The failure of democracy in Africa


As I begin to dig deep into the wealth of history cemented in Africa’s past, one subject that has particularly troubled me (and surely troubled the minds of many other historians, political analysts and social theorists) is the failure of democracy in the continent. Since the Gold Coast severed the chains of colonialism in 1957 stimulating the end of the European stronghold over the resource-rich continent, African countries have generally struggled to adapt to their newfound independence, and over the last half century have commonly dissolved into an array of brutal dictatorships, exemplified through wide scale corruption, mass murder and extreme incidences of poverty. However, can reasoning be found for the breakdown in democratic rule on such a scale? and if so, does the responsibility solely lie with the negligent and ‘unenlightened’ minds of African leaders and its civilians?

A brief history on democracy

Firstly, it would be important to open a discussion on the development of democracy in other areas of the world in recent history. Although democracy largely originates from the writings of classical antiquity, its modern form stems from the gradual shift in power in England from the monarchy to its parliament after the Civil War of the 17th century, and the popular demand for the ascendancy of liberalism across Europe and the Americas during the 18th and 19th century – signified by the revolutions of 1848. However, the overall success of democracy in these areas is somewhat questionable, particularly in its early implementation. France – although arguably the frontrunner in solidifying the ideas of democracy as early as 1792, quickly fell under the unrivalled governance of Napoleon who would establish a French Empire spearheaded by his dictatorial and aggressive leadership.

The end of the First World War demonstrated further the failures of democracy in Europe, with Mussolini, Hitler and Franco all under the banner of Fascism adopting ruthlessly totalitarian regimes in Italy, Germany and Spain respectively. Furthermore, the newly autonomous Eastern European states repeatedly flirted with authoritarian rule, sandwiched by the despotic leadership of Stalin in the Soviet Union.  Although Britain and the United States did not fall into the dictatorial trap prior to the mid-20 century, universal suffrage was a particularly contentious issue (as was the case in other European countries) particularly for freed slaves, women and the lower classes. Furthermore, throughout the 20th century democracy failed to gain a foothold in the Americas or Asia, who were both plagued by an onslaught of military dictatorships and one party regimes. Therefore, it is clear from examples external to Africa that the application of democracy is not often without turmoil and as history has illustrated, democracy has failed time and time again and has frequently resulted in the eminence of dictators.

Internal division within Africa

I would also like to raise the point (as noted in my other article Is socialism the solution to the problems of Africa) that Africa has long been divided internally by the intricate tribal, linguistic, religious, cultural associations, with its uneasy unification undoubtedly a detriment to the success of democracy. It was the ‘Scramble for Africa’ of the late 19th and early 20th century that largely enforced the borders of African nations, drawn up by a detached and disconnected European leadership apathetic with regard to the complex ethnic arrangements in the continent, and were more concerned with the extensive riches they now had access too.

However, unlike future African leaders who would be given the task of governing this substantial mixture of peoples democratically, European imperialists could once rule Africa’s diverse population ruthlessly with an iron first, with largely no attempt being made to effectively amalgamate the cultural dissimilarities. Compounded by the fact that historically tribal leadership in Africa was often executed in an autocratic way, the anticipated success of democracy in Africa after its ’emancipation’ was largely unfeasible for a population who was not only accustomed to an undemocratic form of governance but had also recognised this form of rule as a way of bypassing the incredibly complicated ethnic differences.

The link between democracy and dictatorship

It would also be difficult to deny that economic and social instability has played a decisive role in the failure of democracy in Africa. As many African countries struggled to adapt to post-colonialism, compounded by a weight of foreign debt amassed in an attempt to build their economies, democracy often failed as a solution to the economic and social disparities in Africa and as a consequence alternative forms of rule – particularly military dictatorship, were generally accepted as the viable option in quelling such issues (albeit largely unsuccessful).

Robert Mugabe – although initially presented as one of the great revolutionaries against African oppression, abused democracy to quickly set up a one-party state during which he eliminated all opposition and initiated an ethnic cleansing program, whilst poor economic reform resulted in the eradication of Zimbabwe’s economy. Moreover, in 1965 the United States and Belgium supported a coup by Mobutu Sese Seko against the democratically elected Patrice Lumumba in Zaire, however he also swiftly seized power under a highly centralised dictatorship, during which he extensively exploited the wealth of his country through fraud and corruption. Even the great Kwame Nkrumah turned away from democracy in favour of authoritarianism in response to the increasing economic and social pressures in Ghana in the early 1960s.

Similarly, when we look at the greatest failure of democracy in Europe as a consequence of the Great Depression during the 1920s and 1930s, authoritarian rule was seen as the saviour against the widespread financial hardships and somewhat galvanised nations to their ‘former glories.’ In comparison, democracy failed to emanate strength and decisiveness and although not entirely addressing the social and economic issues (in some cases not at all) in both Europe and Africa, dictatorships at least provided a solid political foundation for nations that civilians could look upon as a sign of  stability.


As demonstrated in this essay, there are many issues that Africa has had to encounter that has detracted from the successful implementation of democracy throughout its history. However, since the turn of the 21st century democracy has thrived in Africa and the long-standing association between the region and dictatorships is slowly being extinguished. With patience, Africa will surely leave the dark episode of failed democracies in its relatively chaotic post-colonial history, provided that it is given the time and support to develop its political structures, alongside solving its economic, social and cultural difficulties.

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