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Development theory and the promise of Democracy: the future of
postcolonial African states. 
By George Munda Carew 
George Munda Carew is Visiting Professor at the
Department of Philosophy at the University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA


Part I: Statehood versus Nation-Statehood
           The Inherent Weaknesses of Development Theory
Part II: Reconstructing Democratic Theory 
           The Context of Postcolonial Crisis 
           Historical Factors 
           Political Factors
           Economic Factors
           Administrative Factors
Normative Defects of Democratic Theory 
Reconstruction of Democratic Criteria 


Three decades of political independence in Africa have left just about
all of the African states in deep political and economic crisis. The
euphoria of current democratic trends is tempered by the fact that
serious obstacles remain in the way of meaningful democratic
governance in Africa.[1] The basis for this claim is found in the
failed attempt at democratization by the African states after
independence. There existed two fundamental flaws in the previous
democratization attempt which must first be addressed to ensure a
smooth transition-to democratic governance this time. 

My objective in this essay is twofold: first, I will attempt to assess
two major hurdles to the transition to democracy. I argue that the
first experiment with democratic regimes in postcolonial Africa was
derailed by two false moves: a) the presumption of nationhood in
devising a postcolonial political order; b) the adoption of a flawed
and inadequate theoretical framework for interpreting political
processes in Africa. Second, I argue that the removal of these
obstacles to democratic governance imposes one further conditionality:
the need to reconceptualize democratic criteria in a bid to render it
relevant to culturally plural and ethnically diverse societies. 

Part I: Statehood versus Nation-Statehood 

It has often been said that the African nation-state is quite unlike
modern nation-states. The African state is weak, ineffective and often
lacks legitimacy.[2] It seems the question we must now ask is not
whether African states will ever be capable of competing on the
international scene with other states but why African states have not
been viable states. 

The answer to this query lies in part in Africas colonial past.[3]
The process of decolonization, prompted largely by nationalist
agitation in the colonies and by other external factors, was designed
to oversee and orchestrate an orderly transition to political
independence. The colonial powers, as if to fulfill their civilizing
mission, appeared committed to transplanting democratic regimes in
their former colonies, without regard to these peculiar circumstances;
a fact which might have necessitated the search for alternative

Already implicit in the decolonization process was the presumption
that the nation-state[4] was a given, and that all that was needed was
to fit the state with a democratic constitution; a democratic form of
government would follow naturally.[5] This presumption turned out to
be mistaken. The facts show that the colonial state was not a
nation-state. It was a colonial creature, invented without regard to
geographic and ethnic boundaries and ruled by force.[6] Colonial
domination kept its disparate ethnic groupings together through
coercion and manipulation. In presuming these diverse groups as part
of a nation, the colonialist was implying the existence of a common
bond, cherished by all the groups, a bond which tied them together.
This conveyed an element of consent or approval, not only about how
they were governed but on whether they wished to remain part of the
body politic. 

Such a presumption was unfounded. The ethnic groups had yet to be
unified into a nation-state. They needed to establish a new political
accountability principle which would ensure ethnic autonomy. The
colonialists could not have devised such a principle because it would
have conflicted with their main interest, which was the economic
profitability of the colonies. It was not by accident that ethnic
groups were manipulated and pitted against each other. It rendered
them weak and divided and therefore of little threat to the
colonialists. Clearly one ought not to mistake servility in the face
of such odds with implied consent. The nation-state was conspicuously
absent under colonialism. 

Creating the state before establishing a nation unduly complicated the
democratic process and generated in a good many cases a wholly
undemocratic outcome.[7] For example, voter choices turned out to be
along rather than across ethnic lines, with the result that the state
became polarized along ethnic lines. Nationalist leaders responded to
this awkward situation by setting in motion their own nation-state-
in-the-making.[8] Nationalist myths about great precolonial empires
created a sense of oneness which had been absent in colonial states.
However, notwithstanding the reinvention of precolonial empires like
Mali, Ghana, and Zimbabwe, nationalist parties came to be dominated by
particularist concerns. This trend produced disaffection with the
nationalist cause and led to the eventual ethnic polarization of the
state. With the failure to create a nation-state, African postcolonial
democratic governments came increasingly under attack from their own
people. Most of these governments responded with force to the threat
from society. 

The Inherent Weaknesses of Development Theory 

The approach to African politics in the last thirty years was
dominated by development theory.[9] Development theory was devised
largely as a counter to Marxism,[10] thus it can be best understood by
contrasting it with Marxism. Development theory, like Marxism, argued
that societies develop through stages, from low level socioeconomic
and political development to an advanced level of development. It
differs from Marxism in espousing an essentially capitalist path of
development and advances the view that growth is triggered in a
capitalist development process by two factors, which are causally and
reciprocally related: the economy and politics. 

Economic development provides the material basis for political
development while at the same time political development provides the
organizational structure for economic development? Each level of
socio-economic development is accompanied by a corresponding increase
in the institutionalization of political functions. The attainment of
full institutionalization of political functions does not only signal
the rule of law but also a rationalized bureaucracy. 

The normative equivalence of this evolutionary process is the
emergence of modern man as an expression of the highest form of
human development. [12] The transformation of man from a primitive
stage of existence, characterized by illiteracy, tribalism, kinship
ties and irrationality, to a modern state is accomplished when he
acquires new values such as rationality, literacy, secularism,
individualism and industry. Since these values are associated with
democracy, development theory seems to imply that traditional
societies are not mature enough for democratic governance. 

