Give elections their due, but they only do so much
Whenever the demands on a government are high, citizens almost always expect the impossible.
In looking for what the development impacts of the rash of general elections in Africa in Q3 and early Q4, 2017 might be, Jide Akintunde, Managing Editor, Financial Nigeria, spoke with Efosa Ojomo, a Research Fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation. Jide Akintunde: The election in Rwanda is now under the belt. But even as Jacob Zuma survived the latest no-confidence vote, Kenya's presidential election is witnessing a disquiet aftermath. Yet, Angolans and Liberians are soon to go to the polls. This rash of elections is instructive for those who mistake Africa for a country. But then, what does the sheer number of four general elections within three months say about the prospect of stability in Africa? Efosa Ojomo: It is important that we do not mistake elections for democracy. And furthermore, it is important that we do not mistake democracy for stability. It could be argued quite successfully that, sometimes, States that are undemocratic are more stable. The Arab Spring provides a framework through which we can understand this more clearly.
In 2010, when the Arab Spring began, many experts and pundits thought the widespread protests in the Middle East would lead to a revolution that would fundamentally change the power dynamics in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen. Others thought it would spread to more stable countries such as Oman and Saudi Arabia. There was hope that democracy, and perhaps stability, would come. Today, Egypt is currently ruled by a former general in the Egyptian army; Libya has been in chaos since the uprising; 83% of Tunisians believe their country is going in the wrong direction; and Yemen is in conflict, with 70% of the population in need of some form of aid.
Why didn't the Arab Spring bring the kind of revolution many experts predicted?
Simply put, it is because the fundamental dynamics between the government – regardless of who is in power – and the citizenry did not change. These examples highlight how difficult it is to enact true change that will benefit the average citizen. For governments to work for the average citizens, the citizens must be wealthy enough to demand a thriving, and stable, democracy.
Africa is overwhelmingly the poorest continent in our world. And by extension, African governments are poor, underresourced, and typically ill-equipped to manage their fledgling democracies. And so, while elections matter for the sake of planting the seeds of democracy as the best way to govern, today's elections matter less to the average citizen in the country, especially in the context of providing
political or economic stability. Just ask the average Nigerian citizen who voted for Muhammadu Buhari in 2015. If their lot has changed at all, it has not changed for the better.
JA: The success of the Rwandan election that saw President Paul Kagame re-elected is quite coded. How would you like to decode it?
EO: Decoding Rwanda is quite straightforward, actually. The country is taking a page out of the playbook of the late Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore. While there are similarities in both nations, there are vast differences that Kagame must manage properly in order to succeed. In defense of the strategy, just as Singapore is now one of the richest States in the region, Rwanda's gains since the genocide have been unprecedented. Few African countries can boast the gains that Rwanda has made in rising incomes, life expectancy, and improvements in health, over the past two decades. Kagame is the darling of many in the international donor community. Tony Blair respects him; Bill Gates and his foundation work closely with the country; and Kagame speaks at elite institutions all over the world, explaining his vision and strategy. He (Kagame) understands that marketing his vision to potential donors is as important as executing it. If he continues his marketing strategy and continues to show progress in development, he will continue to be successful.
JA: Kenya has not been able to exorcise the ghost of its election violence of ten years ago in the way Rwanda has been able to move away from the genocide that had occurred in the country. What are the forces that make elections in Kenya still violence-prone and what do you envisage the outcomes of the latest election would be, beyond simply who will win?
EO: The recent Kenyan election was a must-win for both candidates. For the incumbent, it would have been the first time an incumbent lost in Kenya. And for the opponent, this was going to be his last election. As such, this election was peculiar in the sense that both men had to win, but only one could win. So, regardless of whether there was violence ten years ago, this election would have been hotly contested. And it was.
The question really should be; why does a poor country spend more than half a billion on an election that is likely to have little impact on the average Kenyan's life? That, I think, is a more intriguing question.
