The euphoria that greeted the upsurge in democratisation in the 1990s seems to have waned across the continent in recent years. In the early 1990s, there was a strong belief that democracy would not only expand basic rights, it would also improve citizen choices and governmental policy making, stimulate stagnant economies, and lift people out of poverty. Yusuf Bangura suggests some ways of overcoming the inequalities and gaps in democratic governance

AFRICA has the second highest level of inequality and the highest poverty rate in the world. This astonishing combination of high inequality and high poverty owes much to its failure to industrialise, with many countries depending on mineral rents from their resource sector that are captured by those at the top, or on an agricultural and urban informal sector that is trapped in activities with low productivity and low incomes.

Voters are enthusiastic about democratic rule, but find it difficult to compel governments to change the trajectory of growth in the direction of socially-inclusive developmental outcomes. Low governmental responsiveness to voter choices is linked to gaps in democratic governance. Three such gaps are worth highlighting. The first relates to problems of consolidating the democratic rules of the game. At the core of these rules are the organisation of credible elections; respect for constitutions; and acceptance of the rights of organization, contestation and expression. Many elections still fail the credibility test; the alternation of power between parties is a rare phenomenon; and the practice of tampering with constitutions to revise term limits on presidential power is becoming a troubling development.

The second gap in democratic governance is the failure of key branches of government, such as parliaments, the judiciary, and other supposedly independent agencies of restraint to hold the executive to account. And the third deals with the dangers of a bifurcated electorate, especially in countries that are ethnically polarized. In a bifurcated electorate, voters exhibit less flexibility in relating to parties that do not derive their core support from their ethnic regions. Under such conditions, the vote may lose its significance in sanctioning or rewarding candidates based on performance.

One of the great surprises in African democratisation is the failure to reform our parties along lines of more substantive democracy. The focus in most countries has been on democratizing inter-party competition rather than intra-party competition and institution-building. Parties enjoy enormous powers to do as they wish in governing their affairs, even though what they do may have important consequences for the consolidation of democracy and promotion of citizen wellbeing. I want to suggest that parties respond to citizen interests when their financing and chances of winning or retaining power depend on citizen decisions. Governance reforms ought, therefore, to focus on how to improve citizen interests and participation in the programmes and activities of parties.

All democracies must worry about inequality. However, for much of the post-war period economic policy downplayed the problems of inequality in the development process. Following the arguments of American economist, Simon Kuznets, it was assumed that inequality was a temporary phenomenon that was bound to fall as economies developed. This happy ending in the inequality debate refers to Kuznets’ famous inverted U curve: things get harder before they get better. If growth ultimately reduces inequality, then a focus on redistribution in the short-run will adversely affect growth, making it harder to help the poor or achieve egalitarian outcomes.

However, inequality has been back on the development agenda in recent years for two reasons. The first is the co-existence of high growth and high inequality in many poor countries and the failure of growth to improve the lives of most people; and the second is the return of high levels of inequality in developed countries that had previously enjoyed low levels of inequality.

To talk seriously about inequality reduction is to talk about growth and redistribution. We now know that redistributive growth can be achieved through a range of policies, including growth strategies that create jobs, progressive taxation, and comprehensive social policies. At bottom, this is about economic development or structural change and welfare-enhancement. And the quality of political parties is essential in achieving these outcomes. The key question is: how do political parties become developmental and welfare-enhancing institutions? An additional question is: what does the historical record tell us about how parties and states have achieved sustained growth or structural change and redistribution?

All high-income democracies have attained similar levels of development and protect their citizens from the risks of poverty, ill health, old age, unemployment and disability. However, research suggests that the Nordic countries of Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland outperform other high income countries in the social field, including in tackling inequality and poverty.

The story is different in much of Africa where the virtuous links between political parties and production-based interest groups are very thin. Part of the problem is linked to Africa’s limited industrial transformation and class formation. Union density and coverage levels in wage bargaining are much lower than in other regions. And unlike in other regions of the world where farmers are highly organised, and, in some cases, even have their own parties and bargain with other interest groups and parties as equals, farmers in Africa are poorly organized, let alone linked strategically to political parties. Political parties are largely electoral and patronage machines. They lack, in other words, structural ties with organized interest groups.

It is crucial to note, however, that regime forms that link political parties to production-based interest associations and wider groups in society cannot be imposed from the top or willed by law. The historical record tells us that they are a product of contestation and political settlements. The challenge is to change the structure of incentives that currently influence party behaviour in Africa and hope that, over the medium-to-long run, parties may cultivate structural and performance-based ties with subaltern groups in advancing developmental and equity goals.

Another way of looking at this issue is to ask the following question: How can organised citizens capture, or impose their will on, African political parties?

Most political parties in Africa are dominated by a few powerful individuals. This is because of financial clout, first mover advantages when parties were initially formed, or ethno-regional calculations. Most party members have very little say in how party officials and candidates to elected offices are chosen. In most cases, the party leader is either all-powerful or a party caucus of a few influential members determines who runs the parties and can contest elections for state power.