There are a number of reasons for considering development theory
flawed: (1) Development theory, like Marxism, is teleological. It
fails to describe the facts because it is interested only in those
features that would help confirm its theory;[13] (2) Development
theory unfairly trades democracy for development;[14] (3) The
framework of functional analysis, which is the interpretative model of
development theory, overemphasized the activities of the state at the
expense of the citizen;[15] and (4) Development theory does not have a
short-term solution to the parochial ethnic tendencies in African

I will begin with the first objection because it provokes the other
objections. It is clearly on account of its teleological nature that
we find developments theoretical framework narrow and inadequate.
Furthermore, like Marxism, it is fundamentally flawed. The narrowness
of developments framework of analysis derives from the fact that it
could only account for one process: the historical pattern in the
transition of states from the underdeveloped level to the developed.
Marxism argued that development proceeded from the feudal state, which
it considered the lowest level, to the communist state, which was the
highest level. The contrary view of development theory defined a
liberal capitalist pathway to development. States would start at a low
level of socioeconomic and political development but would move
gradually not to a socialist goal but to a capitalist end. 

These conflicting hypotheses about the political-economy reality in
postcolonial Africa failed to account for a number of processes which
were crucial to the understanding of African politics. It would seem
that both frameworks were preoccupied more with identifying those
processes that served the ends of their respective theoretical
projects, than they were in understanding African politics. For
instance, historical antecedents were either wholly ignored or
distorted to suit the purpose of a particular framework. As a result
political conditions, such as ethnicity, coups, corruption and
dictatorships were misrepresented and misconstrued. The usefulness of
development theory as an ideological/policy tool diminished once it
became evident that its predictions were not borne out by the facts.
There is no preferred path to development, hence the teleological
orientation of development theory could have served only one end, that
is, as a political weapon against communism. Whether it succeeded at
this is another matter altogether. Our concern is mainly with the
extent to which the teleological orientation of development theory
overshadowed its commitment to the understanding of African politics.
Since its political agenda predominated over other concerns, we are
led to conclude that it could have had no more than an incidental
interest in African affairs. 

Development theory is further flawed for trading off democracy for
development.[17] This impression is conveyed by development theory s
prescription for the capitalist path to development. It seemed not to
be concerned with the way states achieved the highest level of
capitalist development; what mattered most was that they got there.
Even dictatorships would be justified, provided they assisted the
capitalist pathway to development. This explains in part why
development theory could not block the move from multiparty statism to
one-party dictatorships. At a low level of political and socioeconomic
development it was a matter of indifference which regime was
instituted, as long as it instigated change. Thus, we are led to the
paradoxical conclusion that states ought to sacrifice democracy so
that they can gain it at a later day. The mistaken impression that
democracy and development cannot be pursued conjointly is inescapable
in development theory; leading one to conclude that democracy itself
is attainable only with development. There is ample evidence pointing
precisely to the opposite conclusion. Democracy is a less costly and
straightforward way of promoting development because it ensures
accountability, which is vital in promoting development.[18] 

The third objection against development theory alleges that it focuses
so much on the state, that it all but ignores the individual. Since
development theory was more concerned with the political evolution of
the state than with democracy, it is easy to see why the central focus
was not on the individual. However, one could easily point out that
the individual did play a role in being transformed simultaneously
with the state. The point to be highlighted is not that the state or
the individual had a role, but the extent to which those roles were
obscured by the ideological commitments of development theory. In a
period of heightened ideological tension it was more important for
development theory to counter Marxism and defend the Western way of
life than to analyze and interpret political processes in Africa. For
development theory to have harbored pretensions to achieve what
clearly appeared to have been mutually exclusive goals amounts to a
betrayal of African democracy.[19] 

One last objection to development theory criticizes it for being
unable to prevent parochial ethnic tendencies in African politics. I
have argued elsewhere that development theory had what in effect was a
long-term solution to the difficulties confronting democratic rule in
Africa. In its solution it urged a modernization not only of the
political and economic structures but also the traditional values of
African societies. Since this solution apparently is silent on how or
by which means to accomplish this task, it is deemed of little help to
democratic attempts to contain parochialism in African politics. 

To summarize, I have argued that the transition to democracy in Africa
was flawed by a number of fundamental shortcomings. First, by
emphasizing the creation of the state before the nation, it actually
put the cart before the horse. However, attempts by nationalists to
repair the damage did not meet with much success. Second, the dominant
approach to the study of African politics was flawed and inadequate;
flawed because there is no single pathway to development and
inadequate because it could not account for a significant, number of
processes vital for the understanding of African politics. Apart from
the fact that its teleological orientation prevented it from observing
processes that were vital for the understanding of African politics,
it did make one point clear, and that is that democratic criteria
implied a liberal capitalist state. 

The observation that democratic criteria are based on liberal
capitalist assumptions[20] is the focus of our critique in the second
part of this article. To make democratic criteria applicable to
developing societies we do not propose to ask that Africa be made to
fit the current prescription of democratic criteria, as suggested by
development theory, but rather that democratic criteria be made to
apply even to underdeveloped societies.[21] Defining the problem this
way allows for a new focus which primarily entails the reconstruction
of democratic theory to render it applicable to underdeveloped and
ethnically diverse societies. 

Part II: Reconstructing Democratic Theory 

My aim in this section will be to derive a normative approach that
allows for the integration of diverse ethnic and cultural entities
into a nation-state. This process must allow for the greatest possible
integration compatible with the greatest possible differentiation. In
other words, it should permit the promotion of both democratic
pluralism and cultural pluralism in the nation-state. To accomplish
this goal, the first logical step would be to specify the relevant
context, purpose and conceptual framework. The context shall be
postcolonial African society as determined and shaped by precolonial
and colonial historical processes. The purpose shall be the creation
of a democratic political community which will be a sufficient
condition for establishing a nation-state. Finally, the conceptual
framework shall be that of democratic theory. A reformulated
democratic conceptual framework will not only be relevant in analysing
the complex multilayered processes at work in the postcolonial African
experience, but will also be useful in providing a political
accountability principle to the historical reconstruction process of a

The Context of Postcolonial Crisis 

Prior to our determination of the possibilities and limits of
democracy, [22] a dear and precise exposition of the context would be
useful. The crisis in postcolonial African society will be addressed
in terms of historical, political, economic, and administrative

