The claim that democracy fares better in the West than in Africa is a fallacy

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 28 January 2019:

The argument isn’t whether African democracies are better than those in the West. It’s simply that the idea of “real” and “not yet real” democracies expresses a colonial mentality – not reality, writes Steven Friedman in

This is Steven Friedman’s analysis:

One day, if they follow instructions, Africa’s new democracies will grow up to be “real” like those of Western Europe and North America. This assumption makes little sense – but it influences the way many people in the West and in Africa think about African democracies.

Challenging this myth is a central theme of my book Power in Action: Democracy, Citizenship and Social Justice, which has just been published by Wits University Press.

Over the past two decades, the book notes, democracy has blossomed in Africa: in 1990, the continent housed, at most, four democracies. Today, countries in which the government is not at least elected in a free vote in which opposition parties contest are a small minority.

But there is still a deep-rooted feeling among Western academics, policymakers and journalists that African democracies are not yet “the finished product” – that they are still on their way to becoming full democracies.

This view gave birth to a field of academic study in the West – the search for “democratic consolidation”. It emerged because academics assumed that the new democracies were not yet “complete”, even though they called themselves democratic. And so they set out to discover whether democracies in Africa (and Asia and Latin America) were “consolidated”, which meant that they were the finished product.

The academics have never said how we would know a “complete” democracy when we saw one. They don’t have to – it is obvious from their writing that, to become the “finished article”, democracies have to become like those in the West.

The academics are reflecting a widely held view. Western governments that set out to make the world democratic were trying to “help” democracies outside the West to become just like those in it. European and US politicians who care about democracy elsewhere share this view. So do many Africans.

Colonial mindset

Academics on the African continent are keen to study whether their democracies are on the way to being “consolidated” and much commentary on the continent assumes that a “grown up” democracy looks like Britain, France or the US. This is particularly so in countries like South Africa which house a significant minority of people of Western origin, many of whom believe that the West is the home of civilisation to which the rest of the world should aspire.

This view has a distinctly colonial flavour. The moral excuse for colonialism was that it was bringing to the colonised “civilisation”, which meant whatever people in the colonising country valued. There is no difference between this and trying to persuade the formerly colonised that their democracies can only become “real” if they mimic those in the West.

But it makes very little sense to claim that Western democracies are the “finished product”.

First, Western democracies differ between themselves. So which version are people in Africa meant to mimic? Must their countries become unitary states like Britain or France, or federal like the US and Germany? Must African states give unions and business associations a say in decisions as Sweden, Austria and Switzerland have done?

Must language or religious groups be allowed a special say as Belgium and Holland have done? It is not clear which of the many forms of Western democracy Africans are meant to want to be.

Second, the “finished products” of the West are not that finished. Britain has an unelected house of traditional leaders and clergy – the House of Lords. The US system allows the half million residents of one state to have the same say in the Senate as the 35 million of another.

Several Western democracies detain suspects without trial – the US has done this for nearly two decades at Guantanamo Bay, far longer than South Africa’s apartheid state ever detained anyone without trial.

The media in several Western countries is judged by specialists to be less free than those in some non-Western democracies. To show the absurdity of claiming that Western democracies are always better, think what would happen if an African president was elected because he won the vote in a state where the voting machines were faulty and the governor was his brother? This happened in the US in 2000 – and no-one has declared it an “incomplete” democracy.

Third, the democratic idea is that every adult should have an equal say in the decisions which affect them. Where does that happen? Nowhere. So no democracy is a “finished product”. All fall short of the democratic goal and so Western democracies are no more real than those elsewhere.

It also makes little sense to claim that one democracy is further down the road to “completion” than another – democracy has many aspects and on some, newer democracies outside the West are further down the road than those they are meant to want to be.

More people vote in some African countries than in some in the West. South Africa does more to promote women’s participation than most Western countries. A study of Botswana complained that its people did not value democracy because only 45% of voters knew the name of their member of Parliament – but the equivalent figure in Sweden was only 33% and several other European countries lagged far behind Botswana, whose voters are better informed than Swedes.

Inferiority complex

In sum, the democratic inferiority complex of many Africans is unwarranted. The idea that our democracies are “B Grade” and those of the West are prime quality is false.

None of this means that African democracies are better than those in the West. It means that the idea of “real” and “not yet real” democracies expresses a colonial mentality, not reality.

Like all democracies, Africa’s have much room for improvement. But they will never become what they could be if they struggle to become a copy of a romanticised Western democracy.

Africa’s democracies will progress if they concentrate on the core democratic principle – giving more and more people a say over more and more issues – and debate how to do that in their particular conditions.


Steven Friedman is Professor of Political Studies at the University of Johannesburg, writing in


  1. What a good article. Let us not forget when AMERICA SNEEZED THE WORLD CAUGHT THE COLD. I think is time the west observed and respect human right and justice. Stop the domination and stop separating the African continent. Also stop the BABY SITTING and accept Africa as SUPER POWER like the others around the world.

  2. It seems the real democracy in the West is just the name and not practical. Some people may think that African Democracy is just water in the drain and not real and will always copy from the Western Style Democracies.The questions here is not just because of words but in quality. Africans are more democratic than the Western Democracies practised.

    Let us look at Ghana and South Africa, just a few, have established democratic rights than any other Western counterparts. They are destroying democratic rule in the West than the way it was taught at school (government of the people by the people and for the people).

    Falling democracies brought the first and second world wars and other wars as civil and most commonly known communism. Because of the population nobody can consider China to be developed and practice democracy, likewise other eastern countries.

    African continent is much far away from democracies which is hardly seen anywhere.I have spent more than thirty years in the Diaspora; even though I regularly follow political elections, I only know the names of political party leaders and no more. Please stop thinking that African democracy is copy of the colonial style period.

  3. This professor’s deductions are illusory! I confess to not knowing the equivalent word for democracy in any African language. Please advise.

  4. Prof, you have done your job. No one could have put it better. I live in the west and is in full concordance with this piece. It is about our horrible attitude toward anything African, coupled with the colonial mind-sets induced by the colonial masters.

    Moreover, in most African countries election days are made public holidays to allow full participation. That aside, more people vote in our elections than most of the advanced western countries. But more importantly, democracy is simply a western political culture, it reflects their way of life and perceptions.

    African ‘democracy’ should reflect our culture and traditional values which embodies our perceptions and approach to our governance, law and social justice. Funnily, even the Europeans have never genuinely sought anyone to attain their democratic standards or to be fully copied anywhere else, hence such a scenario torpedo their colonial controlling approach and mentality toward outsiders.

    Until there is is a rethinking, if not re-engineering of our political systems, Africa and Africans will continue to fail thereby stalling development and progress with its unending results of chaos, instability and underdevelopment.

    Thanks prof.

    Hashim Daboh

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