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Oil wealth frails Africa’s dangling democracy

07.06.2019
Article from AFRIC Editorial
A country with surplus natural resources may likely suffer from poor democracy, a relationship which may at first seem elusive but a closer look portrays a correlation between the two factors. The glitches faced by most African states which can boast of great wealth of natural resources leave a rhetorical question as to whether these resources are a blessing or a curse. Most oil-rich countries in Africa have the tendency of being undemocratic which corroborates a cross-national data finding indicating that oil hinders democracy. This has been a topic of debate as public perceptions remain mixed but a growing majority attest to the fact that oil producing countries are likely to have less democracy.

Democracy is generally construed in two ways: electoral and liberal democracy. Electoral democracy focuses more on free and open elections while the latter is based on political freedom and civil liberties.  Whether electoral or liberal, democracy is an important aspect in every state. Statistics shows that almost one and half of the world’s population lives in democracy, while 11% are in “full democracies”, representing 15% of all the countries in the world. This implies that about 37% of the people in the world are still under authoritarian rule. In Africa, only 9 of 53 countries have been earmarked as democratic nations while 31 of them are authoritarian.

While most countries are striving to achieve democracy, research has it that oil states in Africa portray some common features that make them unlikely to become democratic. Although these countries benefit immensely from the existence of ‘black gold’, they are all prone to three major aspects: autocracy, corruption, and civil war. Taking the case of Nigeria where a civil war erupted partly foiled by ethnic groups fighting over oil proceeds.

Three aspects have been identified which links oil-producing countries to authoritarian rule. These factors include the taxation effect where governments use low tax rates and high spending to suppress the call for democracy; the repression effect where the governments tighten up internal security, and a modernization effect, where the inability of the masses to undergo certain social changes renders them less likely to push for democracy.

Oil Paradox Vis a Vis development in Africa

Most oil producing countries became very optimistic at the discovery of oil wells in the country. This optimism was portrayed during the assessment of future revenues when most of them increased their spending. Oil countries like Algeria tried to make the most of the money gotten from the oil sector by establishing petrochemical and steel industries.

Unfortunately, the plans made by these countries were foiled in 1985 with the decline in oil prices. Countries that increased expenditure became unsustainable which forced many of them to run into debts. This resulted in the fact that countries that were rich in oil witnessed slower economic growth than other countries. The Republic of Congo which was lavishing in wealth at the time of high prices suddenly plunged into an economic recession which it is yet to recover from. Its economy is slowing down which pushed the government to join OPEC in 2018 as they hope to attract more investment in the sector. Gabon also suffered a similar situation following the collapse in oil prices as the government had to scale down spending. Angola equally followed the same trend some years after.

Many people thought that the discovery of oil in the country was the key to economic growth and prosperity, but the reality has been very different.

Oil wealth adversely correlates democracy

The impact oil wealth has on the democratic process of oil-producing countries goes contrary to the development theory which indicates that increased wealth in a state often aids in the process of democratization.

The exploitation of the continent’s oil reserves largely contributes to authoritarian rule in Libya, the persistence of corrupt leadership in Equatorial Guinea, and the militarization of Chad.

Instead of using these vast resources for the betterment of the populations, most governments use it to consolidate power. In Angola and Gabon for instance, those in authority use the proceeds from oil rents to pay off supporters and wave off potential political rivals. Oil was also cited as one of the major reasons why Dos Santos in Angola held onto power for so long before eventually stepping down in 2017 after 38 years.

When a country’s coffers grow big from oil revenues, there is lost accountability between state and society and the tendency for the state to become very repression is imminent, as a bulk of the revenues generated by oil is used to fund the buying of weapons. The governments in most of these countries turn to focus more on internal security and quell every attempt by the masses to demand political reforms. Cameroon is a typical example of such countries that suffers government brutality, as any attempt to demand reforms is brutally quelled. The government unleashes its military might in the face of the least uprising which scares the masses from holding them accountable. Thus, the chances for democracy is very unlikely under a repressive government. All these characteristics are glaring in Angola, Cameroon, and the Republic of Congo where the state is very quick to silence calls for political reform. Denizens in Congo live in fear of the political class since any negative interference with state activities leads to devastating consequences. Cameroon’s maximum security prison is today jam-packed with many political prisoners as well as unarmed civilians who dared raise an eyebrow against the regime.

The aspect of corruption fueled by the massive embezzlement of state funds cannot be left out. When officials become very corrupt and fill their pockets with state money, they try by all means to block public scrutiny, thereby leaving no room for freedom of any sort in the country.

Foreign interest in these oil producing countries is a killer factor to democracy. Foreign countries are known to supports despots in an attempt to secure the benefits they derive from the oils. France is one of those countries which has been backlashed for providing support to governments to quell dissent by its people especially if it affects their interest. They support friendly dictators to stay in power for personal gains either by providing military assistance and training, enhancing their ability to ward off popular uprisings.

However, even though the presence of oil has made democracy unlikely in most of these countries, they are not bound to remain undemocratic. With the proper approach, these countries can reverse their trajectories such as the case of Ghana which is battling alongside others the effects of the oil crisis to still stay among the democratic nations in Africa. States must thus learn to cope with the complex nature of this resource while providing maximum service to the people.

Article from AFRIC Editorial

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