Historical Factors 

It is my premise that historical factors cannot be discounted in
understanding and analyzing the contemporary African political
condition. In particular, I submit that the continuities and
discontinuities, of colonial political communities impacted the
postcolonial political order in very definite ways. First, the fact
that the colonial political community resulted from conquest provides
a rich insight into its character and structure. [23] It was an
ensemble of diverse ethnic and cultural groupings which the colonial
overlords welded into a political community. As a subjugated people
they were more or less held together by force and to the extent that
they accepted their subjugated status, the colonial overlords were
willing to reach an accommodation with them. Thus, cooperation with a
colonial regime was dictated largely by political expediency. The
appeal of the colonizers to a civilizing mission was by no means
legitimating and the colonized did not buy into it. The colonial
administrators were accountable only to their imperial governments; a
fact which even members of the colonial political community
acknowledged. [24] 

Second, though nationalist agitation ultimately contributed to the
decolonization process, the colonizers dictated both the pace and
outcome of the postcolonial political order in the majority of cases.
[25] On the basis of this evidence, one is inclined to question the
view held by most nationalists that the advent of independence was a
rupture with the colonial past and the dawn of a new political era
with former colonial political communities now firmly mastering their
own fate. What might have appeared so, on the face of things, was in
reality quite different. Postcolonial communities were indeed
furnished with democratic constitutions and representative
institutions. Nationalist leaders quickly replaced the colonial
administrators as rulers in the new political dispensation. Apart from
such changes, little else had changed. The postcolonial state was in
many respects not very different from its predecessor, the colonial

Political Factors 

Historical factors thus played a crucial role in determining the
structure and character of the postcolonial political order. The
colonial rupture of precolonial political communities led to the
creation of a mosaic of ethnic and cultural entities into a stateone
dearly devoid of a political accountability principle. Consequently,
the institutional arrangements in most colonial states were designed
to dominate a subjugated people rather than a free people. The
relationship between the state and civil society was one of pragmatic
appreciation of their respective situations. The colonized knew their
place and did not actually expect the colonial administration to be
committed to promoting their interests. As long as colonial rule was
not overbearing and life-threatening, an uneasy calm prevailed. The
colonial administrators sought and received the collaboration of the
political leadership in the various communities in exchange for local

With the rise of nationalism the entire political community was united
in contesting the hegemonic interests of the colonizers, and the
nationalist leaders who championed the cause of independence enjoyed
the support of most factions of the political community.[26] In this
instance of the revolt of civil society against the state there was
only one clear aim in viewthe destruction of the colonial order. It
is dearly a moot point now whether the nationalists exceeded their
mandate in their collaboration with the colonial government in setting
up a constitutional order to replace colonialism. In any case, the
postcolonial dispensation gave priority to the creation of the state
over the nation. The task of inventing the nation was left to the
nationalists and it proved to be their Achilles heel.[27] 

Nationalists realized that liberal democratic constitutions were
notorious for not taking into account ethnic and other cultural
diversities. [28] In many instances nationalists invented therefore a
mythological precolonial nation to replace the failed constitutions,
and they appointed themselves rulers to deliver their people from
the chaos of the postcolonial period. This new mission was supposed
to provide a fresh mandate for the nationalists who were now
confronted with a more complex and daunting challenge than the
anti-colonialist struggle. As heirs of the vision of a new political
community, they viewed with suspicion and ultimately with contempt all
those who questioned their authority. The single-party state was more
or less born to achieve the political goals and realize the dreams of
the nationalists. Ethnic groups which did not see themselves as part
of the nationalists vision or whose interests were threatened by more
dominant groups in the state often joined other dissenting groups to
oppose the state.[29] 

The failure of the postcolonial constitution to establish a political
accountability principle prompted the nationalists to invent their own
political accountability principle. The nationalists, increasingly and
clearly lacking legitimacy, now created a scenario which was in every
way reminiscent of the state/civil society relationship of the
colonial period. In other words, the nationalist one-party state
became in every respect like the colonial state: coercive,
authoritarian and statist. 

Economic Factors 

When the rupture in the precolonial political community took place,
the colonial overlords took a keen interest in the economic viability
of their colonies. Their colonies were to serve as sources of raw
material for their industries at home. To that end they created a dual
economy: one export led, the other for the domestic economy. In this
way, colonial African states were integrated in the capitalist world
order. This was to have a telling effect on postcolonial African
states, which, though politically independent, continued to have
dependent economies.[30] 

Acknowledging, as it were, a reciprocal causal relationship between
the economic sphere and the political sphere, the extent to which
stability and even legitimacy existed was based on whether the
political climate was conducive to economic pursuits and individual
well-being. Colonial governments were known to exploit labor and to
pay depressing wages even when business was booming. Yet, because
workers in the dual economy could purchase goods cheaply in the
domestic economy, confrontation with the colonial administration was

In the postcolonial African state, the situation was slightly
different. As the state overtaxed the productive sector in its quest
for economic hegemony, which it considered necessary to gain political
hegemony, it destroyed the productive base of the state and alienated,
its producers. Acquiring both political and economic hegemony only
meant that the state had denied its people economic autonomy and,
politicized the economic process. The state now determined access to
wealth and resources and only those who could gain access to the state
were economically successful. Thus, the struggle for access to the
state intensified and all those who failed to gain access became
disaffected. Those citizens who joined civil society in its
counter-hegemonic struggle against the state came from the ranks of
the disaffected and disenfranchised. [31] 

Administrative Factors 

The postcolonial bureaucracy was mainly determined by the colonial
administrative structure. In fact, the new postcolonial regimes simply
inherited the bureaucracy of the colonial governments? That this might
not have been such a good idea is suggested by two points: first, the
colonial bureaucracy was statist and overcentralized. In the colonial
state, administration was almost indistinguishable from the
government; it was in fact the government. The postcolonial state
similarly encouraged an overcentralized and greatly expanded
bureaucracy. Unlike the colonial bureaucracy it became inefficient and
wasteful, precipitating in a majority of cases an institutional
collapse. Second, since the colonial bureaucracy owed its allegiance
to the imperial government, it did not seem to change its modus
operandi in the postcolonial state. It continued to function like a
government within a government; often countermanding orders from
nationalist leaders, who in many cases were viewed sodoeconomically
and intellectually as their inferiors. The bureaucracy eventually
joined the politicians in institutionalizing corruption. As the
government lost the ability to pay salaries and give other
institutional support, bureaucrats used their offices and positions to
enrich themselves at the expense of the state. All this compounded the
problem of the soft state, leading in most cases to its political

