OBSERVATIONS ON DEMOCRACY AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT


General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida

Being Chairman’s Opening Remarks on the occasion of a Public Lecture on Democracy and Economic Development” by Mr. Bill Clinton, former President, United States of America under the auspices of the Nigerian Institute of international Affairs.

In an ordinary day, my task as Chairman of this occasion would be an easy one. It is still an easy one because of the calibre of persons in whose company I find myself today. More importantly the speaker for this occasion is a rare individual in recent history.

He has the singular distinction of combining a great power of oratory with an acute intellect. His statesmanship belies his relative youth and he left the imprint of his genius not only on the political and economic life of his great nation but also on the entire world. This gentleman, in eight years at the helm of the most powerful and influential country in the world redefined the parameters of world leadership and the global economy. He gave new meaning to international peace and co-operation. He redefined new frontiers for American foreign policy, drew a new road map especially for America’s engagement with Africa and the Third World.

While his predecessors in office had largely related to Africa as a zone of the mysterious and occult instability, a far away and largely unknown frontier at the periphery of world affairs, this man saw Africa in a new light. He perceived the warmth of Africa’s humanism and its rich cultural heritage. He saw the continent as a viable destination for courageous investors. For him Africa remains a potential partner in development and indeed a place that deserves the attention of the industrialized world. For him Africa’s underdevelopment remains a moral indictment of the prosperous industrialized world and a blight on the conscience of the world. Even after he left office, he has carried on with this commitment, insisting that Africa has the resources and bright future that deserve to be harnessed for the good of all humanity. I am speaking of none other than the Illustrious Mr. Bill Clinton, former President of the United States of America, a friend of Africa, an honorary citizen of Nigeria and easily one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century.

Perhaps there is no one more eminently qualified to deliberate on the topic of this lecture than President Bill Clinton. He redefined America’s foreign policy in a fundamental way. For him, the triumph of liberal democracy especially in the countries of the Third World would be meaningless if political democracy did not translate into economic development for the diverse peoples of the world. I believe that this is the reason behind his strenuous engagements and courageous initiatives on African development.

That vision defines this moment. It sets the tone for this lecture and indeed defines for all African leaders today the critical challenge of our modern democratic experience. Today, the issues of democracy and economic development have come to the fore perhaps more than ever before. Before I hand over the pedestal to the honourable speaker, I would, therefore, like to share with you some of my own thoughts and concerns on these issues.

In the new democracies of Africa, I see the relationship between democracy and economic development as the defining problematic of this age. I believe that fundamentally, there can be no meaningful development without freedom. Genuine development takes place only when the energies of a free people are allowed to flower in the form of individual initiative, which creates private wealth and leads to national prosperity and a contended citizenry. While all developed countries are democracies in one form or the other, it is not the case that all countries that espouse democratic forms of government are developed or even necessarily stand the chance of developing economically. This corollary finds its greatest test in today’s Africa. A good number of African countries some of whom have practised formal democracy since independence have in recent times turned from bread baskets, into baskets cases of economic calamity. This indicates that in order for democratic governance to produce economic development, a number of conditions must be met.

In the West, democracy came about as a consequence of the economic prosperity and expansion of opportunities following the Industrial Revolution and the pressure by the new economically strategic segments of the populace to have an increasing say in who governs them and how the fruits of their labour would be appropriated by those whom they elected to govern them. In today’s Africa, the reverse is being brought to bear, namely, formal democracy is being challenged to provide the economic opportunities that would lead to its very sustenance and survival. To my mind, Africa’s historic challenge is that of how to prove that it can use formal democracy to achieve economic development.

In the post-Cold War era, the triumph of democracy as a universal value has not quite allowed individual nations time enough to deliberate on the precise relationship that ought to subsist between democracy and the urgent need to rapidly develop these economies. In order to be genuinely free, people must be free not only to express their electoral wishes in periodic free and fair elections, they must also be free from the kind of abject poverty and want that drives people in much of Africa into desperate acts.

The resultant violence, senseless civil wars and unrest constitute perhaps the greatest obstacles to the survival of democracy on our continent. In other words, world history has imposed a largely Western form of democracy on an increasing number of countries in Africa and the Third world. This, as it were, is the definitive burden of modern history. In an attempt to be correct in democratic form, many African countries are spending a greater percentage of their resources on maintaining very elaborate apparatus and paraphernalia of the democratic state. They are spending an even greater percentage in debt repayment. The very little that is left is divided between economic development and resolution of conflicts that arise as result of poverty caused by the high cost of governance and the debt burden. This vicious cycle defines our current crisis as a continent.

I think the challenge of the moment in Africa especially is that of hoax to preserve and protect the basic principle of democratic society one polity at such a cost and in such a manner that allows for the economic empowerment of the populace whose duty it is to protect democracy in the long run.

In this regard, I believe that African leaders have a huge challenge. It is the challenge of striking the right balance between the cost of democracy and the urgent need to uplift the standards of living of the people. Both incidentally have to be pursued simultaneously. This confronts us with the dilemma of inherent resource poverty on the part of most of these countries as well as increasing economic and social burdens. Our countries may be potentially rich in natural and mineral resources but we are getting poorer as the years roll by as E result of this dilemma.

But there is a way out. I believe that democracy is a value, which in and of itself is desirable and good for mankind. The developed countries of the world for whom democracy has translated into tremendous economic prosperity have a civilisational challenge in Africa. Democracy as a civilisational value must travel far flung and new frontiers clad in the garb of prosperity. For the United States in particular, freedom and democracy are more than slogans. They are at the centre of American life and the triumph of American civilisation. To that extent, the United States which is the world’s most powerful and richest country has a civilisational challenge o ensuring that wherever democracy is embraced, it must be accompanied by signs of economic wellbeing which ordinary people around the world have come to associate with what can be called the Age of America in world of history.

I have grave fears that unless the developed world takes this civilizational view of democracy and pursues it with the kind universalistic zeal that informed the work of the early Christian missionaries in parts of the world, there will soon come a time when whole peoples out of poverty and desperation, will begin to question the relevance and not the essence of formal democracy. We must not allow democracy fatigue to set in on Africa because the alternative is an unthinkable nightmare.

An impoverished and desperate people is the greatest threat to democracy. Therefore, the content of the lives in these countries, if unattended, could end up vitiating the ideals of democracy. Therefore the challenge as I see it is to modulate the form of democracy in individual countries in a manner that strikes a critical balance between the maintenance of basic freedoms and the acceleration of economic and social development. This is perhaps the only way to empower that new vanguard of Africans and peoples round the world whose duty and obligation it will be to protect, advance and consolidate democracy as a universal value in the future.

For African leaders, I think this challenge is essentially one of management of resources in order to strike that delicate balance. It is perhaps only by convincingly striking that balance through transparent, compassionate, focused, imaginative, accountable and least driven governance that the rest of the world can begin to engage is more seriously.

Thank you while we now await the submission of our distinguished guest lecturer.