Democratic politics cannot reflect the choices of voters or support development that improves wellbeing if parties are not organized democratically. There have been efforts in some countries to open up parties to democratic contestation. For instance, the use of primaries that are competitive seems to be gaining ground in recent years. Unfortunately, primaries are often not open enough to reflect the choices of members.

Let me illustrate the problem by using the experience of Sierra Leone, whose two main parties recently tried to inject some competition in how they choose their leaders and candidates for elections. The two main political parties, the ruling All People’s Congress (APC) and the main opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), organized primaries for parliamentary and local council elections in 2012. Before the change to primaries, the award of party symbols was highly controversial and divisive, as it was decided largely by the top leadership. Defeated candidates who felt rigged out of the process transferred their loyalties to other parties or became less enthusiastic in supporting winning candidates.

To avoid this problem, the governing party, the APC, adopted an electoral college of influential party members in the constituencies who putatively represented key groups, such as traders, drivers, market women, bike riders, secret societies, teachers, and religious bodies. Leaders from these groups were identified by a committee of the party to act as an electoral college. On paper, this policy tried to mimic the way social democratic parties relate to organized groups in defining party agendas. The opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party also had committees that assessed the popularity of contestants by speaking to individuals in various constituencies. Elections that were similar to those of an electoral college were held when divisions were irreconcilable.

However, the actual primaries of both parties were fraught with serious problems. First, party leaders at the local level, who were also members of the electoral college, wielded enormous influence in the selection of individuals from various groups in constituting the electoral college. Those entrusted to organize the elections skewed the selection of delegates in favour of candidates of their choice. Some members complained that their names were removed from the list of delegates because they were suspected of supporting candidates that did not enjoy the confidence of the local committees.

Second, it was easy for rich candidates to bribe members of the electoral college, which was very small--it varied from 100–200 members. For instance, one incumbent parliamentarian was reported to have complained that two of his challengers from the Diaspora distributed money and goods to members of the electoral college in his constituency. Third, the preferences of group representatives who constituted the electoral college did not reflect the wishes of the individuals they claimed to represent. Elections were not held by the groups to determine the individuals who should represent them in the electoral college.

In Ghana, the ruling National Democratic Congress took the giant step of democratizing the method for choosing its parliamentary and presidential elections for the forthcoming 2016 elections, by organizing primaries in November 2015, in which each party member was given one vote. This is laudable development. It has yielded interesting outcomes that are likely to improve popular control of the party. However, some of the problems observed in Sierra Leone also occurred in Ghana, such as missing names or inclusion of non-members in the voter register, allegations of undue influence of party big wigs in the electoral process, pockets of violence, and postponement of the primaries in some constituencies. The bedrock of the system, party lists, needs to be made continuously transparent and periodically validated by national election commissions.

Ghana is clearly on the right track in terms of opening up parties to democratic competition. Some of the problems that have emerged can be fixed if party members are genuinely interested in advancing the frontiers of internal party democracy. I want to emphasize that giving the vote to individual party members at the constituency level, as happens in mature democracies, will greatly improve the quality of internal democracy in parties and will go a long way in making citizens or voters own the parties. It will check the hegemony of party leaders, ensure a level playing field for all candidates, make it more costly to bribe voters, and force incumbents to deliver on promises.

The point is simple. The basic hallmark of democracy, one person one vote, should not be restricted to national inter-party electoral contests; it should equally apply to the internal functioning of parties if citizens are to hold party leaders to account.

Then there is importance of financing or revenue bargains that are mutually beneficial to parties, states and citizens. The expectation is that if parties and states depend on citizens or voters for a substantial part of their finances, citizen voices will be important in policy choices and outcomes. This represents a double process of incorporating the aspirations of citizens or voters into the activities of parties and states.

A crucial reason why parties and states are disconnected from citizen aspirations is because they do not depend on the latter for their finances. Voter turnout or electoral participation in many African countries is high, but African parties do not have a large membership base and are largely financed by rich individuals or private firms.

Dependence on the rich for party financing is not unique to African party systems. US parties, especially in the financing of elections, rely substantially on private donors who wield considerable influence on the choices of parties when they get into government. This surely undermines the principle of equality in democratic governance. Some countries have tried to get round this problem by putting a cap on the amount of money parties can raise from private sources, and making it mandatory for the state to fund parties, especially during elections.

For the African context, I want to propose that the problem can be tackled if parties are made to derive their revenues from membership contributions and state funding of parties is made mandatory, with the level of state funds that parties can receive determined by how many members they are able to attract.