Normative Defects of Democratic Theory 

With the context determined, we should next consider the possibilities
of devising a democratic framework that is adaptable to a complex
multi-ethnic and multicultural situation, bearing in mind the
multilayered processes which had shaped and continue to determine the
confused political landscape in Africa. However, before we confront
the problems of evaluating democratic regimes, it is first and
foremost necessary to address the normative defects which are in some
cases responsible for the misapplication of democratic criteria. In
remedying these defects we bring about a shift in focus, in a way
reminiscent of a similar shift earlier in democratic thinking; namely,
from small city- state systems to large scale homogeneous nation-state
systems, which warranted in particular the adaptation of
representative institutions to the requirements of a democratic
society.[33] To ensure an adequate basis for a democratic society, a
similar conceptual reformulation may be necessary in respect to a
multicultural nation-state-in-the- making. It is in overcoming these
obstacles to realizing the democratic ideals in a multi-ethnic context
that a clear manifestation for institutional or structural adjustment
would become apparent. 

Liberal democratic theory is in need of repair in at least two main
areas: (1) the form of representation and decision making it
encourages makes no allowance for interests to appeal to justice; and
(2) in liberalism the inequality of resources, organization and power
allows some interests to dominate in a way which adversely affects
minority interests. These two issues are of paramount significance in
understanding the nature of power and power relations in a
multi-ethnic community? 

In addressing the first problem one must keep in mind that
postcolonial political leadership was essentially confronted with the
task of building a nation-state out of multi-ethnic entities. In
effect, it needed to establish political accountability principles
which would weld the disparate ethnic groups together. If the
underlying principles of political accountability precluded the
possibility for interests to appeal to justice, it would certainly
have undermined the moral basis of the union and sowed the seed for
potential discord in society. 

Since liberal democratic theory fails to take into account that
certain interests ought to be excluded for the simple reason that
their adoption would adversely affect the interests of others, it
cannot protect the individuals or even groups of individuals who
constitute the multi- ethnic political union. At the heart of the
matter is classical liberalism s social ontology, which accords
primacy to the individual over the community. In other words,
classical liberalism views the individual as prior to the group which
makes the group in effect no more than an aggregate of individuals,
already well-formed and needing nothing from society by way of
completing their nature. 

This individualistic interpretation of democratic political order
reduced government merely to a police function, ensuring that
individual rights would be preserved and outside interference reduced
to a minimum, wherever possible. In John Locke, for instance, the
state would be powerless to act, even on behalf of a disadvantaged
individual or group, particularly in situations requiring a
distribution or redistribution of material goods. Ethnic groups which
appear to be disadvantaged because of their size or influence are
certain to feel threatened and apprehensive in a Lockean state. 

Utilitarianisms attempted remedy of this problem in the Lockean state
does not succeed. Utilitarianism was able to ensure equal
consideration of all interests but it could not foreclose the
subjugation of interests or protect against political domination.[35]
In short, utilitarianism like the Lockean state, could not prevent
immoral interests from being acted upon so long as it accorded with
the wishes of the majority. A multi-ethnic political community in
which social relations are complicated would require social justice
linked to interests. 

Interethnic group perceptions ought to alert us to the danger of
divorcing considerations of interest from social justice. According to
Rothchild there are three types of interethnic group perceptions: (1)
an essentialist perception, (2) a pragmatic perception and (3) a
reciprocative perception. [36] An essentialist perception describes a
situation in which ethnic groups view others as fundamentally
threatening to their physical, cultural or social survival; they tend
to view compromise on their part as weakening their position. Burundi,
Rwanda and Zanzibar are examples of essentialist thinking. Since group
appraisals of an adversary s intention leads to zero sum
expectations, a harmonizing and cooperative relationship will be
difficult to achieve. Operating from pragmatic perceptions, entails
groups assessing their rivals intentions in broader and less
threatening terms. Accommodation and compromise are possible in such
situations because intergroup expectations are that negotiations could
produce a positive sum outcome.- Finally, a reciprocative perception
assumes that interethnic relations can be made less threatening
through magnanimous and conciliatory gestures by the main actors in a
conflict situation. 

In the three types described by Rothchild, the first type is
indicative of what happens when interest is unlinked to justice.
Societies of the first type could hardly constitute a nation-state
because of the absence of a common thread which holds its disparate
groups together. The ethnic conflicts and occasional warfare in
Burundi and Rwanda are examples of what happens when there is an
absence of trust. In the other two types, where there is an apparent
absence of intergroup hostility, the basis for developing a
nation-state exists and could be improved if justice is linked to

Next we consider the failure of liberal democratic theory to highlight
the role institutions and social relations play in affecting the
outcome of a distributive process. Social inequalities, class or other
terms of differences and even power relations often adversely affect
the mode of distribution. Imagine a political community with a
dominant ethnic group. As is often the case, the dominant ethnic group
would likely possess a myopic perception of its interests, overlooking
the fact that minorities in the polity also have legitimate interests
which should be recognized. In most cases the phenomena of domination
go unnoticed and unaddresed. In other words, the minority groupings
largely accommodate themselves to the interests of the dominant group.

