Why some countries fail to democratize? Empirical Review


parliament Banjul

By Abdoukabirr Daffeh
& Franklin Etarh

Political scientists began to debate about the question of why some countries democratize, while others failed to democratize. Much of the initial debates draw upon the socioeconomic and cultural preconditions or factors necessary for democracy to thrive. The phenomenal article of Said Adejumobi set specific preconditions necessary for the growth of democracy. Among these includes: rule of law, transparency and accountability from corruption, presidential term limit, and strong democratic institutions. Adejumobi’s argument fits into the broader intellectual puzzle of the time: the relationship between institutional reforms and democratization. In fact, he argues that advanced democracies often are countries where corruption rate is far less, and rule of law as well as term limits are well adhered to and respected by the government. While his statistical analysis largely draws upon cases of the African countries, it is telling that rule of law and presidential term limit has the potential of removing cross-cultural cleavages; rule of law and presidential term limit enable citizenry to develop critical mind to effectively participate in politics; transparency and accountability from corruption offers opportunities for strong middle class to emerge that would put check on the powers of the leaders; and wealth practically enables countries to held elections which are hugely expensive to carry out.


While these assumptions are tempting and indeed, it has even become clear that countries that respects rule of law, fights against corruption and ensure term limit are more likely to consolidate democracy and ensure sustainable national development while eradicating poverty. Some scholars like Ronal Inglehart, Christian Wezel etc. have argued that countries in fact needs some version of liberal values which will make them to value democracy in itself, rather than articulating the instrumental aspect of democracy. In particular, Ronal Inglehart and Christian Wezel argued that developing nations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America are often interested in accumulating wealth which makes them to call for democracy. More specifically, they argued that people in these countries often want economic development which they have seen in developed democratic nations rather than the actual democracy. According to them, if people actually value democracy, they must value it for its own sake and thus, sought to embrace rule of law, transparency and accountability from corruption, term limit, and gender equality over patriarchy and other core liberal values or “cultures”. Moreover, other scholars have argued that these liberal values which are inherently cultures of advance democracies tend to be distorted when they diffused to other countries like Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.

Elizabeth Nduku and Tennamwenge in their book, corruption: a threat to sustainable peace, observed that corruption and disregard for rule of law in the continent has affected the proper running of states and ignite bad governance and insecurity. They observed that corruption distort the correct functioning of economic and political institutions, hamper transparency, rule of law and exploit the human person. Nduku postulated that corruption paralyze efforts for the promotion of justice and sustainable peace in the continent. He argues that corruption and disregard for rule of law in the continent should be a matter of concern for everyone as it has permeated deeply in the fabric of African societies rendering the poor, defenceless. According to Kofi Annan no sector of the economy in the continent is immune to corruption; it was the main obstacle for the realization of the MDG goals and making governance and democracy in the continent a far reach reality.
In fact, Shaul R Shenhav argues that we should focus on the actual actors of politics to understand how emerging nations can consolidate democracy by ensuring respect for rule of law, fight against corruption and ensure term limit rather than been locked into the so-called preconditions. Scholars like David D. Laitin often underscore the potency rule of law and presidential term limit in bringing about democratic government and even good democratic government with efficient administrations. Laitin like other political scientists who sought to emphasize the importance of democratic traditions associates its existence to the deep historical legacies of such as norms of mutual reciprocity, trust, and fostering the sense of solving problems amicably through deliberations rather than confrontations. To Laitin, most part of Africa, the Middle East and Latin America lack these essential ingredients which make the 1970s democratization experiment to yield poor governance based on patronage and clientilism, as opposed to prosperous and developed democratic institutions in the West that are product of democratic traditions such as rule of law, presidential term limit and transparency and accountability from corruption.

While Laitin is heavily criticized by Magaret Levi and other political scientists for his thin and unclear usage of path dependence which makes his work to lack a working theory, and for conceptual vagueness of key terms like “trust,” others such as Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe Schmitter, Robert Dahl, Nancy Bumeo, Diplama, James Robinson, Daron Acemoglu, Barrington Moore etc. attempt to focus on how organized politics ,focusing on the observance of rule of law could bring about lasting and enduring democracy. This study argues in favour of scholars that suggest that organized politics that focus on the observance of rule of law, presidential term limit and transparency from corruption is the most important instrument that could bring about lasting and well-crafted democracies rather socio-economic and cultural factors or preconditions. In what follows, I draw upon the reading list on four or more countries in at least two regions to argue that soft version of preconditions such as socio-economic factors may play a crucial role in fostering democracy, but organized politics that focus on the observance of rule of law and the fight against corruption and term limit is the most crucial factor that could ensure democratization. More importantly, countries do not need any form of economic prosperity for them to become democratic.

In much of Africa, many countries have experienced democratization. In recent years, we have seen the steady increase in democratization and more prospects for many countries to transition from authoritarian rule to democracy. In Sub-Saharan Africa, almost all leaders are elected in to the office of president recently, which is remarkable. More important, much of improvements in democratization have little to do with cultural preconditions albeit economic factors might have played crucial role in democratisation but they are not necessarily the sufficient factor. Countries do not need to attain the state of economic advancement before they could become democratic.

