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Democracy or development: Which should come first?


The dismal performances by democratically elected governments in Nigeria in recent history has led to heated debates about the feasibility of Western liberal democracy in post-colonies like Nigeria where the very existence of the state is being threatened by grand corruption, insecurity, social disorder, poverty, hunger and inequality. There are those who think that the national priority should be about solving these existential problems and not about the fine details of democracy – excessive rule-based systems and fractious conflicts – which may not be exactly what the country needs right now. For these people, it is better to develop our unique style of governance that fits our kind of society and designed to solve our problems rather than a wholesale adoption of a system of governance that clearly does not suit us and may actually hinder the achievement of national goals.

Implicit in this argument is the need for a capable strongman, in the mould of Lee Kuan Yeu of Singapore, who will, in one fell swoop, obliterate the corrupt old order and institute a new and glorious order which will transform the country from the backwaters of international development to a first world country. It was largely that desire for that kind of a messiah that led to the election of Buhari in 2015, of course, following the re-writing of history and the laundering of Buhari’s image by the APC bigwigs and those interested in making him president. Now that it is obvious that Buhari isn’t that kind of a messiah, the proponents of that argument, rather than backing down, are even more insistent on the necessity of getting a Lee Kuan Yeu-type autocrat to clean the Augeas’ stables first before the practice and experience of democracy can make meaning and respond to the yearnings of Nigerians.

These arguments are not new anyway. They mirror the debates in the 1960s and 70s largely among new and emerging states over what model of development to choose from between the liberal Western capitalist and Soviet socialist models. Interestingly, quite a lot of African independence leaders chose to go with the socialist model. Their main argument then was that being newly independent nations, they were so much in a hurry to develop; to catch-up with the West, as it were, and could not afford the luxury of the gradualism inherent in the liberal democratic model.

In no time therefore, most African states experienced a transition from Western liberal democracy to ‘one party’ states or ‘no party’ states. In rationalising this shift, leading proponents of the one party state such as Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere argued that two or multi party politics may only be justified in cases where the parties are divided over some fundamental issues. But in new nations where there is actually no major policy or fundamental disagreement beyond the one overarching goal of achieving socio-economic development within the shortest possible time, it is absurd to have party competition(s) as it will merely encourage the growth of factionalism and conflict, which the new states hardly have time for. The only competition that may be entertained is between individuals in one party and not between parties. Others abolished parties altogether and with time, democracy or any pretentions to democracy.

In the 90s, and early 2000s, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the triumph of the western liberal democracy model, the debate shifted to a question of sequence. Which should come first – democracy or economic development? Those that argue for democracy believe it could create the enabling environment for economic development. Opponents however contend that for poor, fragile states just coming out of conflict situations especially, the real and existential need is for economic development and that democracy cannot function without some minimum level of socio-economic development. Using copious examples from different parts of the world, they showed how insistence on the institutionalisation of democracy – with its inherent fractious competition – could lead to a relapse into violence and conflict.

This school of thinking was further reinforced by the experiences of South East Asian countries that largely spurned the Western liberal model and were still able to industrialise almost at a breakneck speed. Almost all those countries like China, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore etc were virtual dictatorships. In Africa, the shining example was Rwanda, where, after leading his band of exiled Tutsi militias to stop the genocide and took over control of the country in 1994, the strongman, Paul Kagame has led Rwanda to socio-economic recovery and growth that it has become one of the best performing nations in Africa economically and has become one of the most attractive destinations for foreign direct investment in Africa today. Of course, the West largely funded the post-war economic recovery in Rwanda. However, ridden by the guilt of its failure to stop the genocide and a fear of relapse, the West allowed Paul Kagame to appropriate and personalise all powers while outwardly maintaining pretentions to democracy.
So, given the level of rot and decay in the Nigerian system, it is understandable that some Nigerians are beginning to question the suitability of liberal democracy in Nigeria. The belief is that with its insistence on rules, procedures and processes, and the legal requirement of presumption of innocence until proven guilty, the big thieves could always game the system and make it difficult to ensure a largely corrupt-free polity, which many Nigerians believe is a sine qua non for rapid economic growth and development.

But like I have argued time and again, the development of viable national institutions and not personal rule is the real harbinger of sustainable growth and development and not some autocratic or dictatorial posturing of leaders. Any growth or development not built on institutions could quickly unravel. Zimbabwe was the toast of the world in the 1980s and 1990s but has now unravelled. Rwanda, with the insistence of Paul Kagame to become life president, is facing the prospect of unravelling too.

Like Francis Fukuyama argues, “the development of a capable state that is accountable and ruled by law is one of the crowning achievements of human civilisation.” It is the absence or weakness of institutions or more appropriately, a capable state that is at the root of corruption. In Nigeria and other developing countries, corruption serves largely to grease the wheels of inefficient bureaucratic government machines leading to efficient outcomes. Common sense therefore dictates that an effective war against corruption must involve the strengthening of state institutions, which is possible only in a democratic setting.


Christopher Akor

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