Small African states don’t necessarily make better democracies

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Was ethnicity the biggest challenge? Was it infrastructure? Was it the colonial heritage? Does foreign aid do more good than harm? One question in particular was running through my head because it came up quite regularly and I was never quite sure how to answer it: does size matter?

The idea that it is easier to foster democracy in small countries makes intuitive sense. Of course, it must be easier to run a small country the same way as it is less demanding to run a small business: Wouldn’t there be less ethnic tensions and conflicts? And wouldn’t it be a godsend to provide public services to the population?

So for democracy, as in other areas of life, it’s not just size that matters, but what you do with it.

My New article – written with brilliants co-authors who did great research on these issues for a long time – reveals that this is only part of the story. Size is important, but so is the socio-economic context and political leadership. Many small countries in Africa are not just less authoritarian because of their size, but also because they have evolved into more cohesive societies that have made it easier to avoid conflict.

This did not happen naturally just because these countries were less populated, but because leaders made them a priority and – especially in the case of the small islands of the mainland – because the evolution of more integrated societies has. reduces the potential for generating ethnic and other divisions. political instability. So for democracy, as in other areas of life, it’s not just size that matters, but what you do with it.

Why small can be beautiful

At first glance, the experience of African states since the reintroduction of multiparty politics in the early 1990s suggests that what is small is beautiful.

The vast majority of countries generally classified as “Full democracies” are either physically small, like Ghana, or have small populations, like Botswana and Namibia, which have fewer than three million people.

Likewise, Benin and Senegal, two of the countries known to have opened enough and competitive political systems on the continent – at least until recently – have populations of only 12 million and 17 million, respectively.

The democratic fate of large African states also suggests that size matters. Of the ten most populous countries, only one – South Africa – is a democracy. Many others – Congo Democrats (DRC), Kenya, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Sudan – have experienced considerable conflict and long periods of authoritarianism.

There are a number of reasons why size may matter, such as the greater possibility of maintaining law and order in smaller territories, but perhaps the most interesting and overlooked factor is to be how size shapes the relationship between political leaders and their populations.

As we explain in the article, when populations are really small – as in countries like Cabo Verde, São Tomé and Príncipe and the Seychelles, which have less than 600,000 inhabitants – one particularly intimate form of politics can emerge where there is less distance between citizens and leaders. It is telling, for example, that the acronym of São Tomé, STP, is often jokingly interpreted as ‘somos todos primos’ (we are all cousins).

The direct relationship between citizens and senior politicians – which, in large countries, would be mediated by multiple broker levels – means that “clients” have more information and power vis-à-vis their “clients” than is often the case.

Although this may promote a form of extremely informal and corrupt political ties, it also places greater constraints on political leaders, reducing the prospect of authoritarian abuse.

Size limits

On closer inspection, however, the relationship between size and democracy turns out to be considerably less straightforward than it initially appears. While the least populated countries are on average more democratic than the older ones, some of the smaller countries in Africa are very authoritarian, including Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, eSwatini and Gabon.

There are also many small countries with a history of conflict and instability. Prolonged episodes of ethnic violence in countries such as Burundi and Rwanda puts to bed any idea that small states are inherently easy to manage, or necessarily generate more cohesive societies.

Being small has also not served to insulate countries from the authoritarian winds that have blown across the continent in recent years.

The last decade has seen growing concern about the democratic backsliding of a number of small countries that had previously been described as “leading democratic beacons”, including Benin. Mauritius and Senegal.

Islands of democracy?

Our item draws new lessons about the timing and importance of size by examining the experience of African small island states – Cabo Verde, Comoros, Mauritius, São Tomé and Príncipe and the Seychelles.

Although there are considerable variations between these countries, with Comoros having experienced more instability and more authoritarianism, this group of countries is significantly more democratic on average than those of the metropolitan area.

According to the famous index produced by Freedom House, while only 14% of mainland countries are “free”, this figure rises to 60% when looking at small island states.

We argue that size is an important part of the history of these countries, but so is their island status and the distinctive way their societies have evolved.

On the one hand, much of the population of these islands arrived relatively recently from other parts of the world, so it was clear that they were not “sons of the land”.

On the other hand, a process of creolization – the mix of different cultural heritages and ethnic groups – led to the “development of a new common culture and a collective identity” in countries such as Cape Verde and São Tomé.

Taken together, these processes have limited the emergence of “Membership policy” which has created so many challenges for democratic consolidation in parts of mainland Africa.

A similar process has occurred in some continental states, but only where post-colonial rulers have implemented nation building campaigns.

Being islands also helped in other ways. Limited global power fostered a stronger sense of a shared identity. At the same time, their the offshore location means these states were not as negatively affected by the spillover from the civil war or political upheavals in neighboring countries, which have sometimes hampered state building on the continent.

This doesn’t mean that being an island is a panacea or that it trumps size. As the eventful authoritarian history of Madagascar subject to coups – the fourth largest island in the world – offshore states with large populations can face as many democratic challenges as countries on the continent.

In other words, neither size nor “insularity” can alone explain the patterns we see in democracy in sub-Saharan Africa: it is the interaction between the two that reduces the risk of authoritarian rule.

Which way forward?

These findings are important to anyone interested in studying democracy in Africa, but hardly provide a useful roadmap for pro-democracy policy makers. Islands with cohesive societies cannot be created to reduce the prospect of authoritarianism, especially since the historical conditions that gave rise to this situation implied exploitative colonial domination.

There are some important lessons here for contemporary debates on the value of decentralization, and whether to allow disgruntled regions like Casamance (Senegal), Biafra (Nigeria) and Somaliland (Somalia) to separate and form new states would, however, stimulate development and democracy.

Leaving aside the question of whether small countries would be economically viable, secession is only likely to lead to more prosperous states if political elites commit to fostering more cohesive societies, integrating newly created minorities and majorities into a cohesive nation. It’s only when a more intimate politics goes hand in hand with progressive leadership that the little one really looks good.



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