US President Barack Obama’s much discussed Cairo speech represented not only the demise of former US president George W. Bush’s ideological drive to reconstruct the Muslim world through a democratic revolution; it marked the end of US liberalism’s quest to remake the world in its own image.
Instead, Obama’s administration is guided by a relativist political realism that assumes respect for cultural and religious distinctions. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton underscored this tendency during her first visit to China, where her unmistakable message was that order and stability take priority over liberty and human rights.
But what about Africa, the forgotten continent that has been conspicuously absent from Obama’s hectic agenda? There, both the resilience of the local political culture and strategic imperatives are converging to define the limits of the West’s capacity to impose its values.
A fortnight before Obama’s Cairo speech, a delegation of the UN Security Council visited four African countries to express concern about the resurgence of unconstitutional change on the continent. Africa does indeed present a gloomy picture, with countries virtually crumbling to dust as a result of autocracy and stagnation.
But the emerging Obama doctrine suggests that “elections alone do not make true democracy” and that, as has been the case in the Arab world, any abrupt move to democracy is bound to produce chaos. Moreover, in Africa post-authoritarian rulers are not necessarily respectful of human rights and decent governance.
The West’s attitude toward democracy in the Third World has always been erratic. It applauded the military takeover in Algeria in the early 1990s aimed at curtailing the democratic emergence of an Islamist regime, and is happy to conduct business with authoritarian regimes throughout the Arab world. Yet, public infatuation with the external trappings of democracy is usually the norm. Take Guinea for example. After years of turmoil, lower-ranking officers headed by Captain Moussa Dadis Camara took power last December in what was a widely supported and peaceful takeover. Both the EU and the US immediately reacted by threatening the ruling junta with a total cut-off of aid unless constitutional rule and elections were restored.
Though Guinean President Moussa Dadis Camara eventually succumbed to pressure and declared elections for this fall, he has a valid point in insisting that he first must secure stability so that elections do not become a mere prelude to civil strife. The case of neighboring Guinea-Bissau, where a blood-bath has just taken place ahead of general elections, should serve as a warning.
Why should the West insist on elections in a country that since 1984 was ruled by a Western-backed dictator, Lansana Conte, who came to power in a military coup? He maintained a Constitution and held elections, but this did not make him a democratic ruler, nor was he able to extricate his country from appalling poverty despite its tremendous potential for economic development.
The problem in Africa is one of effective government, not of elections and high-minded constitutions. Rulers should be encouraged instead to engage in bottom-up democracy building, create an honest police force and judicial system and allow civic organizations to flourish. Training police forces to secure law and order without resorting to bloodshed is no less important than elections. Elections and constitutions in Africa — Zimbabwe and Gabon’s dictatorship have both — have never been a safeguard against tyranny and human rights violations.