a positive feedback loop for others. If one country follows its constitution to the letter in a succession crisis, it becomes more difficult for another country's politicians to ignore their constitution.

In the democratic and governance space, Africa is rising indeed and doing laudable groundwork for more robust rights and more responsive political systems. All this good news should be celebrated.

However, there is one factor that is shaping, many would say distorting, the electoral process in many countries--money. As the age-old cliche goes, money talks. Elections cost money. In this process of funding the elections, things happen that may not always be in citizens' best interests. It is not an easy task to get to the bottom of who funds or even buys elections in Africa.

In this article, the intention is not to point accusatory fingers but look at three of the ways that money may be "buying the democracy" in Africa and critically ask: Who really defines African democracy today? Is it a case of "he who pays the piper ..."?

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