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The False Allure of Authoritarian Modernization

Isaac Ofosu Debrah
Rwandan President Paul Kagame at xxx, via flickr.

[caption id="attachment_9041" align="aligncenter" width="610"] Rwandan President Paul Kagame at the 2012 London Summit on Family Planning.
Photo by Russell Watkins, UK Department for International Development. Creative Commons, via Flickr.[/caption]

Across the continent of Africa, the impressive economic growth record of 'authoritarian modernization'1 states such as Rwanda and Ethiopia has reignited the debate about which system of political innovation best achieves development for Africa's future. The argument has often been that authoritarian modernizers are better at delivering basic services and improving the living conditions of their citizens, while their liberal democratic counterparts lag behind. While this is true, these "developmental patrimonialist" states stifle individual freedoms, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and civil society. Indeed, in its 2015 Freedom in the World Survey, Freedom House declared Rwanda and Ethiopia "not free."

The notion of "development without freedom," as Michael Ignatieff has termed it,2 is gaining currency in Africa perhaps because of the failure of most stable democracies on the continent to significantly improve the living conditions of their citizens. This has been blamed partly on corruption and partly on the short-term horizon of government programs, which stems from the pressure to accomplish visible development projects to help officials get re-elected. As a result, growth in many democracies on the continent has rarely been as transformative as expected.

The argument has been that these modernizing autocrats have controlled corruption in ways that their liberal counterparts have failed to. According to this view, most of these leaders live austere lifestyles and are not known for the insatiable quest for personal enrichment. For Rwanda and Ethiopia, a further distinguishing feature is their ability to thrive without significant natural resources. From 2011 to 2015, Ethiopia's economy grew at an average of 10% per year. Rwanda's economy grew at an average of 7% per year over the same period.

As Rwanda and Ethiopia appear to put economic growth ahead of democratic freedoms, people have begun to compare the rate of economic development with governments' responsiveness to citizens within Africa's stable democracies, where civil liberties are not in short supply. Since the mid-1990s, the democracies of Africa with strong civil liberties have generally performed better on economic and human development assessments than the autocraciesThis has been corroborated by many analysts. Steven Radelet, for example, contends that African democracies have performed better economically than African autocracies over the last two decades.3 Likewise, looking globally, democratization may have played an important role in the significant growth of Brazil and India in the last two decades.

Though available evidence may require further empirical and theoretical work, history shows that growth under a non-democratic government is not sustainable. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union, which significantly curtailed civil liberties, consistently recorded a higher gross national product (GNP) than the United States, leading to the then Russia Premier Khrushchev to famously declare, "we will bury you." In the end, the Soviet Union was unable to sustain its growth rates, and its economic challenges contributed to its disintegration.

Likewise, some experts have already cast doubts over the sustainability of China's more-than-three-decades of growth. Free trade economist Jagdish Bhagwati has long argued that "no one can maintain these growth rates in the long term. Sooner or later China will have to rejoin the human race." Recently, China's economy has experienced a slowdown, but it is not yet clear if China's lack of democratic institutions and restrictions on freedoms are playing a role in this.

Likewise, although the growth and development records of Ethiopia and Rwanda are impressive, Mancur Olson contends that while "experience shows that relatively poor countries can grow extraordinarily rapidly when they have a strong dictator who happens to have unusually good economic policies, such growth lasts only for the ruling span of one or two dictators."4 Thus he and other analysts preach caution as we revel in the rapid rise of Ethiopia and Rwanda.

Indeed, although economic prosperity under autocratic modernizing states may be attractive, Africans have been clear in their preference for democracy: according to a recent Afrobarometer survey (2014-2015), 68% of Africans prefer to live under a democratic government. Similarly, 54% of Africans prefer to have a say in what their governments do.5

The vast majority of Africans want both economic development and democratic freedoms. This is because Africans dream not only of freedom, but also of employment and a route out of poverty. It is not only the desire of every African to see their children live in a country with extensive democratic freedoms―freedom to speak their mind and to choose their leaders, among other things―but also to see those children receive quality education, secure jobs, experience prosperity, and support their families. One thing should be clear to African governments, politicians, policy makers, and democracy actors: African citizens demand democracy and development simultaneously.

One key challenge for Africa's democracies is how to move beyond the holding of elections to supporting well-functioning economies that will raise the living standards of majority of the citizens―one of the most difficult hurdles in politics. In Africa's thriving democracies, such as Ghana, Senegal, Kenya, and South Africa, it is time to make the transition from the provision of democratic freedoms solely to the provision of economic well-being for all citizens, which citizens rightly expect to be the priority of a democratically-elected government.

Isaac Debrah is a Southern Voices Network Scholar with the Wilson Center Africa Program September–November 2015. He is Assistant Project Manager for Anglophone West Africa at the Ghana Center for Democratic Development, an SVN partner organization.

1: Richard Joseph, "Growth, Security, and Democracy in Africa," Journal of Democracy, Volume 25, Number 4, October. 2014. pp. 61-75.
2: Michael Ignatieff,  "Are the Authoritarians Winning?" New York Review of Books, 10 July 2014, 53.
3: Steven Radelet, Emerging Africa: How 17 Countries Are Leading the Way, (Washington, D.C.: Center for Global Development, 2010).
4: Mancur Olson, "Dictatorship, Democracy, and Development," American Political Science Review, Vol. 87, No. 3. September 2013. p. 572.
5: Visit for consolidated data from the different survey rounds, except round 6 which is yet to be made available for public use. Until it is published, staff and members of the network have exclusive access to the most recent round 6 data.

About the Author

Isaac Ofosu Debrah

Isaac Ofosu Debrah

Former Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding Scholar
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Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in U.S.-Africa relations.    Read more