Is there a relationship between democracy and economic growth?

PUBLISHED: Thu, 09 Mar 2017 16:51:23 GMT

Democratization in Africa 

On Thursday, 19 November 1863, during the Gettysburg Address, US President Lincoln defined democracy as a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people”. The method in which the people take part in this form of government is at the ballot box by voting in elections. Therefore, elections serve as the hallmark (but not the only way) of the practice of democracy in democratic systems.

Democratization has swept across the African continent since the end of colonialism, in the late 1950’s – from Ghana’s first presidential elections on 27 April 1960, to South Africa’s in 27 April 1994, and then to Nigeria’s first elections in 27 February 1999.

The Economist Intelligence Unit has revealed, in a report, the different categories of democratic systems across the world for the year 2016. Of the 19 full democracies in the world, one of them is an African country – Mauritius; of the 57 flawed democracies in the world, 7 are from Africa and include Cape Verde, South Africa, Namibia; of the 40 hybrid democracies, 14 are from Africa and include Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria. The United States went from being a full democracy to being categorized as a flawed democracy in the 2016 report.

Excerpts from an Interview with Professor Jega (former chairman of INEC)

In a recent interview with Professor Attahiru Muhammadu Jega the former chairman of Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), who oversaw the 2011 and the 2015 general elections in Nigeria. He is the current and the inaugural Africa Initiative for Governance Visiting Fellow of Practice at Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government. He had the following to say about overseeing what was considered a widely applauded electoral process in Nigeria’s elections in what is, arguably, Africa’s giant nation.

Jega said the key message he emphasised while being at the helm of INEC was, “credible elections are the business of everybody, not only the work of an electoral commission, and all hands had to be on deck in order to deliver credible elections”. He acknowledged that the 2007 Nigerian elections were considered to be “the worst elections in the history of [the] country”. He further said that INEC engaged with civil society organisations, who had previously advocated for electoral reforms in Nigeria after the 2007 elections. Jega recognized and credited “the partnership with credible civil society organisations [as being] to a large extent responsible for the success of the 2011 as well as the 2015 general elections”.

When asked about the backdrop upon which he executed his mandate at INEC – given the loss of public confidence in the electoral process following the 2007 elections as well as the general public’s cynicism towards the electoral system in the country, Jega said, “a lesson they learnt quite early at INEC was that success would only be predicated on open and transparent conduct and gaining the confidence of all stakeholders”. He said, “The INEC [they] came into in June 2010 had a very negative image of being an electoral commission that was not considered as transparent […] and too cosy with the incumbent government”. He emphasised that it was a “herculean task for [his team in INEC] to clean the [commission] of that negative image”.

Whether there is a relationship between democracy and economic growth in Africa’s context, Jega said, “Most African countries have embraced democracy. There is a clear link (by scholars and theorists of democratization) between democracy and development. But what is constraining development in [some countries in] Africa is the poor conduct of elections – the lack of integrity in the way in which elections are conducted. The multiplicity of irregularities that characterize the conduct of elections in countries like Nigeria, which are diverse, is obstructive of the desires of development […]”. His advice to African countries that will be conducting elections in 2017: Kenya, Liberia, Rwanda and Angola is to bring integrity to the conduct of elections.

To the incumbent governments, he said: “Electoral Commissions are not just any government agency that can be incorporated in the incumbent regime’s governing agenda – they should be relatively independent and well-financed and given the freedom to organize and conduct elections with integrity”. As regards Jega’s advice to Electoral Commissions, he advised on the importance of focus despite criticism from both incumbent governments and the oppositions. He also advised on the significance of careful planning and the “meticulous implementation of their plans as well as the creation of a level playing field for all contestants and all political parties involved”.

The tenure of Jega, as the head of INEC was not without public opposition and controversy, with some politicians questioning some of his decisions. When Jega was specifically asked about the public incident when he was called “tribalistic” and “partial”, this is what Jega had to say: “The work of chairman of an electoral commission in a country like Nigeria, which is diverse and large, and also has a lot of religious and ethnic mobilisation brought into the conduct of elections, is very challenging”.

He noted the significant opposition he faced when he announced the decision to make use of the card-reader technology into the elections, and said: “Having accepted the job, I had to prepare my mind as to how to withstand the challenges which came with the job. When politicians from both sides, the government side and the opposition side are criticizing you, then you know you must be doing something right”. He said, however, that he knew that elections with integrity were difficult to achieve but not impossible.

When he was asked on whether he would run for elected office in Nigeria, he responded with a “No”. He said, “For now he will continue his work as an academic”.

Conclusion: Democracy & Economic Policy

Scholars have shown that there is a correlation between conducting credible elections and economic policy in developing countries. In a study by the same scholars, it was concluded that the extent to which economic policy serves to improve is based on the frequency of elections – the more the better; it was also noted, however, that if such elections are of low-quality the fewer the elections the better – as low-quality elections “may actually worsen policy”.

The importance of competitive elections with integrity serve as the crux of a functioning and healthy democracy, where the electorate can hold their governments to account and where governments are disciplined to develop economic policy and improve good governance.

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