Essays | September 27, 2012

Africa as a Mirror of Democratization

The Fespaco Film Festival
Source: Isabel Mendes

Africa as Subject v. Africa as Object

Too often, academic approaches to the subject of democracy in Africa confine themselves to static and quantitative approaches that emphasize ordinal rankings, national units of analysis, and institutional presence or absence, rather than grapple with inevitably messy and complex subjective and interpretive approaches to the topic. Among the biggest casualties in this “Africa as Object” approach is a loss of any sense of the ongoing open-endedness of democratization as a process, of the condition and meaning of democracy as unfixed and evolving, and of the relevance of apparently local developments to regional, transregional and global actors and interests. Against this, an “Africa as Subject” approach emphasizes not just individual and group agency around projects both momentous and mundane. It is also mindful of the gap these actors perceive between the status quo and popular imaginings of a just order needing to be fulfilled, akin to what Rousseau termed “the General Will.”  Despite Africa’s appearances of stagnant stability, these aspirations are a clear and ever-present threat to the forces of order throughout the continent.

I was reminded of this when I attended a conference on Africa and the New Media, as part of the most recent Fespaco Pan African Film Festival in Ouagadougou. A surprisingly large number of the Burkinabe I chatted with raised the topic of the still-unfolding “Arab Spring” revolutions.[1] Actually, this in itself wasn’t so surprising – events in the Maghreb were among the most significant in a generation, not just for Africa, but for the world. More surprising, perhaps, was the often-repeated refrain, uttered without fear or malice, that “it will cross the desert and come here”—not only because the regime of Blaise Compaoré is notoriously repressive and autocratic, responsible for the deaths of his predecessor, Thomas Sankara in 1987, and of several others since. Indeed, later that week, police shot and killed an unarmed student during demonstrations against the regime.

What was also startling to me was the confident sense of the inevitability of change on this scale expressed by my interlocutors, most of whom probably hadn’t finished high school. After all, the Sankara period was the last time the country and the region had felt the winds of change of this magnitude, and many Burkinabe are too young to have any memory of it. Opposition parties are notoriously disorganized and politically independent civil society organizations seem rare.

It could simply be that the famously immense reserves of patience Africans show in the face of adversity are drying up, or the supposedly paramount importance they attach to political stability is more conditional than it is often given credit for, and these snatches of conversation were evidence of this new reality. A few weeks after Fespaco’s conclusion, in fact, Compaoré’s military bodyguard began a mutiny in their barracks that spread to the presidential compound and army camps, in protest over unpaid allowances, causing Compaoré to flee the capital, which then experienced widespread looting before the regime regained control.[2] A dependent of the former Gaddafi regime, Compaoré ironically served as mediator during the Mali coup and secessionary challenge earlier this year, reprising a role that he has played in the region on several previous occasions.[3]

These predictions of change are not disproven simply by the fact that Compaoré remains in power, nearly six months after the festival’s conclusion. Rather, they are expressive of the country’s– and region’s – “General Will.” How this sense of just and fair participation is manifested, of course, depends on conditions that vary from one place and period to the next. Particularly when the stakes of electoral contests are low, and electoral observers are complicit in maintaining the status quo, it would be a mistake to interpret low turnout as expressing an absence of popular democratic culture.

Democracy as Condition v. Democratization as Process

The “Africa as Object” approach – understanding democracy as a particular condition that can be adequately assessed through freeze-frame analysis of electoral results – can lead to false choices between demands and institutions, or participation and representation.

Typical in this regard is a recent piece in the Economist, asking “Which way will African politics go? The way of Senegal, where the president conceded electoral defeat on March 25th to a younger rival, extending a democratic tradition unbroken since independence in 1960? Or is nearby Mali a more troubling bellwether?” and concluding that “Representative government is still on the march in Africa, despite recent hiccups.” It includes a map with an ordinal ranking of African countries from “full democracy” (Mauritius the sole exemplar) to “flawed democracy” (such as Senegal and much of southern Africa), “hybrid regimes” (ranging from Nigeria to South Sudan to Tanzania), “Authoritarian regimes” (Mali, Burkina Faso, and the DRC), to “Failed states” (Somalia, including Puntland but excluding Somaliland, is the sole exemplar).[4] I wonder how many years South Sudan will be accorded before being relegated to the “Failed state” category. But the point is not to quibble with this or that specific categorization, or to decry the absence of similar ordinal rankings of, say, the democratic culture of U.S. counties.[5] It is rather to insist upon the fluidity of democratization, its unevenness within a given country, its regional and transcontinental dimensions, and above all, its incompleteness everywhere. To pose a choice between the paternalistic authoritarianism of Senegal versus the more contested authoritarianism of its eastern neighbour Mali is expressive not only of its flawed analysis but even more, of the true value that it accords democracy, in Africa or anywhere else.

Technocratic Trusteeship v. Struggle as Reflexive Solidarity

All this should be kept in mind whenever you pick up the next World Bank country report that employs a discourse of technocratic trusteeship – “We have the answers for your development needs, know what you need better than you do, you’re coming along pretty nicely, but you’re certainly not there yet” – for the country in question. The discourse of “good governance” has become so pervasive, and the institutions purveying it show so little introspection or critical self-awareness, that it has become difficult to imagine a discourse that takes a qualitatively different approach.

Doing so begins with a rethinking of one’s own identities and interests, in the reflexive spirit of James Baldwin’s famous quotation, “If you don’t know my name, you don’t know your own.” Without practical political projects with both short-term and longer-term goals, it can be very difficult for the average Westerner to imagine what identities and interests, if anything, they have in common with, say, the average Malian or Burkinabe. We are rich, and they are poor; we are more urban, and they are more rural; we have free trade, free presses, free speech, and democracy; they lack all these things—or so the media would usually have you believe.

