Big Brothers Leading From the Rear (By Babatunde Fagbayibo)

Posted: July 21, 2011 in Uncategorized
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I have written elsewhere about the significant role regional powerhouses or hegemons can play in the entrenchment of democracy and good governance within their regions. The political and economic clouts of regional hegemons provide a dominant platform for influencing and/or shaping regional dynamics. Large population, big economy, strong armed forces, vibrant private sector and developed infrastructure are some of the features of a regional hegemon. In the African context, and dividing Africa into geographical zones, the following countries easily qualify as regional hegemons: Nigeria (West Africa), South Africa (Southern Africa), Kenya (East Africa), Ethiopia (North-east/Horn of Africa) and Egypt (North Africa).

Having identified these countries, the next question to ask is to what extent has these powerhouses contributed or influenced the democratisation process in their respective regions. In order to effectively answer the foregoing question, one must first consider the level of democratisation within these regional hegemons. The reason is simple: you cannot give what you do not have! How can a regional hegemon with a dictatorial regime efficiently influence the democratic process in another country (a non-hegemon)? To influence the democratisation process in a non-hegemon goes beyond the signing of economic bilateral agreements or contributing (financial and human) resources to peace-keeping efforts, it begins with leading by example. In this respect, a regional hegemon with democratic institutions will have the moral capital to influence genuine efforts towards democratisation in a non-hegemon.

At this juncture, it is appropriate to ask the question: are African regional hegemons leading by example? With the exception of South Africa, which is one of the most democratic states on the continent, the remaining hegemons can be classified as semi-democratic or illiberal democracies. Illiberal democracy has been described as ‘a governing system in which, although elections take place, citizens are cut off from knowledge about the activities of those who exercise real power because of the lack of civil liberties’.

The so-called Arab spring revolution brought about the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak and has set Egypt on a likely course of democratisation. It is too early to tell how the process will end. Nigeria, unlike smaller states within the West African sub-region, has struggled with organising free and fair elections. The assessment of the recently concluded Nigerian elections as ‘free and fair’ should only be understood within the context of the history of irregularities in the electoral process. In other words, while it fell below acceptable standards (regional, continental and international), it was better than the widely rigged 2003 and 2007 elections. While the Government of National Unity (GNU) in Kenya has ensured a modicum of political stability after the 2007 electoral violence, the credibility of its electoral process, and its commendable new constitution, will only be tested in the 2012 elections. Meles Zenawi’s Ethiopia is nothing but a civilian dictatorship. The brazen suppression of real and perceived opposition and electoral chicanery continues to generate major concerns.

The foregoing shows that African regional hegemons have failed to provide leadership in terms of democratic practises. With smaller countries or non-hegemons making better advances in terms of democratisation, one can safely say that regional hegemons are indeed leading from behind. It is even more disappointing when the only democratic regional hegemon, South Africa, cannot take a decisive, not a feeble/partisan regional ‘consensus’, stance on the Zimbabwean crisis. Democratic non-hegemons like Mauritius, Cape Verde and Botswana do not possess the capacity to promote and sustain regional democracy. For example, Botswana, a small but prosperous country in Southern Africa, has been one of the most vocal critics of the situation in Zimbabwe but because it lacks the clout of South Africa, it cannot do much.

There is an obligation on regional hegemons to champion the democratisation efforts on the continent. Such duty stems not only from their capacity but also the realisation that effective democratisation limits the incidence of conflicts and instability – a clear obstacle to regional development.

Follow this writer on twitter @BabsFagbayibo

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