JA: In Angola, long-term president, Eduardo Dos Santos, has an anointed successor, who would nevertheless go through the ballot process. Does this election signal a real turning-point towards democracy for the oil-rich country?
EO: It is important to note that, while elections are an important component of democracies, and it is important to maintain them, elections by themselves do not automatically signify democracies. In his book, The Future of Freedom, CNN's Fareed Zakaria writes that, “In a democratic country that has a per capita income of under $1,500, the regime on average had a life expectancy of just eight years. With between $1,500 and $3,000, it survived on average for about eighteen years. Above $6,000 it became highly resilient. The chance that a democratic regime would die in a country with an income above $6,000 was 1 in 500. Once rich, democracies become immortal.”
What this means for the average Angolan is that, their upcoming elections are a step in the right direction. However, it is only just a step. More must be done to increase the incomes of the average Angolan in order to make the country's governance and democracy more stable and more representative.
JA: For whatever President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf may have achieved for Liberia, her regime was dogged by allegations of nepotism, and the Ebola crisis would have derailed some of her programmes. Are Liberians going to be voting for or against her legacy?
EO: Liberians are more likely to vote for a different candidate this election primarily because of the change they hope to get in the form of new leadership. This changing of the guard isn't specific to Liberians, or Africans, even. Whenever the demands on a government are high, citizens almost always expect the impossible. As a result, considering the struggles President Sirleaf faced through the course of her presidency, Liberians are likely to try their luck with a different candidate.
Unfortunately, our research suggests that often times, citizens are too focused on their governments and the results of elections for change to occur. While a better government can, theoretically, improve the circumstances of the average Liberian, unfortunately, what we find time and again in many poor countries is that the government's hands are tied. To those looking for these elections to bring widespread change and prosperity, they are looking at the wrong entity. Give elections their due, but don't pin your hopes on them. They can only do so much.
JA: In Sub Saharan Africa, Paul Kagame stands tall (pun unintended) as a leader that has fostered, quite vividly, economic transformation for his country. While elections tend to heat up the polities, the question arises as to whether these elections actually pay much dividend. What are the key development agendas that may be advanced in Kenya, Angola and Liberia after the elections?
EO: From a purely development numbers standpoint, Kagame's strong leadership has been very effective. From a long-term viability standpoint, not so much. And not because of the human rights violations per se, or the lack of "changing of the guard." It's more so because Kagame's Rwanda has not focused primarily on improving the employment prospects of Rwandans through the creation of new markets.
Once unemployment is addressed effectively, citizens tend to feel accomplished. Unfortunately, Rwanda's development strategy is just a more efficient execution of conventional development paradigm that creates dependence on Western donors and little else to sustainability. If Kagame and the leaders in Kenya, Angola and Liberia focused more on ensuring every young adult in their country had a good job, all the other development issues would take care of themselves.
To be more specific, these governments should focus on attracting investments that create new markets for the average person in their country. This is the missing link between Kagame's strategy and that of the late Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore.
JA: Africa's private sector has continued to try to make the most of the order that democracy presents. What are your thoughts on accelerating enterprise development to leverage political progress in African countries?
EO: What matters most for the average citizen in any country, and most importantly in Africa, is well-paying jobs. And the government, no matter how hard they try, does not create jobs. That's the job of companies. And while governments create the environments that enterprises must work within, there is little evidence to suggest that drastic change happens under democratic regimes. Democracies, by design, limit drastic change – for the bad, and unfortunately, for the good.
In order to accelerate enterprise development in African countries, governments must do something that is counterintuitive. That is, they must get out of their own way. In many of today's rich countries, innovations that created new markets for average citizens preceded regulations. But in many of the poor countries today, regulations precede innovation. As a result, these regulations stymie the entrepreneurial ecosystem, thereby creating a situation where the ingenuity of the private sector is suffocated.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame
Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta
Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos