Single or Multi-Party System: What Option for Africa?

By Sola Akinrinade

The great demands for the opening up of the democratic space in several African countries in the period since the end of the Cold War has reopened the debate on which party system is uniquely suited to the African political landscape: a single or a multi-party system?

In virtually all African countries, the era of colonialism was concluded with the holding of democratic elections to determine who was to inherit power from the departing colonial government. The only exceptions were the Portuguese territories of Angola, Mozambique and Guinea Bissau where the colonial masters were forced to beat a retreat after protracted armed struggle for independence.

However, periodic elections as a mechanism for determining who was to exercise power soon fell out of favour with several post-independence governments. Not long after independence, the inherited political structures began to crumble from one state to another as the `democratic' regimes left behind by the departing colonial masters gave way to one party and other forms of authoritarian governments including outright military rule.

Those national leaders who opted for one party rule premised their choice on the imperatives of national integration given the dangerous ethnic and social cleavages that pervaded the political and social landscapes of their various societies. Further, they argued that the imperatives of social and economic development meant that their states could ill-afford the divisive trends inherent in opposition and what they considered confrontational politics. They thus concluded that only the single party system in which all the various tendencies in their societies are forced to compete within a single defined arena, could guarantee national integration, avoid the fissiparous tendencies inherent in opposition politics and harness most effectively the energies of their peoples for the purpose of nation building. For most of the Cold War era, only Botswana, and until the military coup of 1994, the Gambia continued to practice democratic politics in the continent.

Single party seen as remedy to social divisions

In a number of states notably Nyerere's Tanzania, the adoption of a single party system was indeed an honest attempt to address a potentially dangerous situation. In the post-independence era, several African states have witnessed serious threats to their national cohesion and have confronted great challenges to their sovereign status. At the violent end of the scale, many states have confronted rebellion, insurrection, revolt and outright civil wars. Intra-state violence was a prominent feature of the African political landscape which confirmed the thesis of those honest advocates of single party system as a solution to the political, ethnic, cultural, social, religious and other cleavages in the various African societies.

However, the argument was soon corrupted by various authoritarian leaders who sought to advance personal agendas of power and other forms of primitive accumulation, such that the single party system emerged in most African states as an instrument for the perpetuation in power of a particular clique that has managed to capture the commanding heights of their countries' political structure. Elections -- even the pretense of it in one party states -- became a luxury which trends bent on autocratic tendencies could not contemplate. Sadly, the circumstances that paved the way for the propagation of the single party gospel are still present in most African states today.

Many African states today still confront various internal challenges to their legitimacy, even in those places that are not overly disintegrated. The European experience of state-making has shown conclusively that the consolidation of the political space is a prerequisite for moving states from conflict and chaos to stable democratic systems. Until the legitimacy of the state as constituted is fully recognized by all segments, attempting to introduce competitive elections would only encourage fissiparous tendencies latent in most societies. The literature on democracy and democratization confirm that the two processes could be highly disruptive as they encourage existing conflicts in a state to manifest freely. Democracy presupposes and requires elite fragmentation, i.e., the formation of competing groups that would jostle for power in a consolidated political space. But elite fragmentation could assume dangerous proportions such as could occasion the demise of the state especially when elite fragments seek to fragment the political arena in order to secure control of the parts. In societies where the legitimacy of the state is not yet settled and the territory is still contested, as in many African states, elite fragmentation could threaten the survival of the political space as a single entity. A clear example is Somalia where fragmentation of the political space has already accompanied elite fragmentation.

Democracy is more than holding elections

Unfortunately the experience of the post-cold war era has not encouraged much confidence in the adoption of pluralist multi-party political systems in the democratizing states. If as we believe, the ability to choose is crucial to the operation of any proper democratic system, it would be difficult to describe what has happened in most African states in recent years as exercises in democracy. Too much premium has been placed on multi-party elections and questions have not been raised about the character of the post-colonial state in Africa. The electorate has practically little to choose from since the competing groups have no substantial policy alternatives on offer. Thus, the holding of multi-party elections only give voters voting without choosing. In societies already rent by ethnic and social cleavages, and with no clear political platform presented to voters, voting patterns inevitably still generally reflect ethnic and other primordial loyalties rather than a true exercise in democratic preferment.

There is no real attempt to dismantle the inherently repressive and anti-democratic state structure which was first put in place during the period of colonial rule. It was the structural composition of the post-colonial state that encouraged the emergence of `winner takes all' politics and the politics of exclusion that became manifest in the adoption of single party systems in several African states in the immediate post-independence period. For multiparty elections to become a meaningful exercise in democracy, therefore, there must be a structural transformation of the state. Until a democratic transformation of the post-colonial state occurs the various multiparty elections will never produce a truly democratic state. What has been offered African states thus far is what the late Professor Claude Ake once described as a version of liberal democracy reduced to the crude simplicity of multi-elections, voting without choosing rather than a democratic empowerment of the people. In many instances such as in Cote d'Ivoire, Gabon Cameroon, when the power elite agreed to multi-party elections, the elections have usually been held in a hurry before opposition groups had time to consolidate and results have generally been subjects of dispute.

