The Illusion Of Democratic Peace In Sub-Saharan Africa


More than 50 years since the process of independence began in the African continent – at the height of the Cold War – the discussion of democratic peace still looms. Scholars, governments and concerned citizens alike contemplate the implementation of democratization throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, which is heavily influenced by the theory of democratic peace. The illusion of democratic peace has stunted growth and progress in the continent as a consequence of the promotion of a theory that has rarely been tested to reflect African realities.

What is democratic peace?

The fall of the Soviet Union in 1990 ushered in a new phase in International Relations, in which Western nations sought to spread democracy throughout the world more than they did during the Cold War. According to Sebastian Rosaro, these nations, using works by scholars who formed the theory in the 1960s based on the works of Immanuel Kant, believed that “democracies rarely fight one another because they share common norms of live-and-let-live and domestic institutions that constrain the recourse to war.” Such common norms include non-violence, human rights, legitimacy, accountability, freedom, and free and fair elections. With this central point, the theory of democratic peace was born.

Scholars such as Doyle, Garber and Gowa have argued that both World Wars are clear examples of why democratic and non-democratic countries (democracy vs. fascism and communism) will be in conflict. This understanding explains why democratic countries such as Great Britain and the United States (US) participated in the two World Wars because of the conflicting norms, as well as a lack of trust and respect towards then non-democratic countries such as Japan and Germany. In other words, democratic countries have a moral authority to challenge non-democratic ones, since their leaders are held accountable by institutions which uphold the norms mentioned above, and by the public.

The theory of democratic peace is in direct conflict with the most dominant theory of International Relations, Realism. Scholars of realism claim states will always act in their own interests as their main objective is survival. Following Bruce Russet, in the realist viewpoint, academics who subscribe to democratic peace theory ignore instances in which countries such as the United States and Great Britain attacked or fought to undermine democratic countries in Asia and Latin America. In such instances, then, democratic countries were acting in their self-interests, i.e., in their quest for raw materials to maximize economic growth.

The flaws of democratic peace

One of the victims of the flawed nature of democratic peace theory is the African continent. Ever since African countries fought against their colonial masters to gain independence from 1957 onwards, Western nations have sought to ensure that they became democratic nations. Ironically, the same countries that colonized Africans (Great Britain and France) are, with the addition of the United States, now preaching democracy to them. The theory of democratic peace argues that the democratization of the African continent will lead to less interstate conflicts. Therefore, the main promoters of democracy within the African continent – Great Britain, France, and the US – are constantly advocating for regime change through “free and fair” elections, one of the guiding principles of democratization. Moreover, once so-called “democratic leaders” are in place, these countries are expected to abide by the democratic principles mentioned above.

Errol Henderson argues that, given that Western countries are pushing for a concept whose theoretical and empirical models have not been tested on African states, the process of democratization has had mixed results. Democratic peace theory ignores African realities, which in turn, leads to limited successes of democratization. In addition, the theory of democratic peace in the African context ignores the fact that most of the borders of African nations were a result of colonialism. As such, after independence, and regardless of democratization, some African countries sought to expand their borders to include what they deemed their “traditional land.” Conflicts that arose due to this approach included the Somali-Kenya war (1963), the Somali-Ethiopian war (1978), the Ethiopia-Eritrea war (195 onwards), the Algeria-Morocco dispute (1962-1970), and the Chad-Libya war (1935-1994).  Fareed Zakaria argues that without a strong background in constitutional liberalism, the introduction of democracy in divided societies (which is one of the consequences of colonialism) will fuel intrastate and interstate wars and conflicts.

The theory of democratic peace in the African context also ignores the perpetuation of neopatrimonialism in so-called “democratic” countries. According to Henderson, neopatrimonialism is “a personalist political system in which ‘relationships of loyalty and dependence pervade a formal political and administrative system in which leaders occupy bureaucratic offices less to perform public service than to acquire personal wealth and status’.” Since democratization has been reduced to mainly “free and fair elections,” human rights abuses and high levels of corruption remain rampant as “strong men of Africa” are elected to power. The half-hearted condemnation by Western countries contributes to the success of such leaders. For example, despite the fact that Great Britain’s government has stated that abiding by democratic values is a condition for developmental aid, they have not permanently withdrawn aid from Rwanda despite the government’s support of the M23 rebel group in Eastern DRC.

The creation of illiberal democracies

Since the promoters of democratic peace within the African continent have failed to monitor and evaluate the democratization process, or have African leaders taken ownership of the process, they have contributed to the spread and solidification of illiberal democracies, as Fareed Zakaria refers to them. According to the esteemed scholar, illiberal democracies exhibit illusions of democracy. For example, although many African countries do not have “free and fair elections,” they reflect the reality of popular participation in politics, and support for those elected. Since colonialism promoted division along ethnic and clan lines, the custom of multi-ethnic collaboration was destroyed, allowing for politicians to organize support along ethnic lines rather than creating unity among people. As a result, the persecution of government opposition and other human rights abuses remain prevalent in these illiberal democracies.  Therefore, as stated by Shah Tarzi, the process of elections is only a mechanism for the transfer of political power and nothing else. In other words, regime change is the continuation of the same policies that ensure the success of the political elite with insincere attempts to tackle developmental goals, such as poverty reduction and securitisation. Another example is that even though there is an increase of women representation in government in Uganda and Rwanda – which is viewed as a sign of democratization – these countries still expect women to uphold patriarchal standards.

What now?

With limited success, it is vital that the process of democratization in the African continent be re-evaluated. Clearly, political elites have noted the value of maintaining illiberal and neopatrimonial governments. They have continually demonstrated that they will put their interests over that of most of the country.  Additionally, Fareed Zakaria’s research shows that the rise of democracies in countries that do not have a foundation of constitutional liberalism will result in hyper-nationalism and war-mongering, as seen in many African countries. As a result, the youth – now more than before – must rise above the flawed political climate and change the status quo. They must demand accountability of the governing elite, instead of expecting Western countries to police their actions. The youth must have their voices heard both in political systems and in the grassroots realm in order to bring about change in a combined bottom-up and top-down approach.  In the words of Ghanaian president Akufo-Addo: “we need to have a mindset that says we can do it and once we have that mindset, we’ll see there is a liberating factor for ourselves.”

Loise Ndegwa

Loise Ndegwa is currently a Masters student at the University of Cape Town studying International Relations. She is also a Mandela-Rhodes scholar 2016 Cohort.

About Loise Ndegwa

Loise Ndegwa is currently a Masters student at the University of Cape Town studying International Relations. She is also a Mandela-Rhodes scholar 2016 Cohort.