This proposal will require close monitoring of parties by an independent and professional body to ensure the accuracy of membership lists and auditing of party finances. This way of funding parties is likely to improve recruitment of more members, deepen local party organization, and help with the systematic updating of membership lists. It will encourage parties to invest in expertise and develop sound proposals on public policy that will win the confidence of voters. In short, parties may cease to be just electoral machines. They may become formidable grass-roots institutions that compete on policies and serve the public interest. The reforms may further encourage civic activism at the local level where the process of recruiting members and candidates for elected offices is likely to be rife.

A similar effort is required at the level of financing of the state. African states are highly dependent on foreign aid and mineral rents for their development. African countries, on the average, collect fewer taxes than other regions even though, with growing economies in the last 15 years, their tax-to-GDP ratio has increased. However, non-resource related taxes, such as income and property taxes, which are important for effective state-citizen relations, stagnated during this period.

We may quarrel with the resource curse argument on excessive aid dependence and mineral rents as it relates to overvalued currencies, high inflation rates, weak manufacturing activity, and conflict. However, what will be difficult to dispute is the view that aid and mineral rents may make governments less responsive to citizens. Taxation is the foundation of citizenship and accountability. There is, surely, truth in the old adage that “he who pays the piper calls the tune”. Donors and the international financial institutions have driven policy making in Africa because they drive the financing of development.

If we want African citizens or voters to drive African parties and states, they should be made to finance them. There is nothing a politician fears as uncertainty. As opportunistic actors, most politicians do not want to be held to account for what they do. They want to win elections and spend public money without any constraints. This is why donors always insist on conditionality to ensure that they get good returns on their money. The challenge for African citizens or voters is to tighten the room for opportunistic behaviour by politicians in terms of electoral outcomes and financing. My point is that politicians are likely to respond robustly to citizen or voter choices, the more uncertain the outcome, and the more difficult it is to control the outcome.   

Citizen financing of parties and states is important even if we ignore the issue of accountability. This is because there is a limit to what aid and mineral rents can do in transforming African economies. Global commodity prices have sharply dropped in recent years, and there are no signs that aid will improve to a level where it can plug the continent’s financing gaps. Although aid has increased in real terms since 2000, reaching a record high of $135 billion in 2014, many donors do not honour their pledges. Indeed, only five countries’ aid meets the UN’s target of 0.7 percent of gross national income, with the average stuck on 0.29 per cent of GNI. The mineral resource sector is also associated with widespread leakage. The Thabo Mbeki-led African Union-Economic Commission for Africa panel report estimates that Africa loses about $50 billion a year to illicit financial flows—more than what it receives yearly in foreign aid.

Surely, political parties develop manifestos during elections in which they discuss what they will do if they get elected into government. The manifestos usually contain a long list of wishes, covering many facets of development that are likely to impact the lives of voters. Unfortunately, most manifestos are not costed, and voters and the parties that develop them do not take them seriously. Even when parties get into government, the policies they pursue are not informed by their manifestos. Governing parties rely on the public bureaucracy, which they control, and donors for policy direction; and opposition parties are largely bereft of good public policy ideas and wait for the next election cycle to write new manifestos that lack bite or realism. The end result is that parties, in and out of government, are hardly judged on their performance by voters.


This can be changed by cultivating a culture of developing indicators and setting targets for evaluating party performance. The good thing is that target-setting is now a norm in international policy making, and African governments have committed themselves to many global and regional targets, including the Millennium Development Goals, which have recently been replaced by the Sustainable Development Goals, and the African Union’s targets on infrastructure and agriculture.

Given our focus on economic transformation and social equity as the key route for combating inequality, the key indicators could be on employment (how many jobs have been created and in which sectors?); incomes (wages and household incomes); education (a focus on quality, not just on enrolment rates, will be important); access to health services, water and housing; and perhaps some selected indicators on social protection. Choice of indicators should be based on democratic deliberation in each country. The indicators could be disaggregated to the local level, so that the performance of opposition parties, which now govern many local government areas in many African countries, can also be monitored.  

High levels of inequality are bad for development, democratic governance, cohesion and stability. Unfortunately, African political parties lack the types of relationships with production-based interest groups and voters that historically pushed countries to achieve sustained levels of economic growth, structural change and redistribution. Developmental and equity-focused political regimes cannot be imposed from the top or willed by law. What can be done is to put in place a set of incentives that can improve the participation of citizens and voters in the internal functioning of parties and how they are funded, and the development of a limited set of indicators on development outcomes to help voters evaluate the performance of parties. The expectation is that over the medium to long run, parties will respond positively towards such incentives and develop more collaborative relations with voters that will improve wellbeing. Organised citizens or voters may also upgrade their capacities and seek to capture the political parties that claim to represent their interests. After all, democracy is, at bottom, people power.

Yusuf Bangura, who was a Research Coordinator at the UN Research Institute for Social Development from 1990 to 2012, is currently UNRISD Senior Research Associate.  The above has been excerpted from his presentation at the 15th Anniversary Public Lecture at the Institute for Democratic Governance in Accra, Ghana in December 2015.