Is Liberal Democracy Always the Answer?
Guinea-Bissau challenges the imposition of Western forms of government.
After a long day of campaigning for president in rural Guinea-Bissau in November 2019, Domingos Simões Pereira sat down for a late dinner.
Various leaders of his African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde, known by the Portuguese acronym PAIGC, joined him around the table. A couple of them fought during the country’s 11-year war of independence against Portugal—which was waged in rural, isolated areas throughout the West African country and ended in 1974.
Pereira gestured to the Cacheu River, invisible in the darkness but just a few yards away. As a young boy during the war, Pereira watched artillery explode over the Cacheu; it seemed like fireworks to an 8-year-old, he recalled. Now he looked out at the same river as the potential next president of an independent Guinea-Bissau.
Pereira and other leaders have argued that after independence, in the rush to implement a democratic constitution and unify dozens of ethnic groups under one national identity, local governing practices were not incorporated into the new system. As a result, the country faces a political dilemma: How do you forge a new national identity that unites people without also acknowledging what divides them?
Guinea-Bissau has endured 10 coups in its 45 years of independence. That instability, and the country’s 88 barely patrolled Atlantic islands, has helped make it an ideal transit point for drugs on their way from South America to Europe and turned it into Africa’s first narco-state. Last year, authorities conducted the country’s biggest-ever drug bust, seizing more than 1.8 tons of cocaine on the coast. Guinea-Bissau also ranks among the bottom 15 countries in the United Nations Human Development Index. (The mortality rate for children under the age of 5 is 84 per 1,000—more than double the global average of 39.)
2019 marked the first time in the country’s independent history that a democratically elected president, José Mário Vaz, peacefully finished a term. But Vaz, who was elected in 2014, hardly presided over a stable government. In August 2015, Vaz fired Pereira from the prime minister’s post, and a political crisis ensued over who would fill the position. Due to the impasse, the country lost a $1.1 billion pledge made that year by international donors.
Guinea-Bissau’s constitution dictates that the ruling party (currently PAIGC) appoints the prime minister and the president confirms him. When Vaz fired Pereira one year into his term, the PAIGC and Vaz could not agree on a replacement, and the country cycled through seven prime ministers and a paralyzed parliament. Vaz was eliminated in the first round of the presidential election in November and Pereira is competing in the Dec. 29 runoff against Umaro Sissoco Embaló from the Movement for Democratic Alternation, whom Vaz supports.
Given the country’s many problems, international donors and scholars have taken to asking, “What’s wrong with Guinea-Bissau?” But some Guinean intellectuals, Pereira among them, have begun asking a more daring question: Is there something wrong with Western models of liberal democracy?
Until recently, Pereira was writing a Ph.D. dissertation in political science at the Catholic University of Portugal on this very question: “Are liberal democracies with Western values applicable to sub-Saharan Africa?” (He put the thesis on hold while he sought to win the election.)
So far, his answer leans toward “yes” but falls somewhere in the gray area. “Liberal democracy is based on Western culture, which has become a worldwide culture, but we have to acknowledge we have some challenges that the Western world is not facing,” Pereira told Foreign Policy. “The levels of literacy and the level of poverty—you have to find a way to overcome these challenges.” But Pereira is also curious about what comes first: economic growth or a healthy democracy?
Questioning democracy does not mean rejecting it, he insists. If leaders dare to ask if an imported model of democracy is the best form of governance, that does not necessarily mean they will favor an autocratic one. In Western parlance, democratic is always a synonym for good, but Pereira wants Guinea-Bissau’s residents to take more ownership of their democracy rather than simply adhere to a system hastily put in place at the end of the colonial era. “The thing I most appreciate about this definition of liberal democracy is that it acknowledges that it’s not a perfect system,” Pereira said. “You should be improving it all the time.”
In 1973, Guinea-Bissau created its constitution—before independence was formally achieved—based on the Portuguese system. Since then, the constitution has been revised multiple times—most notably introducing a multiparty system in 1991. But the Portuguese-based structure remains. Pereira argues that there are some aspects of the current system that simply do not fit the reality of Guinea-Bissau.
