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Friday, September 25, 2020

Wars, guns and votes: democracy in dangerous places

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In WARS, GUNS, AND VOTES Democracy in Dangerous Places, Collier, renowned author of The Bottom Billion puts forth the compelling argument that the spread of democracy after the conclusion of the Cold War has not actually rendered the world a safer place, with the  promotion of  the wrong features of democracy by the West. The West, he submits, has placed premium on the façade rather than the essential infrastructure of the system of democracy. 

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The Oxford professor writes that an insistence on elections without a system of checks and balances has resulted in widespread corruption, nations embroiled in ethnic politics and economic stasis. Collier undertakes a keen examination of the effect of civil wars, coups and rebellions on expanding democracies, founding all arguments on methodology and data sets that provide an empirical, quantitative view of political violence. While many of his observations offer profound insights into the issues under the microscope, it is also interspersed with a bit of his personal views and recommendations unsupported by empirical evidence. 

However, the author maintains an approachable style and reaches beyond jargon to provide a highly readable account of the complex realities facing the developing world, most countries of which are to be found in Africa. Collier’s suggestions are pragmatic, and although they may be occasionally annoying, it is easy to build a sense of connection with this common sense approach coupled with a certain confidence that he knows his onions.

He adds that no self-respecting government will feel particularly comfortable conducting business on the global theatre of diplomacy without elections to confer legitimacy on it or the façade of it. Singling out African leaders past and present for particular mention, Collier cites Robert Mugabe, Mobutu Sese Seko, Meles Zenawi and Idi Amin who have used democracy to attain legitimacy while presiding over oppressive regimes.

This, he maintains, is rendered possible through the complicity and cooperation of Western democracies who tolerate the democratic and human rights deficiencies of such countries for their narrow national interests. The book cites Mobutu Sese Seko who replaced charismatic and visionary pan-African leader of Congo at independence, Patrice Lumumba. He was able to run a kleptocratic regime for 30 years with generous aid from Western countries due to fear of communism. He was the darling of Western capitals like Washington who rewarded his loyalty to capitalism with frequent state visits.

In an earlier seminal work titled  the “bottom billion” — the world’s 58 most impoverished countries, he accomplishs the task of summarising an impressive array of sophisticated economic and social science research..

He observed that democracy, in the superficial, election-focused form that tends to prevail in these countries, “has increased political violence instead of reducing it.” Without rules, traditions, and checks and balances to protect minorities, distribute resources fairly and subject officials to the law, these governments lack the accountability and legitimacy to discourage rebellion. The quest for power becomes a “life-and-death struggle” in which “the contestants are driven to extremes.” 

He argues  that before an election, warring parties may channel their antagonisms into politics, but that violence tends to flare up once the voting is over. What’s more, when elections are won by threats, bribery, fraud and bloodshed, such so-called democracies tend to promote bad governance, since the policies needed to retain power are quite different from those needed to serve the common good.

A robust sense of ethnic identification in the multi-ethnic societies that is a constant feature of  the poorest countries, most of which are found in Africa, is a major obstacle to fostering a sense of nationality. Collier further goes on to cite the election violence in Kenya after disputed elections which pitted a Luo Raila Odinga against Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu.

Leaders have no incentive to perform well, Collier explains, if voters cast ballots according to ethnic loyalty rather than governmental competence. Nor should we be fooled into thinking that democracy is working just because voters turn out in large numbers. Where identity politics prevail, “voting is likely to be primarily expressive,” like “wearing a football scarf.” It doesn’t mean voters have faith that their ballots will lead to more effective government. Besides, because news organisations in these countries are weak and objective information scarce, citizens probably don’t even know how well or how badly their leaders are performing. 

To flourish among the bottom billion, Collier says, democracy must “gradually erode ethnic identities and replace them with a national identity.” Economic advancement and growth serve as a significant aid in this endeavour, but in societies mired in ethnic divisions, it can simply heighten the different groups. According to Collier, what is actually needful in a place rendered fissiparous by multiplicity of languages, ethnicities and culture are visionary leaders who can construct a strong sense of nationality as a whole. 

The West’s obsession  with periodic elections, according to Collier, has been a state of conditioning fostered by Cold War rivalries between them and the Soviet Union. 

The former Soviet Union’s aversion to elections, he argues, has “confused us into thinking that achieving a competitive election is in itself the key triumph. The reality is that rigging elections is not daunting: only the truly paranoid dictators avoid them.” He cites the 2008 elections in Zimbabwe where Robert Mugabe almost lost to Tsvangarai in the first round but was able to salvage his sinking political career in the second round. This, he says, was accomplished with an efficient deployment of the technology of violence and intimidation.

He adds: “ Coups tend to cost a country 7 percent of a year’s income – “not a cheap way of replacing a government. And international aid, by sweetening the honey pot, increases the risk of a coup — by roughly a third when aid amounts to 4 percent of the gross domestic product of a recipient nation. Leakage from international development assistance finances some 40 percent of military budgets, yet military spending doesn’t necessarily bring peace. Quite the opposite. It can jeopardise peace by signaling to potential rebels that the government “is planning to turn nasty.”

But Collier has some good news for nations aspiring to democracy. If democracy tends to lead to an upsurge in political violence in the poorest countries, the opposite occurs once per capita income reaches about 2,700 dollars. These richer voters, he surmises, expect more responsive governments, with a corresponding proneness to revolution if their expectations are not met..

The weakest and potentially most annoying part of “War, Guns, and Votes” occurs when Collier turns prescriptive. 

At the most general level, his recommendations are unexceptionable: because electoral competition promotes anti-democratic practices if there is no other accountability, the governments of the poorest people  need external intervention to be made more accountable. Yet Collier’s solution is questionable. He proposes that Western governments declare they will accept military coups if elections are not fair. This, he argues, would provide a powerful incentive for leaders to allow meaningful balloting. But legitimising coups in this way also risks substantial bloodshed. This brings to mind the move made by the US in charging Gambian dissidents for perpetrating acts of “terrorism” against a friendly nation.

By contrast, if an elected leader follows agreed-upon rules, Collier wants the West to guarantee his government against such acts. It should be pointed out that Collier does not support military interventions to stop mass atrocities — the killing in Darfur, for example — which he somewhat exasperatingly  underplays  as “distracting fantasies.” 

Collier is better at responding to the objection that he is advocating interference in other nations’ internal affairs. Many of the governments of the bottom billion, made sensitive by their colonial heritages, reject any international pressure as an affront to their sovereignty. But as Collier postulates, these governments more often than not do not really have national sovereignty, since they have yet to develop a national identity or national institutions.

His evidence-based approach is refreshingly different from  usual assumptions about democracy that too often tend to dominate when Western policy discourse on the developing world and the numerous challenges of economic growth and development they face.

Notwithstanding the fact that Paul Collier has a reputation for high quality researcher and author, he commits a monumental  factual error when he wrote on page 145: “Even worse coups might not be provoked by bad governance but by the opportunistic greed of the army. No sooner had democratic Sao Tome discovered oil than the army attempted a coup. The night time coup that ousted President Sir Dawda Jawara in The Gambia originated when a group of drunken soldiers decided to go to the presidency building to demand higher pay and found it undefended.”

On the contrary, the revolution that saw the ascension to power of President Jammeh 20 years ago was bloodless with an expressed commitment of probity and accountability.

This is a must-read book for anybody who has an interest in contemporary function and evolution of democracy in Africa and the world at large. It is available at Timbooktoo.

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