The liberal state has not found a way of removing domination from
intergroup relations and it is unlikely to do so because of..,the
limits imposed on it by its adherence to the distributive model. The
problem with the distributive model is that it conceives of power in
the same way as we do of material objects, that is, as something to be
divided among different individuals and groups. If groups are to
receive power proportionate to their size, then it is logical to
expect that some groups would certainly be more dominant than others.
Yet, domination of this kind could easily lead to the overshadowing of
the interests of the less dominant groups. To get around this problem
Iris Marion Young suggested that we try to view power in relational
terms, as processes rather than as simply patterns of distribution.
[38] Conceptualizing power in relational terms brings out clearly the
structural phenomenon of domination. We get to see how it complicates
intergroup relations and inhibits communication between individuals of
different groups. Jurgen Habermas advocates that for the purpose of
intergroup communication and cooperation the structures of domination
and oppression must be removed.[39] 

Reconstruction of Democratic Criteria 

In our preliminary discussion of the defects of democratic theory we
adduced sufficient evidence to warrant the revision of democratic
criteria. As they stand, democratic criteria would not fit states
outside of liberal industrial democracies. In particular, they are
ill-equipped to apply to multicultural societies. I shall
reconceptualize democratic criteria to enable them to apply to
nonliberal multicultural societies. The five standard democratic
criteria are: (1) a democracy should include all adults who are
subject to the binding collective decision of the association; (2)
effective participation; (3) voting equality; (4) control of agenda;
and (5) enlightened understanding. [40] 

First, in a democracy no one is above the law, nor could anyone be
subject to laws she had no part in formulating. The consent of the
individual to be part of a democratic community is necessary to
determine her political obligation. The liberal politics of
integration is aimed at the individual, not the group. The individual
is considered an autonomous agent who determines his own interests and
takes responsibility for his actions. Therefore, if he is to be
subject to the collective decisions of the association his consent
must first be secured. 

Liberal political integration runs into difficulty with
ethno-political identities. Since individuals are not free in the
sense that they do not determine their own choices (their ethnic group
determines their choices) they cannot really be considered free moral
agents. Therefore they may not be eligible for democratic citizenship.
Ethno- political identities can be members of a political community
only if their group is recognized in its own right. Since liberal
politics does not recognize the reality of groups, it also does not
find a place for ethno-political identities. The basis for
liberalisms hostility towards ethno-political identities can be found
in the liberal ontology which treats attributes and qualities as
properties of individuals, not groups.[41] It conceives groups as
simple aggregates of individuals with their respective properties; a
group is thus ultimately reducible to individuals. Some liberal
theorists have argued that this problem can be circumvented if
ethno-political identities are first transformed into national
identities through a process of socioeconomic and political

One of the contributions of post-structuralist thinking has been the
exposure of the myth of an autonomous, self-sufficient subject who is
the bearer of attributes.[43] According to post-structuralism the self
is a product of social processes not their origin. What this means is
that a persons consciousness and culture are to a large extent molded
by ones group, and whether or not one becomes a self- conscious
individualist later on, one could not have acquired one s qualities
anywhere else but in society. The idea of a person prior to society is
therefore really an illusion. 

The implication of this conceptual shift for democratic criteria is
far reaching. It calls on democratic criteria to acknowledge the
reality of groups in the same way as it does of individuals. The
acknowledgment of the reality of groups makes possible the politics of
incorporation. The problem for which the politics of incorporation
must provide a solution is whether groups should be assimilated into
the body politic, in which case they lose their group identities, or
be integrated in a way which would allow them to retain their group

Liberal critics of incorporation have quite often maintained-that
group differences constitute a stumbling block to unity. This
objection can be met by pointing out that the promotion of group
differences need not constitute an obstacle to unity, as long as there
are no structural impediments in intergroup relations. Practical
aspects of this solution will be addressed in subsequent democratic

Second, in considering our next criterion we acknowledge the
importance of the equal participation principle. To deny equal
participation is to also reject the principle of equal consideration
of interest. [44] On the face of things, the requirements of the
second criterion appear adequate. However, if we were dealing with
multi-ethnic political communities we might be faced with a serious
problem: if all that was required was ones effective participation in
the decision making process how could we ensure that the outcome of
the decision making process would be fair. This question is
particularly helpful in the promotion of intergroup harmony. There is
nothing to suggest that the principle of equal consideration of
interest, offers sufficient safeguards against the abuse of minority
groups. This has implications for our third democratic criterion and
is amplified by it. 

Third, voting equality enhances the democratic process by extending
equal opportunity to all citizens to express individual choices. In
this sense voting equality could be considered a logical extension of
the effective participation criterion. They both aim to preserve
individual autonomy. But as has been shown the principle of equal
consideration of interest might be inadequate to protect groups or
even individuals from unjust outcomes in the deliberative process. 

One way to circumvent this problem is to provide an additional
principle, the fairness principle,[45] as a supplement to the equal
consideration of interest principle. Both principles should be able to
block any move towards unjust outcomes in the decision making process.
For instance, if the pursuit of interests by one group would lead to
adverse consequences for the well-being of other groups, the fairness
principle could be evoked to prevent the offending group from pursuing
its interest. In Rwanda and Burundi, where deep ethnic cleavages
persist, the adoption of this double barrel principle might be a good
way of reversing the present essentialist thinking among the
antagonistic ethnic groups. If the decision making procedure had a
built-in safeguard that insulated ethnic groups from unfair treatment,
individual members of the different ethnic groups would no longer fear
for their personal safety and might be willing to cooperate and
collaborate for the common good of the community. 

The revised democratic criterion has a dear message for the specific
rules and procedures that help express individual or group
preferences. In particular, the majority rule principle need not be
the automatic choice as a decision rule for every democratic
community. Other alternatives should be evaluated according to the
revised criterion and the derision rule that best meets the particular
circumstance should be adopted. 

Fourth, control of the agenda fits well in a normal functioning
democracy where competition is usually viewed as healthy and
necessary.[46] The institutionalization of political parties is in one
sense really an attempt to channel sometimes divergent and conflicting
interests through a process that would ensure an orderly and useful
outcome, but this is not the only function of political parties. The
more important function is the opportunity it offers people to
determine what goes on the political agenda. We find this expressed in
the encouragement of debate. Each party adopts a platform that it
believes would appeal to the electorate. A peculiar feature of liberal
industrial democracies is that interests are diverse. This imposes
constraints on political parties to embrace universalist ideals to
ensure their competitiveness with the voting public. Hence, the
popular platforms turn out to be those which have attracted large
cross-sectional voter support. 

