The first ever debate organised by The Africa Report pitched the supporters of ‘developmental sprints’ against those who argue democratic institutions should come first.The failure of many African governments to deliver development consistently to their populations leaves many people to ask the question: Should Africa look to countries like Rwanda and Ethiopia, where economic growth takes precedent over political pluralism?
Bread without democracy is bitter. Democracy without bread is fragile
It is hard to argue with the development records of the administrations in Kigali and Addis Ababa, be it on shared growth, education or maternal health. So do people want bread or justice? Is the danger that African countries may hope for a Lee Kuan Yew but could end up with a Vladimir Putin?
The Africa Report sought some answers at the inaugural The Africa Report Debates, at the Mövenpick Hotel in Accra, Ghana, on 20 November, in partnership with the Mo Ibrahim Foundation. For this first event, a distinguished panel examined the question: What should be the priority, democracy or development?
John Mahama, Ghana’s president, launched the discussions in front of a glittering crowd, saying: “Democracy will never be a perfect system because people will always be imperfect beings.” He added: “But the problem with dictatorships is that you don’t get to choose which dictator you are going to get.”
His speech recalled his personal experience as a young man living under curfew during a military dictatorship in Ghana, where he saw his brother mistreated at the hands of soldiers. The rest of the debate took as its starting point the great economic sprint that Africa needs to make if it is going to provide jobs for the 300 million Africans who will join the labour force over the next 15 years.
Quality of democracy
As President Mahama pointed out, many Asian countries have had “authoritarian governments that are able to make quick decisions and bring about immediate change or unprecedented growth.”
On the ground, the call for tangible progress often wins the argument. In conjunction with GeoPoll, The Africa Report surveyed people in Ghana, South Africa, Uganda and Cameroon about the importance of democracy and development. In Ghana, 31% of people questioned wanted democracy prioritised, whereas 67% wanted development – a result echoed across the other countries.
This shows the disillusion many have with their governments. “A democracy that doesn’t produce results is an empty promise,” said Arancha González, executive director of the Geneva-based International Trade Centre, during the debate. “Can we say that there is freedom when so many politicians spend so much money to contest elections?”
For South Africa’s former reconstruction minister and labour activist Jay Naidoo, the continued push of money and power into democracy is dangerous and is corrupting government, leading to cases of “demokratura”, where you have the window dressing of democracy without genuine representation of the people. “We are seeing electoral authoritarianism,” he explained.
Strongman rule was one of the many governance weaknesses discussed at the debate. One question from the hall: “How do we get a democracy of ideas and issues rather than a democracy of tribalism and identity?” On that front, the debate participants were unable to come up with a one-size-fits-all recommendation.
Ultimately, panelists on both sides of the de- bate agreed that the quality of the democracy is crucial. Experts in attendance also provided solutions for
Franklin Cudjoe, head of Ghana thinktank the IMANI Center for Policy & Education, pointed to the phenomenon of the “imperial presidency”, whereby the president has the ability to directly appoint 4,000 posts, leaving huge room for corruption and partisan choices. He argued that reforms must create checks and balances on executive power.
In the end, the debate was summed up by Tedros Adhanom, the foreign minister of Ethiopia, who was keen to stress Ethiopia’s commitment to both sides of the argument: “Bread without democracy is bitter. Democracy without bread is fragile.”
The Ghana debate was just the first in what promises to be a series of debates on the theme of tough talk on development. If you have suggestions for future debate topics, please look for us on Facebook or Twitter. ●
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