Popular participation in Uganda

In moving African states forward from autocracy and chaos to democratic stability one cannot ignore the need for democratic elections, after all, the ability to choose is one of the cardinal elements of a functioning democratic political system. However, there is a need to engender in the people a sense of belonging and making the citizens to develop a stake in the political space as presently constituted. This, we believe, even with a note of caution, is happening in Uganda.

The liberation of Uganda from Amin's rule in March 1979 had ended a long phase of brutality in Ugandan politics without resolving the underlying questions of the means and ends of reconstituting state power. Much damage had been done to the civilian institutions of state and the military was entrenched as the sole arbiter of conflict. Subsequent regimes were virtually unable to recreate the civilian institutions of rule and could only maintain order through reliance on the military. In the period between March 1979 and January 1986 several groups vied for control of power. With the exception of Milton Obote who regained power in the December 1980 elections, all who took power resorted to the use of force. When Museveni and his National Resistance Movement took power, they embarked upon a process of restoration which gave prominence to democracy. At the initial stages, reconstituting the democratic structures involved the use of appointive and co-optive methods that guaranteed that a significant element of the opposition was brought on board. In the process, Museveni was, by and large, able to build a significantly broad-based government.

The National Resistance Movement sought to extend participation to the rural areas through the establishment of Resistance Committees (RCs) a structure that was first adopted during the days of the guerrilla war. The RCs evolved gradually into administrative structures employed for the purpose of state control and political mobilization. The RCs subsequently provided the testing ground for Museveni's "no party democracy", which was his own way of incorporating all forces, irrespective of past political affiliation, into the structures of the NRM, and his antidote to conflicts within the political system.

Museveni considers the achievement of national consensus a prerequisite for building an enduring democratic structure. This, he believes, would "facilitate the entrenchment of norms of accountability, respect for public office, and competition into the political culture". Museveni's position corroborates our earlier stance that in moving a country from chaos to democratic consolidation there is a need to engender in the people a sense of belonging and getting the citizens to develop a stake in the political space of the state as presently constituted. However, we cannot run away from a question raised by the Museveni experiment in Uganda, i.e., whether constitution making should be a hegemonic agenda or a shared enterprise. One thing comes out clearly though: the recognition by Museveni and the NRM of the need to give the people a say in the political process and create in them a sense of belonging in the political system. The emerging structure in Uganda, the "no party democracy" may not be qualitatively different from a one party system designed in the mould of such great African patriots as Julius Nyerere. If the system moves the country forward from autocracy and chaos to democratic stability, much favour would have been done to the attempts to recompose the African political landscape to incorporate popular participation.

While Africa is groping to find an enduring political system, we believe that neither the problem nor the answer lies in either a single or multi-party system of government. The truth is that even in the advanced democracies what actually obtains is what The Economist (21 December 1996) calls "part-time democracy". The basic premise of modern democracy is the belief that every sane adult is entitled to an equal say in the conduct of public affairs. Every one, no matter the level of his/her intelligence or education, rich or poor, is entitled to an equal voice in deciding how they should be governed and who should hold effective power. But in most democracies, the voice of the people is heard only once every four, five or even seven years, in elections in which voters choose their executive and/or legislative leaders, and in which most of the electorate do not possess the wherewithal to present themselves as candidates.

Politics as primitive accumulation

Thus, for the majority of the people the test of a functioning democratic system is not in the mere ability to exercise the franchise once every four, five or even seven years, but in how the operation of government affect their daily lives. We dare say that the voice of the people is hardly a determining factor in the formation of policy. The practice of politics in Africa's post-colonial state where the exercise of power is little more than a pursuit of primitive accumulation does nothing to enhance the situation either. Little thought is given to popular empowerment. Most states are unable to offer even the most basic services to their people. There is only little access to education, health services are poor and the people have only the most minimal access to safe water, sanitary facilities or even leisure. To regard the democratic incorporation of such people merely in terms of being able to vote or be voted for, either in a single or multi-party system, is plain deception. Like the structure of the state, these people have to be consciously transformed by a radical programme of popular upliftment, a programme that would guarantee them access to health, education, leisure and other services, and most importantly, power. On the other hand, it would also grant them access to democratic courts, police and bureaucracy.

Thus, whether a single or multi-party system is adopted, what is important is that the mode of governance should not exclude the spirit of democracy: popular elections, freedom of speech and other basic human rights, the rule of law and accountability. Of course, this system should also guarantee popular access to the basic social and economic needs of the people and move them in the direction of democratic empowerment. It is this that will encourage citizens to identify with and develop a stake in the survival of the system. Democracy cannot be held in abeyance in perpetuity while countries seek to consolidate their national political spaces; it might be that in the Ugandan experiment, Africa has finally discovered the starting point of the journey to democratic consolidation and popular empowerment.

Dr Sola Akinrinade - Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria

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