Is Liberalism a Feasible Political Concept for Development in Africa?

Rejoice Ngwenya, who is an FNF Zimbabwe Consultant and Director of Coalition for Market and Liberal Solutions Shares his Opinion After a Recent Workshop in Senegal
Opinion03.12.2018Rejoice Ngwenya
Rejoice Ngwenya
Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom sub-Saharan Africa

Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) recently requested that I participate in a panel discussion at its dialogue centre in Dakar, Senegal. According to the regional director, Joachim Holden, this would be an interaction with a group of Senegalese FNF partners on the feasibility of liberalism from an African development context. Luckily, this forum coincided with Liberal International’s annual congress. The FNF meeting turned out to be a hotbed of diverse opinions.

In researching for this debate, my entry point was to what extent we Africans have been able to define Liberalism and how far we have embraced the label. I say so because leftist groups have cast aspersion by calling us ‘neo-liberal’, ‘agents of western imperialism’ and mostly in South Africa, ‘apologists of white monopoly capital’. If this wonderful ideology is misunderstood, it cannot be practiced. I am glad that from a ‘principles’ viewpoint, most Africans do appreciate the contextual and subtle difference between ‘freedom’ and ‘independence’. The continent has been ‘independent’ since the 1950s, yet the wave of democratisation has not been fully translated into ‘freedom’. Thus, this creates an opportunity for liberalism whose core principle exalts individual freedom. 

Opponents of the ideology like author Mazibuko Jara emphasise the socialist roots of liberation movements as the basis for rejecting liberalism’s ‘individualist and capitalist tendencies’, contrary to what they say is Africa’s communal paradigm. This gives more ammunition to our critics that our ideology is foreign, utopian and irrelevant in the African context of socialisation. However, the glaring failures of post-nationalist governments, increasing level of poverty and authoritarian tendencies (Zambia, Zimbabwe, DRC, Ethiopia, and Cameroon) mean that any ideology that promotes free markets, innovation, property rights, freedom and small government prevails. However, the issue we had to tackle in Dakar is whether Liberalism actually contributes to development.

The second question I asked myself is how Liberalism fares on the development versus regression spectrum of African polity and what examples this ‘success’ one can cite. Given, Africa’s liberation struggle was founded on the pillars of Marxist/Leninist socialist narratives yet it was as much about self-rule as it was about freedom. So in fact, I insist by default, African nationalist stalwarts like Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere and Nelson Mandela were actually fighting for liberalism. Of course, some Africans do not agree. Jara insists: “Black liberalism is an apology for capitalism… With its fundamentalism, liberalism is unable to explain how the “free market” has consistently produced inequality, poverty and misery for the overwhelming majority across the world.” I am at a loss how the curse of oligarchy in Russia, Cuba and Venezuela produce equality and wealth for all! I then created a comparative spectrum, or matrix that weighs the key tenets / principles / values of Liberalism against known or selected countries. In summary, tenet 1 was freedom. Most, if not all African geographic entities called ‘countries’ are generally independent (except Sahrawi). However, their constitutions / practices tend to exalt ‘independence’ while degrading basic freedoms. This retards development because free expression is key in innovation. Botswana, South Africa, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Kenya, Tanzania, Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal and Seychelles are relatively free. This means they rate highly by per capita incomes, infrastructure, access to health and the general ‘happiness index’ even though most of their ruling entities do not carry the liberal political party label. Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Somalia, Uganda, Equatorial Guinea and Libya have really never known peace, thus underdevelopment is rampant. 

Liberal tenet 2 was small government.  African governments tend to be bloated because of patronage, corruption and an over-desire to satisfy every social deficiency with a ‘ministry of something’. Ruling parties are insecure, thus hinge their survival on large armies and police. Except for Botswana and Mauritius, I do not know of any other African country with small government. Zimbabwe, South Africa and Kenya have large budget deficits largely due to corruption. This creates budgetary complications that crowd out private investors and thwarts development.

Tenet 3 is property rights.   The continent has fared well in respect of private property rights. This is why there is huge competition for Foreign Direct Investment. It is driven by China who do not attach any political conditions to investment. In war-torn countries like Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and South Sudan, one cannot talk about security of property. However, there is generally no link between ‘democracy’ and ‘secure property rights’, given the expropriation of land in both Zimbabwe and South Africa. This endangers investment, causes food security and leaves gapping rule of law craters.  

The last tenet I referred to was free markets. One of the biggest successes of Liberalism in Africa is embracing of market freedom and with it globalisation. There are fewer cases of government interference as Africans trade freely amongst each other (Comesa, EAC, and Ecowas). Multinational and conglomerate investment is now a growing trend. Botswana, South Africa, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Kenya, Tanzania, Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal and Seychelles are perfect examples of how free markets have succeeded in spurring African economic growth. Ironically, even in democracy stressed countries like Egypt, DRC, Burundi, Equatorial Guinea, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Sudan and Somalia there is a semblance of free market consciousness. It is my conclusion that liberalism has definitely overtaken the post-national mantra of socialist myopia, hence contributed to Africa’s development ‘fed’ by foreign direct investment.

