“Democracy” Has Failed to Deliver Basic Human Needs to Africa’s Neediest


By Washington Osiro,

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

American psychologist Abraham Maslow is best known for developing the psychological theory known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The theory posits that humans are predisposed to “satisfying” their physical needs before “satisfying” their more abstract transcendental wants. The latter needs are the ones that sit atop the hierarchy and include self-actualization, esteem, and love/sense of belonging.

One can question whether the progression from satisfying one’s needs to the next – along the hierarchy – happen serially or in parallel. Must one (completely) satisfy their hunger for food and sustenance and protect themselves from the elements BEFORE embarking on their quest for safety, love, belonging, and spirituality, or can they pursue these needs simultaneously? The initial question can also be superimposed onto the larger society, i.e., a collection of humans:

Does society need to satisfy its collective physical needs before pursuing its more ethereal, less tangible desires, or can it seek both concurrently?

My take is that a people can pursue their physical and spiritual needs in parallel. Likewise, society can seek food & shelter and simultaneously create a safe and nurturing environment where a plurality of its members believe/feel they “belong.” Additionally, this pursuit towards the higher ideal, i.e., self-actualization away from the more basic and practical needs, is dynamic and oscillates along a continuum – from one end of the hierarchy to the other. Social and human development does not follow a straight line.

The preceding preamble sets the stage for a discussion regarding Democracy.

Is this widely touted form of government optimum for Africa/Africans, or does it reflect a continental rush towards fool’s gold? This question takes on added urgency when these societies are faced with crises such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Such problems require strong, mature, and independent bureaucracies and agencies (legislature, judiciary, media, civil society, law enforcement) to confront and mitigate. Importantly, these institutions must check-and-balance the inevitable arrogance of those who sit atop the respective agencies – ESPECIALLY the executive.

(For this article, Democracy is defined as a “system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.”)

In a 2018 piece in The Conversation. Prof. Nic Cheeseman offered that “In countries like Kenya and Zimbabwe, some have argued that their leaders should operate more like Kagame. In other words, that job creation and poverty alleviation are more important than free and fair elections.” The “some” in this quote is David Murathe (Jubilee Party Vice-Chairman, Kenya) and Paidamoyo Muzulu (Journalist, Zimbabwe). The two men place job creation and poverty alleviation, i.e., both efforts aimed at satisfying the physical needs of Kenyans and Zambians, ahead of abstractions such as “free and fair elections.”

Democracy’s Failure to Deliver Basic Services – Pt. I

Interestingly, America, the self-described bastion of Democracy and free/fair elections, does not have a “free and fair election” if one considers the over-sized role the two hundred and seventy (270) Electoral College (EC) votes play in electing its president – ahead of the popular vote. Some, present company included, still cannot understand how a plurality of votes does not garner on the US Presidency. Add to the preceding EC conundrum, the many credible reports of voter suppression of mostly African American and minority voters primarily by the various Republican-controlled statehouses, and one begins to see how malleable and convenient the definition of “free and fair elections” is. The COVID-19 pandemic has powerfully illustrated that man cannot subsist on Democracy or freedom of speech. An alarming number in America, the world’s premier economy, barely have enough to eat, and lines at the various food banks have grown unusually long. In short, America’s response to the ongoing pandemic, along with Kenya’s and UK’s, have exposed the limitations of Democracy. Indeed, while one can point to other democracies such as Germany, New Zealand, South Korea, and Finland that have fared better than America and UK during the crisis, it is the ineptitude of the US and UK that, for me, has stood out.

It is worth noting that while New Zealand’s Jacinda Arden has become a global benchmark for competent and empathetic leadership and crisis management, devotees of America’s 2nd Amendment (right to bear arms) would vehemently disagree that her New Zealand is a “democracy” given the speed with which the country’s legislature banned semi-automatic weapons – after a white supremacist gunned down 50 Muslim worshipers in Christchurch.

It is equally ironic and hypocritical that the obvious strongman politics of the West’s two most prominent populists appeal to the same demographic that staunchly supports the “constitutional right” to own guns – at least in America. The crisis management performance of the two pre-eminent democracies – USA and UK – has given pause to those who see “full” Democracy as a panacea for all that ails society and for human development. Contrastingly, the performance of quasi-democracies such as Singapore, South Korea, and Rwanda in response to the pandemic has garnered praise. In short, the physical needs of Singaporeans, Koreans, and Rwandese have been tended to while those of Brits and Americans have been left wanting. The pandemic has exposed as tenuous, the expectation that democracy “makes rulers responsive to the demands of the poor for social services” – including basic needs and healthcare.

“Benevolent” Authoritarianism Delivers Basic Human Needs – Including Peace and Stability

Rwanda, a country less than one generation removed from the mass killings that horrified the world in 1994, has achieved a level of social and human development that most of her neighbors with lengthier periods of peace, stability, and comparatively mature democratic institutions can only dream of. In twenty-five years and however tenuous, Paul Kagame has willed the country’s erstwhile Hutu and Tutsi antagonists towards a safe, secure, and well-nourished society even as the man’s detractors question his authoritarianism and manhandling of political opponents and critics. The country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic was no exception – reports of lockdown-related deaths notwithstanding.

The Atlantic Council writes that Kigali’s “robust nationwide response” to COVID-19 was “aided by its previous success in combating Ebola…..in 2019.” In responding to the virus, the supposedly authoritarian government of Kagame spoke clearly and with a singular voice. This clarity of message allowed standardization and coherence of said message and of critical decisions across the country even as “democracies” such as Kenya, UK, and America remained ham-fisted by lack of a consistent and coherent message on crucial actions such as timing/scope of lockdowns, use of facemasks and related PPEs, food distribution, etc. In short, and as observed by a piece on Fortune, “Rwanda saw coronavirus cases grow from two to 134…..while Belgium, Rwanda’s former colonizer with a similar population, went from two cases to 7,400. New York City, with about three-quarters of Rwanda’s population and arguably one of America’s coronavirus success stories, is still seeing nearly 300 new cases each day.

Pursuit of Democracy should not be an intellectual exercise. It should be about delivering basic service to the neediest.

Taken together, Kigali appears to have done a better job than Nairobi, DC, London, and Brussels in servicing the basic needs of Rwandese even as an alarming number of Kenyans, Americans, Brits, and Belgian struggle to find food and shelter amidst their much-touted democratic freedoms, human rights and “greatness”.

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided further confirmation that Africa’s six-plus decades’ investment in Democracy and democratic institutions have not yielded quality of life benefits commensurate with the efforts and sacrifices Africans have made towards their end nor has it fulfilled the promises the system’s proponents have made to the continent.

To paraphrase a takeaway from an article in The African Courier, the promise of Democracy and democratic ideals has not satisfied the basic needs of Africans. Instead, it has offered them “development based on…..the vicious cycle of indebtedness…..and outsourcing the sovereign prerogatives of the continent.” Along the way, the quest a demonstrably malleable abstraction and her equally pliant institutions has yielded policies that put “profit-making, domination, and power capture” over the provision of basic needs of those most in need.

At best, Africa’s pursuit for Democracy remains a work-in-progress and that is being charitable. The reality is that the continent’s pursuit of “government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives” remains an intellectual exercise even as the practical and daily realities of the continent’s millions is one of unmet basic needs and squandered or pilfered resources.