While I was away, a couple of questions were playing on my mind. The first related to the desirability of a season of revolution in the southern part of Africa, as witnessed in North Africa and parts of the Arab world recently. Three readers gave their initial thoughts. One suggested that my thoughts might be premature in any case, as the Ugandan example was rather deceptive and not actually indicative of a really fundamental democratizing force in that country. This may well be true (I would be the first to admit that I am no specialist on the politics of Uganda). However, the theoretical question of whether a series of political upheavals would be a positive thing remains.
Another ventured that as long as the upheavals are genuinely democratic, they must be good things. There’s an obvious logic to this position: representative government is a good in it’s own right, regardless of its developmental impact. Plenty of others have discussed whether democracy or a kind of benevolent dictatorship is the ideal developmental form of Government (we’re all pretty much agreed that purely predatory dictatorship is a bad thing all round), and I don’t mean to rehash this argument here, except to say that the state that is most developmental in any given circumstance depends on the polity it governs, and there are probably multiple equilibria of varying stability that can be achieved.
Rather, I wonder if the principle reasons that there have been so few movements towards revolution or inquilab in any form in southern Africa has been that there is almost no gain from such action – that in some cases there is no alternative that is significantly more representative as opposed to differently representative. This is the point that MJ raised in his comment. Relatedly, it is also possible that how representative the Government is may actually have little impact on how well it responds to its citizenry.
Take the first possibility: that in few countries are there significantly better leaders waiting in the wings. One characteristic of contemporary commentators on upheavals is that they often put too much stock on the act of change, without spending enough time thinking about the content of change (I myself have often been guilty of this). There is some intrinsic value in upheaval and violent or forced change, namely that it creates the credible threat that bad governance will be punished even where political process leaves no space to legally generate punishment. However, we tend to get excited when a ‘bad’ leader is deposed even before we start considering how much better the new one will or can be. It is quite possible that changes, even those that depose leaders showing signs of authoritarianism, may simply usher in a worse or equally bad leadership.
Malawi is an example where this may be true. I’m not fully up to speed on Malawi’s contemporary political scene, but unless a new generation of political leadership has sprung up in the last three years, it’s difficult to see that any other politician placed in the same position as Bingu wa Mutharika will be any more democratic of progressive. His predecessor, Bakili Muluzi, was not a particularly progressive leader, and indeed Malawi had a significant improvement in the terms of its governance (particularly economic) under Mutharika. There has been some backsliding, but it’s clear that Malawi in 2011 is in a better place than it was in 2003. If Bingu were to leave power tomorrow, who are the alternatives with sterling democratic credentials? It’s not clear that any other leading politician would be travelling a significantly different path to Bingu.