Is China a threat to the spread of democracy in Africa?

There are days when writing an article is the last thing on my mind. The brain is tired and good ideas are elusive. That was the case for today’s article, until I found myself in the car driving and listening to an interview programme on BBC. My mind was still lethargic up to the moment when the host of the show stated that Africa needed more democracy and as such the visit of President Xi Jinping of China was of concern. At this point the lethargy disappeared and I pulled over unto the side of the street to listen the rest of the programme.

Some of my readers will know that I am a political analyst/governance specialist by “true trade”. I have been an elected public official and I have worked on elections and governance issues in different countries. In my former life, I was a staunch supporter of what academics refer to as the liberal (pure-blooded) form of democracy. Today, I still believe in democracy as a concept but have come to realise that there is no one form of government suitable for all countries, and that liberal forms of democracy can, in the wrong context, do more harm than good. The alternative is not to suggest that liberal democracy is bad; rather, it is to recognise the need for transitional arrangements and differential pathways based on the current starting point of a country.


Unlike the host on the show which helped me over my hump of lethargy, I am not worried that the Chinese president’s visit is bad for African nations. At no time have we seen evidence that China is interested in changing or affecting systems of government of any nation. We do need to be cautious in terms of economic indebtedness. This applies not only to China, but to any other country or institution that African countries choose to borrow from. There is an old saying: He, who pays the piper, calls the tune. (And nothing in life comes free). But other than these economic indebtedness issues, I believe that China, as a country, is simply doing what is in their best economic interest, and this is also what countries such as Rwanda are also doing. And, frankly, it may also be good for African countries to have choices in terms of the countries they do business with and take loans from.


We should also note that China has done very well for itself: the Chinese are now Africa’s largest trading partner with bilateral trade in 2014 of approximately $220 billion. In less than 50 years, China managed to move itself and its people from widespread poverty to becoming a global economic powerhouse. Even today when the country’s economic growth has slowed, it is still growing faster than the average large country.


Now back to the issue of democracy. Research has shown that, overtime, democratic nations are more likely to do well both economically and socially. However, what is increasingly being studied is the possible damaging effects of some of the tenets of democracy when applied in lesser developing nations without the right set of enabling conditions. Let us be clear: countries do not develop because they have competitive elections. The experience of many Latin American countries in the 1990s should provide caution to those who believe that liberal democracy is a panacea for deeply divided, war torn and poor countries. Today, we still have the examples of several nations which felt obliged to adopt liberal forms of democracy. They hold elections, sometimes free, often not fair. But their efforts have been praised. In reality, how many of these nations have actually been better for it? How many of them have actually grown economically and socially since they held these elections? Democracy is useful, but many devel
oping countries also need something else that is critical - inclusiveness and good governance. One of the major challenges I have seen across the continent and elsewhere is that many countries are deeply divided across ethnic, religious and other lines, and competitive politics tends to increase this division and lead to win-lose scenarios for different groups in our society. I still remember hearing supporters of one of our political parties in Jamaica shouting “Our time soon come!”

What I believe is that a process is needed to get countries ready for liberal democracy. Transplanting liberal democracy in a country without regard to its history and culture can be  a recipe for disaster. How can elections be the order of the day when competition fosters divisiveness? How can the promotion of divisiveness be the best idea in nations crippled by ethnic and tribal divide, recently out of civil war or genocide. Thinkers, planners and practitioners in the field of governance need to revisit the drawing board on this issue. Democracy works best in countries that are at least middle income and I even see signs where my own nation of Jamaica, a middle income country, is struggling to move forward with democracy. It is good to see more western academicians beginning to pay attention to the pre-existing or ‘starting conditions’ of countries, and trying to examine the appropriate pathway for a transition to full liberal democracy.

Rather than worry as to whether China’s growing hold on the African region is a threat to democracy, the focus should be on how to help nations to transition to democracy versus being forced to adopt a system for which they are not yet ready. In part 2 of this article I will write about making democracy work for people. While democratic values are good in and of themselves, experience shows that when people are struggling to put food on their table and send their children to school, extolling the virtues of democracy to them is meaningless. This is why so many Latin American countries saw reversals into authoritarianism in the 1990s. But this is another subject for another day.

The writer is owner and managing director of Forrest Jackson Properties, a full-service real estate company in Kigali, Rwanda

The views expressed in this article are of the author.

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