On whether liberalism has been deliberately followed, implemented as a political concept and seen as a valuable concept to follow for emerging countries, I focus on three different versions to the question.  Are there are there any African countries where a typical liberal party is governing? Even where the political parties do not call themselves liberal, are those in power practising liberalism? Where the strongest opposition party in or outside government is liberal, are they agitating for liberal policies? In his treatise ‘Assessing How Far Democracy in South Africa is Liberal or IlliberalBryant Edward Harden opines: “The concept of liberal democracy is a contested form of government in Africa and around the world (Leon, 2010).  This contestation of liberalism can be attributed to the rise of electoral democracies that have been limited in their adoption of liberal tendencies as promoted by the West (Zakaria, 1997). “



My take is that South Africa’s constitution is liberal, thus the ANC may not per se be a liberal party, but their governance leans towards liberal democracy. So far, they have stemmed the tide of accusation by Julius Malema that they follow a neo-liberal agenda. Yet there is looming danger of illiberal behaviour in expropriation of property without compensation (EWC).  In Zimbabwe and its surrounding neighbours, governments practice liberalism, though not in its purest form but with occasional spasms of illiberal madness (e.g. land reform, large governments, state enterprises, crude electoral practices) yet the political concept is largely liberalism. There is currently hardly a country in the southern region of Africa that is socialist. Harden continues: “… as highlighted by the assessments of Freedom House and the Polity Project, the state of liberalism in a democracy is assessed using a scale or a continuum.  This continuum allows the consideration of illiberal elements of a democracy while also recognising its liberal achievements. “

My conclusion is that there is widespread practice of liberal ideas in Africa thus; it remains a valuable concept to follow for emerging countries. However, growing cases of income gaps and populism (as in South Africa’s Expropriation without Compensation) are a threat to liberalism because extremist elements like Julius Malema, Edgar Lungu, John Magufuli and Paul Kagame are the new frontier of illiberal madness.

For my opinion on Liberalism remaining a ‘nice to have’ abstract western-based philosophy rather than offering real value as a practical political instrument for development challenge Africa faces today, I turn for answer to blogger Shadi Hamid: “Perhaps liberalism is not the unmitigated good most of us are raised to believe it is. In an odd way, though, liberalism’s critics end up saying more about the resilience of liberalism than its demise.”  He concludes: “Perhaps the most we can hope for—or worry about—is just somewhat more illiberal liberal democracies, variations on a continuum but still largely stuck in a liberal universe.” 

My first take is that most, if not all political ideologies have a potential of remaining abstract if not well articulated. For instance, we Africans, or at least the illiberal ones like former president Robert Mugabe, always refer to democracy as being ‘foreign’ and having been ‘imposed on Africa by the West’. This is false. African traditional polity has always been democratic. There is nothing impossible about ‘practical liberalism’, especially where we give it a trully African interpretation. Just like in religion, we African liberals must first be proud of our identity by calling ourselves liberal. Says South African writer Eusebius McKaise “Our societies are non-ideal, and the most sensible kind of liberalism must be responsive to the historical realities we live with rather than de-emphasising history and empiricism in the articulation of what liberalism is.” 

My second take is that if we liberals do not win political power and run governments our ideology will remain confined to the doldrums of abstract sub consciousness. The scenario is worsened where liberal parties are confined to opposition ranks. In her article: Why opposition parties in southern Africa struggle to win power Rorisang Lekalake writes: “… trust in the political opposition declined sharply after 2008/2009. Similarly, the proportion of Zimbabweans who said they felt “close to” an opposition party dropped from 45% in 2009 to 19% in 2014.” My third take is that let us, as liberals, convince citizens that we have something good to offer. Says Eusebius McKaiser in his article ‘A black liberal is not an oxymoron’: “What unites all liberals is a basic commitment to the idea that every individual should have maximum freedom to pursue their own individual projects that are an expression of their autonomy.”

Our critics argue that liberalism divides society into the rich and poor. They say its development paradigm is skewed towards the capitalist, accumulative spectrum. Admitted, there is no link between ‘development’ and ‘poverty reduction’, thus we should be the ones bridging that gap. McKaiser continues: “Some liberals are deeply committed to egalitarianism. I place myself in that category. We think we can marry a commitment to an egalitarian society (which is a precondition for justice) with a concomitant insistence that society should aim to maximise the freedom of individuals to give expression to their autonomy.”

Let me conclude by arguing that Africans, in general, are weary of socialist promises that only talk about equality – usually promoted by an elite group of politicians in power who benefit from ‘Chinese mega deals’. Globalisation has brought in new demands for quality governance hence a growing trend towards smaller government and active civil society that demands accountability. Africans accept that individual innovation rather government benevolence will bring development and wealth creation, yet rising levels of poverty (caused ironically by bad governance) create an inert desire for the welfare state. Luckily, there are more think tanks and more political parties now than ever promoting liberalism in Africa.

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