Huntington is right that if political participation outruns the “art of getting together,” political decay will inevitably take place. In much of Africa, student riots, demonstration, political crisis and stability is part of the important story. However, institutionalization could be a product of mutual interactions between people which political participation might encourage, and Huntington did not adequately explain how we can get such “art of getting together.” Countries such as Botswana, are economically poor but it became democratic with robust organized politics adhering to observance of rule of law and other democratic norms. Moreover, countries such as South Africa, Senegal, Ghana, and even Nigeria have achieve some version of electoral democracies without fulfilling the listed economic preconditions, particularly the cultural ones. For the most part, these countries have become electoral democracies because of organized opposition coalitions, protests, and demonstrations. These countries have manifested the observance of rule of law and have ensured a two term presidential limit. For the most part, scholars that argue in favour of organized politics in bringing about lasting democracy shapely disagree on how to get that democracy. For instance, many such as O’Donnell and Schmitter argue that this will largely depends on the conscious decisions of important actors during the critical period of transition. When the existing government lose power and the new one is about to come, such period could create political instability if not carefully handled. For O’Donnell, the new leaders should avoid going after human right violators of the previous regime in order not to threaten the hardliners that might lunch counter coup. More important, they offer pivotal roadmap that actors and activists could do to put an end to dictatorship. Such roadmap calls for the application of the “just right amount of violence” and not so-called preconditions. By just right amount of violence, they mean that demonstrators should not demonstrate to the extent that it threatens the nation-state’s existence, change its international standing, and its military structure because the consequences of that will be hardliners “rolling the tanks against protesters which will avert democratization.

However, it is worthy to recognize the importance of some socio-economic factors that might propel democratization. One such is the civic tradition which the work of Laitin has greatly enhance our understanding. While many of the criticisms labelled against this thesis especially by Levi are plausible, it appears that civil society plays crucial roles in hybrid regimes. In recent years, many scholars realized the limitation of transition paradigm and sought to classify regimes as hybrids, especially regimes which fall under political grey zone. In such societies, the existence of opposition politicians, civil societies, and nominal democratic institutions pose significant challenge and constraints to incumbents so much so that they often use large scale state repression often when the cost of toleration is higher and the cost of repression is lower as succinctly articulated by political scientist Robert Dahl. Many countries in the year 2000 like Senegal, Mexico, Russia, Ghana, and Gambia resemble such version of hybrid regimes. Like Levitsky. Way, Hale, Diamond, and Schwedler mention, these kinds of regimes emerge not because they are in critical short supply of liberal values or lack cultures that are compatible with democracy, rather, they emerged within the very specific context of post-Cold global environment. With the disintegration of former Soviet Union and the collapse of Berlin world, global resource concentrated in the hands of victors (the Western world), and the global push for democratization makes it so harder for dictators to survive. Thus many countries were compelled to embrace elections which never amount to actual democracy.

Additionally, some culturalits/or preconditionists argued that countries that lack liberal values tend to advocate for democracy only to reap the anticipated economic benefits that democracy might offer. Brandon Kendhammer’s novel work in Nigeria challenges this culturalits argument and even suggests that Nigerians actually mean democracy when they articulates or advocate for it. More important, his work invites scholars to critically think of the broader reconsideration of Islamic law with democracy which he argues that many Nigerian view Sharia as a law that complement democratic institutions by reducing corruption, ensuring accountable, transparency, rule of law and democratic governance. Similar argument is recently articulated in the work of Steve Howard on Republican brotherhood in Sudan. All these novel scholarly publications shows in one way that socio-economic preconditions might play a role but organized politics which is anchored on rule of law, accountability from corruption and presidential term limit is crucial in bringing about democracy. In general, studies on Nigeria and many postcolonial states in Africa stress that class construction take place in political process immediately after independence which created ethno -religious mobilization and widespread corruption and mismanagement in these countries. Indeed, it is appropriate to sometime think of the way in which an interesting scholar, Mesquita view politics in his classic book, The Dictators’ Handbook. His argument is similar to the classical work of Machiavelli, Montesquieu, and James Madison, but most importantly, it shows that everything in politics is up for grab like Dahl puts it. Political leaders’ desire for material accumulation and to hold onto power might be part of the actual cause of bad politics rather than the shortage of liberal values or culture.

While these essay attempts to demonstrates that rule of law, the fight against corruption and presidential term limit is useful in engineering democratization rather than hard version of preconditions that suggests economic values as essential ingredients for democracy, at this point, the study has covered numerous countries ranging from Latin America, Africa, Asia, and post-communist countries. In Middle Eastern region which is not fully captured in this study, the same argument can be applicable to many countries in this region as the 2011 Arab spring is a classic example of the potency of organized politics in form of mass protests. While many argues that Arab Spring did not succeed as it was anticipated, they frequently stress conditions that foster authoritarianism which is mainly associated with the size of the ruling government and the rentier effects rather than culture. Indeed some argued that Islamic culture is inherently autocratic and incompatible with democracy. Such arguments as Mamdani suggests, are based on emotion and anxiety in the wake of 9/11 rather than serious intellectual work.

In conclusion, it is essential to acknowledge that the culturalits argument and other socioeconomic conditions might have played role in fostering democratization. In fact, empirically, there is strong correlation between economic development and democracy. Moreover, it is also hard fact that countries that have these sorts of liberal values and civic traditions are more democratic than others that might have “some amount of it.” As Preworkski and Lemongi rightfully noted, there is correlation between economic development and democracy but there is not observable causation. What we know is that democracies are more likely to be consolidated and sustain in economically viable countries than in poor countries.

Also, Huntington’s argument is telling because mismatch between modernization or political participation and institutionalization could even cause political disorder. While the empirical findings about the relationship between economic development and democracy is mixed (with some Asian authoritarian regimes like Taiwan, Singapore, China etc. are economically viable), it appears that cultural explanation does not hold in many circumstance. Indeed, over the course of human history, people often articulates their needs in material or economic terms which is hope to translate into political equality. Just like the experience of American democratization where the articulation of economic needs was salient, countries in “global south” also articulates the needs for democracy in such sense. Finally, political actors like elites, agents, and entrepreneurs undoubtedly determine whether a country will remain authoritarian or become democratic. Of course, the international support often tends to propel this process rather than actually causing it.