Postcolonial states with disparate ethnic groupings face a different
kind of problem. The initial attempt to promote political competition
proved disastrous as the struggle for power between the political
parties turned the state into a battleground, an arena for the contest
of power.[47] One explanation of this unfortunate outcome is that
competition in a state that is not a nation has the tendency of
becoming destructive.[48] The reason for this is that the struggle for
power by the different groups quite often assumes a zero-sum
proportion and ethnic groups are pitted against each other. A
political party is viewed in these circumstances by an ethnic group as
a vehicle for promoting its interests, and if those interests were to
diverge with the interests of the other ethnic groups (as appears most
likely), then the different parties would all be on a collision
course.[49] This is what, in fact, has taken place in the majority of
the postcolonial states. Parties have been largely made to have a
parochial appeal. The idea of a national political agenda becomes
blurred in such circumstances. 

Adoption of the revised democratic criteria should help refocus
attention away from parochialism to universalism. One requirement
political parties should satisfy is that they should adopt
universalist platforms. [50] We had an example of this in the Nigerian
constitutional proposal for the Third Republic. The recommendation was
that two parties, based on contrasting universalist ideas, should be
adopted as a way of forestalling divisive ethnic based politics. This
approach was unique in Africa; it had the merit of compelling parties
to adopt political agendas that were unifying and that would
contribute in bringing about nationhood in a straightforward way.
Cohens observations of elections in post- independence Nigeria
confirms the view espoused in this article. He remarked that ethnic
barriers could be broken if parties adopted universalist interests
based on issues of material interest.[51] 

Fifth, enlightened understanding is our final criterion that needs to
be revised. The criterion states that the democratic process must
ensure enlightened understanding. Liberalism has interpreted this
criterion to mean that there should not be barriers to information
that would assist citizens to make enlightened choices. The criterion
assumes that the average citizen can only deride which party has the
better agenda for fulfilling his or her needs and aspirations if one
has all the information necessary to make an informed choice. To
facilitate this, there is an insistence on free speech, freedom of the
press and freedom of assembly. One criticism of this view is that it
does not go far enough to meet the requirements of a democratic
multi-ethnic community. If group differences, whether they be
religious, social or ethnic, result in deep cleavages, they could
produce unpleasant consequences in the state unresolved by the flow of
information. At best these differences could impede movement and limit
opportunities for citizens in the state. At worst they could provoke
intergroup conflict and animosities between citizens of the same

According to Habermas, Young and Arendt this problem could be averted
if intergroup relations are purged of tendencies that would lead to
misunderstanding and conflict. Removing structures of domination in
the dynamics of intergroup relations influences interethnic group
perceptions directly and positively.[52] Consequently, it would
enhance the ability of competing ethnic groups to perceive not only
the common interests that unite them but the mutual goodwill and
solidarity that are requisite for multi-ethnic coexistence. The
politics of incorporation urges the development of the political
culture of not only tolerance, but of solidarity, fellow feeling and
fair play. 

To summarize, I have argued that justification exists for rethinking
democratic criteria. Since the liberal underpinnings of democratic
theory made its application limited mainly to capitalist industrial
societies, I have defended the reconstruction of democracy so that it
can apply not only to multicultural societies but even to
underdeveloped communities. I have approached this problem not by
expanding democratic criteria but by reconceptualizing them. I argued
that democratic criteria favored the politics of integration which
espouses an individual-based but not a group-based integration. Since
it is only by promoting a group,based integration that one is able to
extend democratic criteria to under-developed societies I have
advocated the politics of incorporation. Drawing on views from
Habermas, Young and other post-structuralist thinkers, I argued that
the reality of group differences, which the politics of incorporation
advocates, ought not to constitute a stumbling block to democratic
unity. This problem can be avoided by focussing our attention on, and
removing structural impediments to, intergroup relations. The removal
of structural impediments prepares the way for the development of the
culture of solidarity, fellow feeling and fair play on which the
revised democratic criteria rest. 


It is useful at this point to show that democratic theory as
reconstructed, is superior to development theory and is able to
overcome three serious objections against development theory; namely,
it (development theory) assumes that democracy cannot work in
underdeveloped states; it focusses on the activities of the state and
not on the individual; and it cannot prevent parochial tendencies in
post-colonial states. 

First, since development theory equates democratic values with values
associated with modern man, traditional values are regarded as
stumbling blocks to development. In effect, democracy will function
only when underdeveloped states become developed and by implication
traditional man is transformed into modern man. 

Revised democratic theory rejects the argument that traditional
society first has to be transformed into modern society before it can
sustain a democratic regime. It sees no need to relinquish ethnic or
communal values to qualify for democracy. Revised democratic theory
takes as its starting point the postulate that people are the same
everywhere, with the same basic material needs, such as the need for
food, clothing and shelter. They also have social and cultural needs.
Thus, revised democratic theory argues that a truly democratic state
ought to recognize and make it possible for people to enjoy their
diverse needs. For instance, one does not have to forego ones ethnic
or cultural values to qualify as a democratic citizen. The attainment
of citizenship from the revised view depends less on the
transformation to modern society and more on establishing a culture of
solidarity, fairness and fellowship. While the presumed civilized
values of modern man may be useful in the political culture just
described, they are in no way crucial. 

Second, development theory is criticized for focussing primarily on
the state. The development mode favors a framework of analysis which
emphasizes the functional dimension of the changes that occur in the
developing states. This approach makes it easy to compare states at
different levels of development. However, this framework is much too
narrow to account for a number of vital processes. For instance, it
can not prevent statism nor does it explain the connection between the
lack of accountability and economic failure. 

