On December 22, Nic Cheeseman, a British academic, tweeted “The conflict in Ethiopia demonstrates what many already new (sic): authoritarian development is a bad bet in Africa: Aid models should change to stop channelling so much money to authoritarian regimes” before referring to the article being announced by the same tweet as “the most important piece I wrote this year.” In short, the article is a celebration of Ethiopia’s misery upon which Cheeseman hopes to validate his “democratic project” for Africa. “If Ethiopia is no longer seen as a success story, then the case for authoritarian development in Africa falls apart,” Cheeseman writes rather triumphantly. However, the premature jubilation appears to have led the professor to commit unforced errors of reason.
“In the last fifteen years, there has been growing regional and international sympathy for the idea that authoritarian states might be better placed than democratic ones to drive rapid development,” Cheeseman writes, as he sets the premise of his argument on an intellectually slippery ground. For one thing, the question has never been whether it is authoritarian states or democratic ones that are better at driving rapid development. This Manichean view of the world of good guys who love democracy and bad guys who love dictatorship is a western invention being imposed on Africans; it is an ideational dictatorship that threatens people with the belief that one choice represents light and the other darkness, not unlike the choices between Christianity and heathenism that presaged as well as sustained colonialism.
Most—if not all—human societies aim for democracy. Africans are no exceptions. Similarly, every human society rejects any attempts to impose another society’s value systems upon it. In other words, the failure of the “democratic project”, for the West, is the resistance of Africans against the imposition of western ways of life and against the veiled attempt to universalise value systems that are peculiar to Western societies. Like Western societies have been able to do for their people, Africans resist because they want the room and the agency to reflect, conceive, and craft a democratic dispensation attuned to their own value systems. As a result, continuing to dictatorially impose a certain conception or form of democracy upon them will always backfire because it implicitly suggests that they have no intrinsic value systems worthy of preservation and codification.
Quite frankly, the arrogance to suggest that “if Ethiopia is no longer seen as a success story, then the case for ‘authoritarian’ development falls apart” is, in fact, to “caricature” a people who are experimenting about the kind of democracy that fits their worldview. It may cough and sneeze here and there, but which democracy doesn’t? Isn’t the admission that a “democratic malaise” is currently taking place in the West reflective of the fact that no system is foolproof? Moreover, why is it that the dysfunction of The Gambia – and Liberia before it – does not reflect the failure of western democracy in Africa?
The question about light and darkness is only in Cheeseman’s mind. The intellectual dishonesty won’t allow him to objectively critically reflect on why “some of the continent’s more democratic states have failed to end corruption or deliver high levels of economic growth.” Neither did he conclude that this should shut the lid on the democracy project.
“Tired of working with governments that diverted resources and failed to keep their promises, aid agencies such as the United Kingdom’s former Department for International Development (DFID) and the European Development Fund were naturally keen to work with regimes that could deliver success stories,” Cheeseman writes without connecting the dots to the obvious fact that they were looking for accountable systems, not for dictators.
He is further perplexed by “the growing sympathy for authoritarian development models” that is arising from the “combination of the rise of China, democratic malaise in the West, and the economic struggles of many African democracies [which] has led citizens and political elites to increasingly question the value of democracy for development.” Clearly, Cheeseman is unable to see the common denominator: East, West, North, South everyone is angry, distrustful, and in a search for accountability and are increasingly rejecting the labels that hypocrites and the intellectually dishonest attach to it.
Cheeseman thinks that something needs to be done because the growing sympathy for “authoritarian development models” and its “overlapping trends should be a cause for deep concern…they threaten to undermine popular support for democracy itself.” One, for whom is the trend a concern? Two, how is it possible that the popularity of accountable systems is “a cause for deep concern?” Three, in whose interest is a democracy that curtails popular preferences?
A vulture waiting out its prey
Since Ethiopia is down, Cheeseman wants Rwanda down too. Why? Because they are teaching others to hate democracy. “Even a cursory glance at debates on social media reveals growing popular recognition of the achievements of Ethiopia and Rwanda and a rising willingness to use them to disparage democracy promotion efforts,” he writes.
Bringing the two down will constitute “growing evidence that authoritarian politics can have devastating developmental consequences [which] will also give a shot in the arm to organizations like the Westminster Foundation for Democracy that argue that the international community should be doing development democratically,” he said, finally exposing himself for all to see.
So how does he plot to bring down Rwanda? One, he refers to Rwanda’s development statistics as “propaganda,” without acknowledging his own motives for dismissing the data. But if the data is cooked up, then on what basis does he claim Rwanda’s “notable” development success story?
Two, he acknowledged that “it is unclear whether the political systems established in Ethiopia and Rwanda can be reproduced in other, very different contexts.” Yet, if the Anglo-American system had been seamlessly reproduced elsewhere as the West planned it, Cheeseman would not have been needed for its propaganda purposes of “democracy promotion.” Unless he believes, as he seems to suggest, that the “contexts” in Africa are more similar to those of Britain than they are to the Rwandan and Ethiopian. The British or American system isn’t “implausible” to replicate in Africa, but the Rwandan and Ethiopian models are! Beyond dishonesty!
Third, Cheeseman wonders whether Rwanda will “be able to maintain the political stability needed to safeguard developmental gains.” Of course, he is questioning the future because he knows he can’t be held accountable for it presently. This kind of playing ostrich is often a clear indicator that someone has run out of evidence for whatever claim they want to make and a signal that something absurd is in the offing. “The major fear in Rwanda,” Cheeseman begins to signal this absurdity, “was that the country could suffer a further bout of interethnic violence due to the precarity of having Kagame, a Tutsi President, ruling over a Hutu-majority population.”
But Cheeseman thinks that the rise of Obama, an ethnic minority in America, was good for democracy. However, he will do anything it takes, including having to debase himself, because inflaming Rwanda serves his interest of stemming the “growing popular recognition of the achievements of Ethiopia and Rwanda,” and most importantly, “a rising willingness to use them to disparage [Western] democracy promotion efforts.”
Now that Ethiopia is burning, Cheeseman is only one win away from victory. With friends of Africa like these, who needs enemies?