Democracy is on the wane in Africa – but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The crisis in Zimbabwe is only the latest in a long line of setbacks. Deeply flawed elections in Nigeria, Kenya and Ethiopia have checked the momentum of the wave of democratisation that swept the continent in the early 1990s.
But these reversals also expose the weaknesses in the African version of democracy and offer a chance to invest in institutional reforms that would yield a more realistic model than that pursued in the past two decades. The construct of multi-party democracy in Africa was imposed at the end of the Cold War when the United States nudged "Big Men" towards political reforms.
Autocratic leaders who had managed to stay in power by playing the West against the Soviet Union suddenly found themselves robbed of their patrons and having to seek the consent to govern. But a lamentable failure to invest in institutional reforms meant that democracy in Africa came to be viewed purely as the formality of holding periodic elections.
With the possible exception of South Africa, few African nations have embraced reforms that would strengthen the institutions that underpin any democracy. Judiciaries often serve at the whim of the executive. The security forces, as the appalling excesses in Zimbabwe have shown, are essentially militia in service to the presidency. Electoral commissions do not enjoy the confidence of the voting public.
In this environment, elections are often national bribefests (witness Nigeria, 2007) or the sort of shambles on which basis Robert Mugabe is currently in power.
A more ominous outcome of institutional failure was on display in Kenya earlier this year where duelling ethnic communities showed an alarming willingness to take up arms to acquire sole control of the powerful executive.
It is important to learn from these mistakes. There needs to be a re-examination of the meaning of democracy in Africa. The half-way house in place only serves the interests of incumbents determined to hold on to power.
The West should also change its terms of engagement with Africa to go beyond applying pressure for transparency on the eve of elections. Investing in a clean judiciary, for example, has multiple effects beyond engendering trust in the political process. It is also a key factor in boosting investor confidence and would be an invaluable component in boosting economic growth. The same can be said of a professional police force. All the evidence from countries that have overcome corruption and incompetence in the forces indicates that improvements in areas such as better housing, insurance and health care are likely to yield far better results than increasing pay.
All these investments must be anchored in reformed constitutions that endorse the greater freedoms and responsibilities demanded by a democratic system.
According to an Afrobarometer survey in 2006, six in 10 Africans prefer democracy to any other form of government. This is unsurprising in a continent that has suffered terribly under alternative forms, such as one-man rule and military dictatorships.
The bloody farces in recent years could well lead to erosion of this confidence. Africa must dispense with the fallacy that democracy is merely the ritual of holding elections once every five years.
The writer is on the staff of The Nation in NairobiReuse content