Are there western democracies in Africa

"On average, democracies are significantly more successful than autocracies"

Autocratic regimes bring more economic development than democracies - that's what many people in Africa believe. Political scientist Nic Cheeseman took a closer look.

Nic Cheeseman is a comparative political science shooting star. Every few months the young professor from the University of Birmingham travels to Kenya and gives a lecture at the University of Nairobi. Last time, in April, the hall was bursting at the seams, and many local politicians and their advisors were there. No wonder, because the event was announced with the title of the recently published book: "How to manipulate an election." Some seemed disappointed when Cheeseman failed to provide practical guidance on voting fraud.

Cheeseman's most recent Nairobi lecture is only attended by the usual academic colleagues this time. Topic: Which is better for a country's development - an authoritarian or a democratic regime? This is not a rhetorical question here. In Kenya, which is basically democratic, many are dissatisfied with the economic progress. Even social scientists sometimes look admiringly at Rwanda and Ethiopia, which celebrated successes as authoritarian developing countries.

After the event, the NZZ meets the 40-year-old Briton for a chat in the Fairmont Hotel, a landmark from the British colonial era. Cheeseman, who repeatedly goes back to colonial history in his analyzes, does not want the chosen location to be interpreted symbolically - the hotel is simply within walking distance of the university.

Mr Cheeseman, Ethiopia is currently taking its first steps towards democracy under Reform President Abiy Ahmed. According to experts, Rwanda has massively embellished its poverty statistics. Are the two countries still suitable as models for the authoritarian developing state?

Ethiopia is actually no longer a model. The leadership of the ruling party has realized that repression alone can no longer maintain the country's stability. Abyi should now implement the opening process. But there is a risk that a dynamic has set in in the multiethnic state that can no longer be stopped. The analogy to the collapse of the Soviet Union is obvious. Abyi could go down in history as Gorbachev of Ethiopia.

And Rwanda?

I am not an expert on poverty statistics. With autocracies, however, you definitely have to be very skeptical of the official figures. It is very likely that Rwanda has made significantly less progress in recent years than stated.

Nevertheless, Rwanda is still held up as a success story by some.

Well, the country has made amazing progress since the genocide of 1994 - high economic growth, significant reductions in poverty and inequality, hardly any crime and corruption. These successes are undisputed.

So Rwanda did quite well with its authoritarian regime. After all, it is acting on the model of successful Asian countries such as Taiwan, South Korea or Singapore, which also first pushed development before they thought of democracy.

In fact, Rwanda comes very close to these Asian “tiger states” in institutional terms. But even if you ignore the setbacks of recent years or the increasingly worsening repression of the regime: the authoritarian developing state is by no means a good model for other African countries.


Because the model could only work in Asia under specific conditions. What is needed above all is an extremely strong regime that is independent of society, one that can ultimately direct the existing corruption into productive channels and that is capable of pushing through intelligent economic planning, possibly against the resistance of the workers. Paul Kagame reproduced such conditions in Rwanda. But nowhere else in Africa does this seem possible - even Ethiopia was unable to maintain the model for long.

Other countries are also trying to become authoritarian developing states - Uganda or Tanzania, for example.

Yes, but they don't meet the necessary conditions. That leads to even more corruption. The presidents of the two states are only superficially strong, they are not autonomous and also have to satisfy oppositional forces that would otherwise be dangerous to them. I call the model fragile authoritarianism. Unfortunately, this political system is typical of Africa and dates back to colonial times. Even under the British, French, Belgians and Portuguese, maintaining political stability depended on a combination of co-optation. After independence, some politicians understood the importance of this balancing act - they managed to stay in power for decades. Those who did not understand this were quickly overthrown.

Couldn't the African states have shaken off their colonial legacy long ago?

Certainly, Botswana or Mauritius have had a well-functioning multi-party democracy for decades. But these are exceptions, thanks to the independence movements there, which were democratic from the start. In general, however, colonialism has strengthened the authoritarian forces within African societies. In addition, most of the leading freedom fighters saw competition between parties as a concept of the colonial rulers that did not fit Africa. Both still have an effect today.

In addition, leading Western democracies such as Great Britain and the USA are currently in crisis and China represents authoritarian values ​​in Africa. Is democracy an obsolete model?

For a number of years, democratic institutions around the world have been on the decline in terms of both quantity and quality. In Africa, however, this trend is hardly noticeable. According to surveys, a large majority of all Africans would like to live in a multi-party system. Most, however, prefer a kind of federalist consensus democracy. The Netherlands or Switzerland might be better role models for some multicultural African countries than the USA, Great Britain or France.

However, democracies have a reputation for not enabling rapid development.

That is a huge misunderstanding. You only ever look at the few autocracies with outstanding economic growth. The fact that most undemocratic systems actually increase poverty is ignored. What about Congo-Kinshasa or Zimbabwe? On average, democracies are significantly more successful than autocracies - and the longer there has been political competition, the faster the economy grows and poverty decreases. You can see that in Botswana and Mauritius.

The latest book by Nic Cheeseman (with Jonathan Fisher) was published by Oxford University Press in 2019 under the title “Authoritarian Africa - Repression, Resistance, and the Power of Ideas”.