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Globalization and the Democracy Project in Africa: A Comment

By Ebere Onwudiwe


Let me begin with three categorical statements which I believe to be defensible. The first is that development in the general sense of progress, advancement, improvement and betterment of the conditions of life is an ubiquitous aspiration of many nation-states. The other is that globalization can be a strategy of development. The final one is that many people believe that democracy is the only legitimate form of government. It is this feature of legitimacy that confers on the rule of democracy its global significance. Democracy is a political model for overall development of the general society simply because when practiced properly, it reduces societal polarization thereby leaving a healthy room for personal development, economic competition, and investment.

Globalization is more directly related to the economic than the political. Economic globalization rather than the globalization of democracy is the defining framework of the post cold war era. And this is what the term globalization really comprises. Democracy is only a first cousin, a necessary benefit of a global order in which trade and investments flow unimpeded across national borders.

The challenge in Africa has been on the economic impact of globalization. I agree with the school which claims that free trade inspired by globalization can generate growth and thus diminish poverty and social polarization. Many African proponents of globalization, of which I am one, nevertheless believe that its attendant free trade regime should be checked with protections for the poor and the weak. This position is important because it has important political ramifications.

However, one consequential African caveat on globalization is the pronounced emphasis on its political effects. Witness, for example, the position adopted by some African countries during the first Jubilee South-South Summit, Johannesburg, South Africa (1999). During this meeting, African members of the Jubilee South noted their objectives in the “Lusaka Declaration”as follows: “to establish a new ‘African Consensus,’ on sustainable development, [and] to identify demands, strategies and enhanced roles for... civil society more broadly; and to define and undertake a plan of action leading to debt cancellation and genuine development, based on freedom, justice, and equality for all genders and all communities.1


1 “The Lusaka Declaration and Areas of Action,” document affirmed by African organizations of civil society working on debt from Burkina Farso, Lesotho, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Cameroon, Swaziland, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, 1999, Lusaka, Zambia. Cited in Robin Broad, ed. 2002. Global Backlash: Citizen Initiatives for a Just World Economy. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, pp.17-18.


It is clear that political dividends feature strongly in this consensus. The call for broadening civil society, and for a genuine and sustainable development anchored in freedom and in justice, and in gender and community equity positively expresses the need for democratic values. In this respect, what Africa wants from globalization includes benefits that can help the continent sustain both economic and democratic development. I am suggesting here that economic and democratic development go hand in hand. This suggests an old truism: no matter the intensity of the attractiveness of democracy to Africa, lasting democracy will not take root in the continent in the presence of abject poverty. As long as the economic reality of Africans remains such that the struggle for daily subsistence consumes most of the hours of the day, political rights will be very low in the priority list of the majority of African citizens. This categorical statement hardly requires theoretical validation. It is simply natural.

Democracy in Africa requires a solid economic foundation, one capable of uplifting the standard of living of Africans. This is where the institution of democracy can be coincident with the new order of globalization, which as I said earlier is essentially economic in content. Globalization will help the movement for democratization in Africa if it allows Africans to enjoy some of the economic benefits of the level of trade liberalization required by globalization.

There are two observations relating globalization to conditions for democracy in Africa. The first is the attractive promise of globalization, which is that it will generate increased economic growth and development through a regime of freer trade and international investment that will help alleviate the suffering of the lower classes in developing countries. The expected increase of revenue from trade and investment is expected to help governments to finance programs for the lower classes thereby reducing the levels of social unrest and class polarization, two conditions that are not conducive for democratic transformation.

The second is that transnational companies which are, in fact, the primary beneficiaries of globalization are also its main movers and shakers . The ability of Africa to build the


2On these two points, the new theory of postimperialism originated by Richard L. Sklar parallels the observed facts of the new globalization. See David G. Becker and Richard L. Sklar. 1999. Postimperialism and World Politics. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger.


necessary economic infrastructure for democratic consolidation depends on how much of the gains from trade and foreign investment is left behind in the continent by the Transnational companies. However, the Transnational companies are not the only major actors whose decisions or policies in the new era of globalization can promote or diminish the chances of consolidating democracy in Africa. There is also the official role of the developed states of Europe and North America, and of Japan. The objective of democratizing Africa will be amply served if developed states shift emphasis away from aid to trade as a true instrument of economic development. This brings me to the important issue of protectionism against goods manufactured in Africa.

Trade barriers
The new globalization should offer Africa more opportunity to increase its prosperity. One way to implement this is for the developed countries to open up their markets for African goods. But this does not appear to be happening. Instead of reducing tariffs and other impediments on African exports, for example, the European Union a couple of years ago was still spending six to seven per cent of GNP on protectionist measures . If in the new regime of trade liberalization, aid rather than trade is allowed by developed countries to remain their main instrument of economic aid to Africa, then, poverty and related obstacles to democracy such as illiteracy will remain or even increase in Africa.

The issue of the relationship between improved standard of living and democratization in Africa can not be over emphasized. Although it sounds vulgarly elitist, the observation that very poor people are too absorbed in the fight for subsistence and survival to care for democratic rights is very persuasive. This reasoning should suggest that democracy in Africa requires more not less economic growth, employment, schools, hospitals, and social welfare. In Africa, democracy must be redefined by the leaders of the new globalization as not just a legal duty but also as a moral obligation. One that goes beyond electoralism and the rituals of voting to ensure the upliftment of the conditions of life for millions of poor Africans. Only the living votes.

Much of the politics in Africa is marked by many ethnic and subethnic conflicts. African governments have come up with several creative ways for reducing the levels of these conflicts. These have included some structural, political, and normative steps. An example of the structural approach is the reorganization of federalism in Nigeria, and the institution of the federal character principle aimed at balancing ethnic representation at the central level of government, the military and higher education. Angola provides a veritable


3Cf.:Kofi Annan. 1999. Address to WTO Ministerial Meeting. United Nations press release SG/SM/7237/Rev.1, (New York, 26 November 1999). Reproduced in Broad, Op.cit., pp26-28.


example of a political scheme aimed at containing communal conflicts. When it took control of political power, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) showed disdain for racial and ethnic chauvinism by outlawing all organizations founded on ethnic and racial identities. Tanzania provides a good example of the normative strategy under which the means of education, language policies and indoctrination are employed to replace ethnic with national identities. Unfortunately, none of these have permanently worked. One reason is that the conflicts are frequently over very limited economic resources. This is where globalization by increasing the wealth of Africans can help the course of democratization. As we all know, political instability is not conducive to democratic consolidation.

I welcome the efforts to promote trade as one of the primary means of economic engagement with Africa. Current U.S. policy towards Africa provides market access for some goods manufactured in Africa. Before now, this access was mostly limited to raw materials. This, therefore, is a valuable improvement. But more needs to be done at least as a way of grounding democracy in the continent. Africa’s excessive vulnerability to external shocks compels different kinds of aggressive support for the continent, including the meaningful reduction of its impoverishing external indebtedness, an increase in official development assistance and a further expansion of Africa’s access to US markets among other development supporting measures. To the extent that Africa gets economic benefit from globalization, the current effort at democratization will succeed.


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*Professor of Political Science, CSU, Wilberfoce, OH.
Senior Fellow, Center for Ethnic and Federal Studies, University of Ibadan, Nigeria.
Prepared for the roundtable on globalization and democratization in Africa, Department of Political Science, May29, 2001


4 See Naomi Chazan, Robert Mortimer, John Ravenhill and Donald Rothchild. 1992. Politics and Society in Contemporary Africa. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, pp.201-202.


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