By Leigh Schaller
Does Africa Need Democracy?
Singapore has transformed itself from a low-income backwater to a vibrant First World nation in one generation without the help of a democratic system. Does Singapore’s success make democracy redundant?
Never before has a nondemocratic leader garnered so much praise from leaders of so many liberal democracies than when Lee Kuan Yeh, the ruler of Singapore for 31 years, died earlier this year. Barack Obama referred to him as “a true giant of history”. Australia’s parliament paid tribute to him, and praise and condolences poured in from across the developed world. So monumental was the success that Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore achieved in a generation that it would have been impossible for Western leaders not to heap praise on his legacy.
Before gaining independence from Malaysia in 1965, Singapore was largely underdeveloped and rural. Its strong economic growth since independence came about largely thanks to the Singapore government encouraging foreign direct investment, brought about by what the World Bank describes as “the world’s most business friendly business environment”. As a result, the island’s economy has grown by an average of 7.7% since independence.
This success was achieved despite the absence of a flourishing democracy. The Economist Intelligence Unit in its 2013 Democracy Index Report lists Singapore as a hybrid regime. This is one rank bellow a flawed democracy, but one step above an authoritarian regime. Although it credits Singapore for having a functioning government and a fair degree of civil liberties, Singapore’s political culture and electoral process rank poorly.
Nor is Singapore alone in its growth-without-democracy model. China has experienced growth of around 10% a year since 1978. Closer to home, Rwanda has experienced gross domestic product (GDP) growth of around 8% since 2001, while Ethiopia has seen its economy grow by more than 10% between 2003 and 2013.
Some may argue that the free-market policies implemented by Singapore such as low corporate tax and the absence of a minimum wage would not have been as easy to achieve if Lee Kuan Yeh feared being voted out in a general election.
“Viewed instrumentally, many have long thought that democracy was inferior; that elected leaders would always go for things like consumer goods or social welfare at the expense of long-term investment in infrastructure and education of society,” says Professor Robert Mates, director of the Democracy in Africa Research Unit. “The ‘modernization’ school of development, and its adherents in Western governments, often believed this, and when push came to shove sided with dictators who would modernize their society.”
However, those who believe that development and economic growth may benefit more from the absence of democracy do not have a scientific footing to stand on, according to Prof Mates.
“Emerging cross-national research – rather than cherry-picking selected cases – has shown that, in general, there is no authoritarian advantage for development. For every Brazil and South Africa of the 1960s, you get the same case a decade or so later with low growth and double-digit inflation,” says Prof Mates.
This sceptical view regarding the long-term viability of authoritarian regimes, specifically in Africa, is shared by Dr Emmanuel Giymah-Boadi, the executive director of the Ghanaian Centre for Democratic Development, who doubts the long-term viability of such regimes.
“What we need to see before we get too excited about Rwanda, for example, is how far it will go in working out a succession plan in which the new leadership will continue to govern the country with the same level of seriousness and commitment that we have seen from President Kagame,” says Dr Giymah-Boadi.
Instead, Dr Giymah-Boadi believes there has been a case of ‘wrong attribution’ or correlation but no proven causation when it comes to how we view successful nondemocracies. He believes that it is wrong to look at Singapore or China and draw the inference that the reason they flourish is because they are nondemocracies.
Dr Steven Friedman, head of the Centre for the Study of Democracy in South Africa, agrees that it is difficult to draw such a simplistic conclusion. He believes that, because we cannot conduct an experiment whereby we look at whether Singapore and China would have achieved greater growth in the last few decades had they been fully fledged democracies, we have no idea as to whether it was their authoritarian nature or some other factor that has caused their success.
Instead of looking at Rwanda and Singapore as examples of how long-term success can be achieved in Third World countries, proponents of democracy believe that we should look towards Botswana as a model for sustained growth. This Southern African country transformed itself from one of the poorest in the world to an upper middle-income country since gaining independence in 1966, while promoting many democratic principles.
Prodemocracy experts argue that Africa’s failures boil down to too little real democracy rather than a failure of democracy. They emphasise that we should look beyond the possible economic impact of a specific type of governance and at the degree of freedom it offers.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), Singapore restricts freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association to various degrees. Its criminal justice system also allows for “virtually unlimited detention of suspects without charge [or] judicial review”.
In Rwanda, HRW reports that the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front “dominates all aspects of political and public life”. HRW also reports that people are “tortured and pressed to confess [to] alleged crimes or to incriminate others”. This leads one to ask if one can speak of an improvement in economic growth in the absence of democracy.
“Has anybody seen anywhere in Africa where people were going on riots demanding less free speech, less accountability from their governments. It never happens. What we get is people demanding more,” says Dr Giymah-Boadi.
Since its reincarnation in the American and French revolutions, people gravitate towards democracies because, “viewed intrinsically, no other political system can match democracy in terms of recognising one’s moral agency, rather than treating one like a moral infant who needs to be guided by a great leader,” says Prof Mattes.
Despite the success shown by Singapore and China, and despite the promise displayed by Ethiopia and Rwanda, Africa should be careful of throwing away hard-fought individual freedoms without concrete evidence that democracy is to blame for government failure. To risk the freedom of individuals seems brash in the extreme.