In Africa, generally, the left-right political divide does not make much sense. I do not remember the last time I heard of a Nigerian political party with meaningful social democratic ideals. I have instead listened to populist politicians talk about how they would make education, health care, and social welfare available to all, without saying anything about the sacrifice that would have to come with that.Perhaps the only semblance of that divide to be found in the recent past is in the parties created by General Babangida. You remember Social Democratic Party and National Republican Convention? Despite the ‘official’ ideologies of the parties, anybody who knew anything about their members knew that they were all cut from the same cloth. That is aside from the fact that they were artificially created, state-sponsored, parties.
We had our own 1989 in Africa. It started in Benin. Mathieu Kerekou’s military regime put out a press release a few weeks after the Berlin Wall came down. The regime declared that Marxism-Leninism was no longer going to be the official ideology of the state. A National Conference followed a few months later in February 1990. Other countries, mostly from Francophone Africa, also convened national conferences – Congo in February 1990, Gabon in March 1990, Zaire (now DRC) in February 1991, Togo in July/August 1991, Niger in July 1992, and Chad in January 1993. These countries were in a fiscal mess by then.
Enter Structural Adjustment Programme.
Washington Consensus, a term coined in 1989, started reigning supreme. The way countries in fiscal nightmares and economic woes could get out was by the adoption of structural adjustments programmes sponsored by the Washington-D.C-based, Bretton Woods institutions, the World Bank and the IMF. Under structural adjustment programmes, the first thing that had to go was as much of government spending as possible. Privatisation of government-owned companies and the deregulation of government-controlled sectors followed. If these were not done, the states would not get help from the Bretton Woods institutions.
African states were advised to withdraw from the provision of social services. In actually fact, by then, they could not afford to provide those services anymore, due to the inefficiency of the government, and/or corruption. It was not only communism that lost when the Wall fell; like Ian Buruma rightly pointed out in a recent article, social democrats lost the Marxist ideological basis for the ideals they were promoting.
It was also about then that the World Bank discovered that ‘civil society’ could be a vehicle for development. Defined in the most inclusive sense, civil society included non-governmental organizations. Development aid for the ‘people’ was channeled through them, the ‘third sector’. If one could not get a job with the government or a private company, one either started an NGO if one was resourceful enough, or one went to work for one.
Things first became much worse, especially with the withdrawal of the state from the provision of many social services. But people adjusted; and then things got better. Companies that were ‘properly’ privatized did not perform much worse than private companies in the developed world. Same with companies that were started in deregulated sectors of the economy.
The loss of the moral basis of socialist ideals along with the fall of the Wall meant that the death of the African Welfare State was without even a whimper. Francis Fukuyama called it The End of History. States learnt that they either jumped on the bandwagon of neo-liberal policies or go the way Zimbabwe went soon after.
In Africa of today, we have a wide range of states – from rentier states to client states – all with a more or less capitalist outlook, most pseudo-democratic. Totalitarian states of the 80s had to look for ways to legitimize their rule by adopting a semblance of multi-party democracy.
Today, poverty and lack of security are still huge problems; corruption is still a major issue; public infrastructure is in a mess. Africa needs progressive, modern, outward looking democratic states. If that is the kind of state we want, this is a good time to have a debate on what their role should be.