Enlightened self-interest can be endlessly debated and defined, but most American taxpayers know and oppose corporate welfare when they see it. Of course, we don’t see it anywhere near often enough; and when we do, it often seems insurmountable. In this regard, campaigns of solidarity have a double advantage: the moral basis of demands on behalf of both taxpayer interests, together with those of struggling producers elsewhere in the world, are greater than the sum of their parts. Americans joining this struggle – in conscious collaboration with their African producer counterparts – will have allies for future campaigns whose goals may not be presently established or known, and will thereby also succeed in narrowing the gap between their stated values and perceived interests.

To illustrate,  Mali and Burkina Faso are members of the Cotton-4 consortium (together with Benin and Chad) that has submitted a proposal to the WTO calling for a global agreement to end all production-related support for cotton in all WTO member nations. As the third largest producer and, more importantly, the largest exporter, the United States is the biggest violator in this regard. Over $24 billion in subsidies over the past decade have gone to a few thousand U.S. producers (fewer than two percent of all U.S. farmers); the top ten percent of these have successfully secured over three quarters of this largesse (averaging over $1 million of guaranteed income per cotton farmer) for themselves—these subsidies amount to more than two times greater than Burkina Faso’s entire GDP.[6]  By one conservative estimate, ten million Central and West Africans dependent upon cotton for income would receive an additional $300 million of income, lifting millions of them out of poverty.[7] These billions of dollars could instead go to Food Stamps, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, thereby preventing millions of Americans from falling into poverty.  By contrast, they wouldn’t even notice the projected cotton price rise of no more than a dime per pound.[8] Although the US Senate Committee of Agriculture has cleared the new farm bill – the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act 2012 – which would eliminate some subsidies to cotton producers, it also proposes to increase support for crop insurance, extension, and other indirect supports totalling over $173 billion over the next decade (nearly doubling the subsidy total of the last farm bill) that would leave much of cotton’s trade distortions intact.[9]

What should be abundantly clear by now is that the WTO cannot adequately or fairly police itself. When Brazil led the charge against past and present cotton subsidies in the WTO, U.S. negotiators temporized, and in lieu of eliminating subsidies, awarded annual payments of $147.3 million in “technical assistance and capacity-building aid” to the Brazilian Cotton Institute.[10] The African producers, whose states are much more dependent on cotton for income yet lack Brazil’s technical capacity and bargaining power at the WTO, got nothing.

The example of cotton subsidies conforms to the rule, rather than the exception, regarding corporate welfare’s effect on poor producers outside the OECD. The major bottleneck is a comparative lack of awareness and organization among U.S. taxpayers and voters.[11] The statistical correlation between higher levels of per capita wealth and more durable cultures of democratization – particularly when wealth is more equally distributed, and when the effects are assessed over time – are as strong as they are intuitively logical.[12] It seems a good bet that democratic institutions and practice in Mali, Burkina Faso, and their neighbors would be stronger today if their U.S. counterparts had succeeded in ending cotton’s corporate welfare years ago.

Clearly, striving for free and fair elections remains an indispensable goal in Africa, in the United States, and indeed the world over, for the foreseeable future. Just as clearly, for the foreseeable future, elections in actually existing democracies will fall far short of this ideal. Greater democratization in Africa, as in the United States, is contingent on present struggles, within, beyond, and across its borders.

[1]Indeed, with some prescience, public and private rebellion against militarized, patriarchal authority was a theme of many of the films screened – including Mickey Fonseca’s Dina, Dahmane Ouzid’s Essaha, Raconte, Scheherezade, Yousry Nasrallah’s Raconte, Mohamed Mouftakir’s Pegasus, and Mahat Saleh Haroun’s Un Homme Qui Cri.

[2]Simon Gongo and Jason McClure, “Burkina Faso President Dismisses Cabinet as Soldiers Loot in Ouagadougou.”Bloomberg. 16 April, 2011; at

[3] Adam Sandor, “Blaise Compaoré’s Dangerous Game in Mali,” Africa Portal, 15 August, 2012; at

[4] “African democracy: A glass half full,” The Economist, 31 March 2012; at

[5]This may yet accompany another Florida 2000-style debacle in the forthcoming U.S. presidential elections, however.

[6] Kinnock, Glenys. “America’s $24bn subsidy damages developing world cotton farmers,” Guardian, 24 May 2011 at; The World Bank estimates that Burkina Faso’s 2011 GDP was $10.2 billion.

[7]Burk, Christopher. “Resolved: Free trade should be valued above protectionism,” Debate Central at

[8] See Julian M. Alston, Daniel A. Sumner, and HenrichBrunke, “Impacts of Reductions in US Cotton Subsidies on West African  Cotton Producers,” Oxfam America, 2008: 11, at

[10]Ritesh Kumar Singh and Prerna Sharma. “US must fall in line on cotton subsidy” The Hindu Business Line, 25 May 2012 at

[11] Not surprisingly, perhaps, non-cotton producing European countries have better organized mobilizing campaigns on this issue; see e.g. the Trade Justice Movement, at

[12] See e.g. Adam Przeworski, Mike Alvarez, Jose Antonio Cheibub, and Fernando Limongi, 2000. Democracy and Development: Political Institutions and Well-Being in the World, 1950-1990. Cambridge University Press; and John Gerring, Philip Bond, William T Barndt, and Carola Moreno, 2005. “Democracy and Economic Growth: A Historical Perspective,” World Politics 57 (April 2005) 323-364.

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