Week 3: The nature of illiberal democracy – common trends in Africa


Although this presentation was not new to me – it had been a component of my Governance and Statebuilding course – it was certainly useful to hear again.  Parts of the presentation were buttressed further through class discussion, ranging from what defines liberal democracy vs. illiberal democracy, and how it differs from totalitarian states or non-democratic authoritarian state structures.  Although the focus was on Angola and its illiberal democracy, where civil liberties are restricted and human rights, in the Western sense of the word, are not prioritized components of rule, I want to compare it directly to Ethiopia and its experiences in building an illiberal democratic state. I re-read McFerson’s Governance Without a State?: Policies and Politics in Areas of Limited Statehood (2009) and realized that it also was similar to another book, titled A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa by Howard French, which I had read, about corruption in Angolan politics and the collusion of Western corporate interests with Angolan elites in transferring vast amounts of money out of the country. One can summarize this by looking at how the formerly Marxist regime gravitated out of centralized state control of the economy and gradually handed out lucrative resource contracts to current and former military generals.  In that sense, it can be said that Angola is an illiberal democracy with a façade maintained through unfree elections, where ultimate control over finances and business interests lie with a small elite that emerged from the military and from Angola’s decades of civil war.

Ethiopia also experience a surge of illiberal statebuilding in that it also emerged from a civil war where a Marxist regime was overthrown, only for it to be replaced by a new non-ideological elite seeking to concentrate wealth amongst themselves. Ethiopia and Angola both maintain facades of democratic governance in that they do not follow norms of Western liberal democracy, where civil protections are key to democratic rule and where governments are beholden to the people.  Instead, both nations hold unfree elections that are largely ceremonial in that the ruling party maintain an iron grip on control and everyday affairs of the state. The ruling parties in this case are one and the same with the state bodies of power; in Angola, the state oil monopoly is a purse for ruling party members and the small elite within.  To conclude, I believe that illiberal democracies in Africa provide a sense of stability to nations that were wracked by instability in the past and are better than the alternative; one only needs to look so far as the DRC or Central African Republic to see one alternative.  At the same time, I believe that illiberal democracy should still only be a stepping stone on the way to liberal democracy and governments responsive to their own citizens.  How that might happen is still a mystery and a topic for further debate. Just to note, that doesn’t mean I think other nations such as Kenya and Ghana, with more ingrained aspects of liberal democracy should revert to illiberal democracy once again.

For an excellent look into Angola’s past and its Marxist history, I recommend this documentary: https://itvs.org/films/cuba-an-african-odyssey

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