Where Will Africa’s Democratization Come From?

By Nnanda Kizito Sseruwagi

The title of this Op-ed should not mislead us into thinking that I suggest a possibility of African countries being undemocratic. All of them are aligned towards democratization and in some aspects, some are even more democratic than some Western nations.  Like any state, even the oldest democracies, African states are on the journey of becoming more democratic. Democracy is not an end or event where a given nation crosses a certain line and alas, they are happy-ever-after democratic. No. Democracy is a means. A process. This process will keep on for eternity because human beings who execute this system of political organization are inherently imperfect, and as such will always deal with internal contradictions to their governance. Therefore, by Africa’s democratization most likely coming from China, I imply that there is a high possibility of different African countries tending to democratize more and more through their partnership with China than with other global actors in Africa.

Democracy can be understood in its opposition to other forms of government such as autocracy/dictatorship/tyranny- systems of government in which absolute power is held by the ruler, known as an autocrat/dictator/tyrant, or where power is held by a few individuals. The Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper in his work “The Open Society and Its Enemies”, contrasted democracy to tyranny, and established that unlike under dictatorship, democracy offers opportunities for people to control their rulers, to appoint and disappoint them without the need for a revolution.

For Karl Popper’s idea of democracy enabling people to control their leaders to function, another argument comes into play – that of development leading to democracy. It has also been articulated and criticized as the modernization theory. This theory holds that as societies become economically developed, wealthier and more educated, their political institutions become increasingly liberal democratic. Whereas critics have compromised the modernization theory by accentuating cases where industrialization failed to produce democratization, such as Japan, Germany, and the Soviet Union, and claiming that the theory was too general and overlooked societal differences, this has not fundamentally challenged the fact that economic development significantly predicts democratization. We should note that social science theories are never as accurate as scientific theories. Several arbitrary factors undermine a prediction because societies are very disparate, and are as fluid and changing as the weather. The preponderance of accuracy for a social theory is never better than about 75 percent.

My argument emerges from an observation of the flow of development finance from the West and China, with a focus on what that finance does in Africa. According to a 2018 report by the China-Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), in 2000, China’s annual development finance to Africa totalled US$121 million. It was distributed among a handful of countries. However, by 2013, it had crossed over US$16 billion and was comparable to those of the largest Western development finance providers. China’s development Finance portfolio also focused on infrastructure projects and industries. In Uganda, finance from the Belt and Road Initiative enabled us to construct two hydropower plants; the Isimba Hydro Power Plant which generates 183MW to the national grid and the Karuma Hydro Power Plant which will produce 600MW. This will definitely contribute to our country’s power supply, which is a fundamental ingredient for manufacturing economic development.

However, another revelation from the SAIS’s report was that as China’s development finance portfolio in Africa increased, Western countries focused more on the quality of governance in the developing world and how it relates to economic development. They became keen on corruption controls, democratic development, and respect for human rights and they made their perception of those attributes in Africa an integral part of their countries’ foreign policy agendas. They hypothesized that China’s growing economic and political footprint is undermining the West’s drive to promote good governance in Africa. This is my disagreement with them and the focus of the argument I make about modernization.

Whereas modernization is never linear, evidence stipulates that each stage of modernization changes people’s worldviews. Christian Welzel and Ronald Inglehart, German and American political scientists respectively, in their book “Modernization, Cultural Change, and Democracy: The Human Development Sequence” argue that Industrialization leads to one major process of change, bringing bureaucratization, hierarchy, and centralization of authority, secularization, and a shift from traditional to secular-rational values. Then the rise of postindustrial society introduces another set of cultural changes that move in a different direction: instead of bureaucratization and centralization, the new trend capitalizes on individual autonomy and self-expression values, which increasingly emancipates people from authority. Therefore, other factors being constant, high levels of economic development tend to make people more tolerant and trusting bringing more emphasis on self-expression and participation in decision-making. However, this process is never deterministic. Any forecasts can only be probabilistic since economic factors are not the only influence. They observe that a country’s leaders and nation-specific events could also shape what happens and disclaim their argument thus; modernization’s changes are not irreversible. Severe economic collapse can reverse them, as happened during the Great Depression in Germany, Italy, Japan, and Spain and during the 1990s in most of the Soviet successor states. Inglehart and Welzel further argue that modernization does not automatically bring democracy but with time it causes social and cultural changes that make democracy increasingly probable.

Suppose we are to predict which of the foreign actors between China and the West is likely to contribute to the democratization efforts among African nations. In that case, the biggest contributor to our development and modernization efforts is probably China. The West is mistaken and forgetful of their own development experience to assume that lecturing African leaders, sanctioning them and banning countries like Uganda from AGOA for passing anti-homosexuality laws will democratize Africa. It won’t. Supporting us to develop economically will.

The writer is a Lawyer and Research Fellow at the Development Watch Centre.





Development Watch Centre

Kampala - Uganda


Plot 212, RTG Plaza,3rd Floor, Office Number C7 - Hoima Road, Rubaga


+256 703 380252


© DWC - All rights reserved - Cookies Policy - Privacy Policy