On the basis of the revised democratic theory we are able to show that
a causal link exists between the lack of accountability and the recent
spate of economic failures in Africa. Governmental accountablility is
not only necessary to ensure economic progress but also political
control of the rulers by the ruled. A government which cannot deliver
on its campaign promises cannot remain in power for long. It will face
the prospect of being thrown out when it seeks renewal of its mandate.
The fact that the political agenda is controlled by the people is
itself a hopeful sign that economic interests will not be neglected.
Statism is destroyed as a result of the devolution of power to the
localities. It is the inevitable consequence of giving people power
over the political agenda. 

Furthermore, development theory is accused of ignoring the individual
and concentrating exclusively on the activities of the state. This is
clearly the effect of functional analysis preoccupation with the
development model. The revised democratic theory refocuses on the
political role of the citizen in society. It asserts that democratic
citizenship requires autonomous individual political actors. However,
it is not political autonomy that is implied in this case but the
individual who is shaped and influenced by culture and society in the
way denied by the liberal state. Ones autonomy does not derive from
his being rescued from ones culture or ethnic group but from the
facilitation of free and uncoerced movement of the individual from one
group to the other. Such a process aids the individual to realize and
diversify ones interests. 

Third, development theory is accused of being unable to prevent
parochial tendencies in African politics. According to development
theory parochialism would be unavoidable until African societies had
been transformed into modem states. Parochial tendencies merely
reflect the existence of the values of underdevelopment in African
politics, in particular, irrationality and tribalism. These values
make parochial politics unavoidable and attractive in the African

The revised democratic theory does not view parochialism as
unavoidable in African politics. Parochialism is an obstacle whose
removal is vital to the democratization process. Unlike development
theory, revised democratic theory does not urge political and social
transformation as a remedy. Instead, it approaches the problem from
two fronts: (1) It seeks to eliminate all structures of domination and
oppression in intergroup relations, thereby promoting solidarity among
individuals from different groups; and (2) it urges that political
parties be based on universalist ideals before they could be
recognized in the state. Both these solutions are complementary and
mutually reinforcing. 

The failure of the development framework of analysis does not mean
that some of its concepts cannot still be useful. A concept such as
development is destined for a vital role in the revised democratic
framework of analysis. But we must be careful not to confuse its role
and place in revised democratic theory with its function in
development theory. I have pointed out elsewhere that development had
a teleological function in development theory. It indicated the
liberal capitalist pathway to development, socioeconomically and
politically. On the other hand, the revised democratic conception of
development is construed as neutral in the sense that it does not
predetermine or favor a preferred pathway to development. On the
contrary, it recognizes and supports different approaches to political
and socioeconomic development so long as they lend themselves to
pragmatic justification. 

Moreover, the revised democratic framework of analysis is, unlike
functional analysis, fully aware of the dependent economic
relationship between the postcolonial state and the former colonial
powers. This unbroken dependent economic relationship with the
colonial past is in part responsible for Africas economic woes. Thus,
development strategies will now have to take into account not only
internal constraints but also external constraints to development.
Some hard choices will have to be made. The fact that African states
are the victims of unfair global trading practices, stemming from
their dependent economies, show that structural adjustment programs
and the democratization of the political process will not ensure
economic progress. The chain of economic dependence must first be
disposed of before a meaningful beginning to full economic recovery
can take place. 

There are considerable expectations in many quarters that a return to
democracy will constitute a vital part of the solution to Africa s
problems. This article supports this view with a caveat. Africa must
learn from the mistakes of the past in order to avoid repeating them.
In this regard I have tried to point out two areas of grave concern:
(1) that the development approach to the study of African politics was
flawed and inadequate; and (2) that the democratic approach offers the
best alternative for the study of African politics, only if democratic
theory, which is itself notoriously in need of repair, is
reconstructed. If recent democratic trends have, as I suspect, failed
to heed the mistakes of the past and have proceeded more or less along
the discredited path, then the promise of democracy may once again
elude the African continent and its people. 



1. International lending agencies and OECD member states have insisted
on democratic reforms in developing states. Similar sentiments are
expressed in the World Bank publication, Toward Sustained Development
in Sub-Saharan Africa (Washington, DC: World Bank, 1984). 
2. This point is widely accepted in the African Studies literature.
For example, see Patrick Chabal, Power in Africa (New York: St.
Martins Press, 1992); Donald Rothchild and Naomi Chazan, eds., The
Precarious Balance:. State and Society in Africa (Boulder: Westview
Press, 1988). 
3. For a critical overview see John Lonsdale, Political
Accountability in African History, in P. Chabal, ed., Political
Domination in Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986). 
4. On the idea of the nation-state see Chabal, 1986, ibid., Chapters 2
and 3; also All Mazrui and Michael Tidy, Nationalism and New States in
Africa (London: Heinemann, 1984); Ronald Cohen and John Middleton,
eds., From Tribe to Nation in Africa (Scranton: Chandler Publishing,
5. Democratic theorists were and still are of the mistaken opinion
that if the African leadership tried hard enough and were less
corrupt, democracy might succeed. For a contrary view see Lonsdale,
Political Accountability, op.cit. Also Colin Leys, The
Overdeveloped Colonial State: A Re-Evaluation, Review of African
Political Economy, vol. 5 (Spring 1976). 
6. Paul Commack, David Pool and William Tordoff, Third World Political
(Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988). 
7. See Jean-Francois Bayart, Civil Society in Africa, in Chabal,
1986, op. cit., pp. 112-3. 
8. For a nationalist view see Kwame Nkrumah, Consciencism (New York:
Monthly Review Press, 1964), and Leopold Sedar Senghor, On African
Socialism (New York: Praeger, 1964). 
9. See G. Almond and J. Coleman, The Politics of Developing Areas
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960). For a critical overview
see Richard Sandbrook, The Crisis in Political Development Theory, 
Journal of Development Studies, vol. 2, no. 2 (1976). 
10. See Patrick Chabal, op. cit., pp. 11-15. 
11. See Walt W. Rostow, The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist
Manifesto (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960), and Seymour
Martin Lipset, Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic
Development and Political Legitimacy, American Political Science
Review, vol. 53 (March 1959), pp. 69-105. 
12. Gabriel Almond and Sydney Verba, The Civic Culture (Boston:
Little, Brown and Company, 1965). See also Lucian Pye and Sydney
Verba, eds. , Political Culture and Political Development (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1965). 
13. A clear statement of the inherent weaknesses of development theory
is given by Chabal. See Chabal, op. cit., 1992. 
14. For his insightful criticism of developmental dictatorship see
Richard Sklar, Democracy in Africa, in Chabal, op. cit., 1986. 
15. Functionalism as a theory is not a set of causal laws but an
interpretation which places a prior emphasis and value on the
normative elements of social systems. 
16. See Chabal, op. cit., 1992. 
17. Ibid., p. 14. 
18. See Sklar, in Chabat, op. cit., 1986. 
19. The need to provide an alternative theory of state development was
to a large extent championed by American political scientists who felt
obligated to stem the tide of the communist menace in Africa and
around the world. For a treatment of this problem see Karl Deutsch,
The Nerves of Government (London: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1963).
Also Rostow, op. cit. 
20. See Amy Gutmann, Liberal Equality (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1980). 
21. In the search for some alternative to both communism and liberal
democracy, Chabal, among others, has suggested that we devise a
normative framework to determine political obligation in the
postcolonial state. 
22. Democratic criteria had in the past been adapted to city-state
communities and more recently to nation-state communities, with a
homogenous character. Our task is to explore the possibility of
adapting democratic criteria to multi-cultural societies. 
23. See Chabal, op. cit., 1992, pp. 38-53. 
24. Lonsdale, op. cit., 1986. 
25. Sierra Leone was a classic case of a managed process by the
colonizers. In some countries there were of course violent uprisings
which brought about early independence. However, this was more the
exception than the rule. Most African states went through managed
26. See Thomas Hodgkin, Nationalism in Colonial Africa (London:
Frederick Muller, 1956). 
27. Chabal, Lonsdale, Tordoff and others made mention of the rather
difficult task that nationalists inherited. 
28. See William Tordoff, Government and Politics in Africa
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984). 
29. On the invention of nationalist myths see Chabal, op. cit., 1992. 
30. See Tordoff, op. cit., 1984, pp. 29-50. 
31. The state in Africa is not the liberal state but the conquering
state; a colonial invention, civil society is defined in
contradistinction to the state. AH those who are not part of the
oppressive machinery of the state belong to civil society. They
constitute the powerless, the disenfranchised. They could be found in
all walks of life: villagers, fishermen, priests and mullahs,
intellectuals, military officers etc.all those without access to the
32. B. Berman, Structure and Process in the Bureaucratic States of
Colonial Africa, Development and Change, vol. 15 (1984). 
33. Robert A. Dahl, Democracy and its Critics (New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1989), pp. 13-24. 
34. Iris Marion Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), p. 91. 
35. See John Locke, The Second Treatise of Government, P. Laslett,
ed., (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960). 
36. D. Rothchild, Hegemonial Exchanges: An Alternative Model for
Managing Conflicts in Middle Africa, in Thompson and Ronen, eds.,
Ethnicity, Politics and Development (Boulder: Lynne Reinner, 1986). 
37. The formation of nationalist parties based on universalist
principles is certainly one way of meeting the challenge. 
38. Young, op. cit., 1990. 
39. Jurgen Habermas, Communication and the Evolution of Society,
Thomas McCarthy, trans., (Boston: Beacon Press, 1979). 
40. Robert Dahl listed these five criteria for evaluating democratic
politics. See Dahl, op. cit., 1989, pp. 106-115. 
41. Young, op. cit., 1990, p. 43. 
42. Development theorists have approached the problem in this manner.
Ethno-political communities should first be modernized before
democratic rule can be instituted, 
43. See Quentin Skinner, On Justice, the Common Good and the Priority
of Liberty, in Chantal Mouffe, ed., Dimensions of Radical Democracy
(London: Verso, 1992). 
44. See Dahls helpful comments on this problem in his Dilemmas of
Pluralist Democracy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), pp.
45. See John Rawls treatment of justice as fairness in his A Theory
of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971). An
amplification of this view in a non-liberal context is offered by
Michel Rosenfeld in his Affirmative Action and Justice (New Haven:
Yale University Press, 1991). 
46. Dahl views competitive politics as vital to the democratic
process. In a sense it is the engine that moves the political machine
in the right direction. See Dahl, op. cit., 1989. 
47. See Tordoff, op. cit., 1984, Chapter 5. 
48. Ibid., p. 108. 
49. See Chabal, op. cit., 1992. 
50. Tanzania under former President Nyerere made this a priority. The
fact that there is less ethnic tension in Tanzania can be attributed
to Nyereres earlier effort to unify the nation. 
51. Denis L. Cohen, Election and Election Studies in Africa, in
Yolama Barongo, ed., Political Science in Africa (London: ZED Press,
1983), pp. 86-87. For an overview on future elections in Africa see
also Fred Hayward, Perspectives on Twentyfive Years of Elections in
Sierra Leone, in Fred Hayward and Jimmy Kandeh, ads., Elections in
Independent Africa (Boulder: Westview Press, 1987). 
52. Groups are viewed here in relational rather than in substantive
terms. It is therefore in the dynamics of group relations that serious
impediments to individual autonomy develop. The removal of these
structures from inter-group relations would eliminate group strife and
hostile intentions. 

By George Munda Carew 
George Munda Carew is Visiting Professor at the
Department of Philosophy at the University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA
Copyright 1993 by Africa Today. Text may not be copied without the
express written permission of Africa Today. 

Carew, George, Development theory and the promise of Democracy: the
future of postcolonial African states.., Vol. 40, Africa Today,
01-01-1993, pp 31. 
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