“We have 36,000 square kilometers. We have more than 31 social groups with their own language trying to have their own territory,” he said. Some groups have a more egalitarian hierarchy, in which women, traditional leaders, and others have an equal say at one table. Others have a more top-down approach, in which a chief gives the orders. “If you come from the perspective that every social group will try to influence [the government], then you have to acknowledge that not everyone has the democratic tools they need to do that,” which complicates the process.
For instance, the Balanta ethnic group in Guinea-Bissau makes up about a quarter of the population and “about 95 percent of the army,” Pereira said. “But then you go to government, and they are less than 1 percent, so the army is their way of being close to power.”
Liberal democracies tend to intentionally put distance between the armed forces and civilian governments. While “some social structures in Guinea-
Bissau are very happy with that,” Pereira explained, “others will look at that as exclusion.” Of course, if the second largest ethnic group sees the army as its sphere of influence because it is not represented in the government, that can also cause problems. In the most recent coup, in 2012, when the government proposed military reforms, the army intervened, and elections were delayed for two years. Eventually the country held elections, ushering Vaz into office in 2014.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has mandated that Guinea-Bissau seek constitutional reforms that establish “stable relations between the executive, the legislative, and the judiciary” because the current system has led to such chronic dysfunction.
While Pereira acknowledges the need for reforms, he wants to implement policies that reflect the needs of the country—a government built by its citizens that addresses problems like poverty, illiteracy, rural-urban divides, and the need for decentralization and consideration of traditional and religious leaders—rather than merely regurgitating the priorities and ideals of foreign donors.
One essential element of the reforms proposed by Pereira and his party is the decentralization of development. Pereira hopes to build a “confidence index” system that creates a network of monitors to ensure citizens’ understanding and support of any reforms that are put forward.
Otherwise, he said, it’s too easy for Guineans to reject their government because it will be seen as coming from the outside. If the system of governance evolves to include more input from citizens and leaders, he added, then “if you make a mistake, it’s your mistake. It’s not a mistake of the system.”
After all, more than many countries, Guinea-Bissau excels when it comes to one of the most important indicators of democracy: In the election’s first round, there was a 74 percent voter turnout rate and no documented incidents of fraud. But even if illiteracy and poverty rates remain high, most of the country’s citizens do not have the time or the means to invest in holding the government accountable beyond the single day every few years when they cast their vote.
International donors place such great value on this single democratic act that true participatory government in Guinea-Bissau has been sacrificed for years at the altar of free and fair elections. Voters simply elect a leader who is obliged to adhere to an imported constitution that fails to address the gap in resources and literacy and doesn’t take into account widely varying approaches to political authority and decision-making among the country’s dozens of ethnic groups.
Pereira is a trained civil engineer who left Guinea-Bissau just before he turned 19, studying first in the Soviet Union and then in the United States. After finishing his master’s degree in engineering at California State University, Fresno in 1994, he found himself bored with what he saw as the unchallenging job of overseeing the construction of sound barriers on a California highway. He left his post and eventually returned to Guinea-Bissau to use his construction abilities back home.
In a country with a population of just 1.8 million, most people have personal connections with everyone else through family, school, or their job. Politicians regularly exchange promises for political support, showing respect for liberation fighters is mandatory, and complex unspoken social mores dictate campaign rituals in a nation with 31 different ethnic groups.
Pereira—with his international education, charismatic persona, and pragmatic drive—has emerged as a potential savior for his impoverished and coup-ridden homeland. Many residents said they planned to vote for him because of his intelligence. At village rallies, he carried a black notebook, in which he occasionally scribbled notes as residents told him their concerns. Some critics, however, have contended that he is already entangled too deeply in the political trenches of Guinea-Bissau and that he has accepted the support of compromised politicians. These critics argue that his debtors could come calling if he becomes president, undermining his ability to push for genuine change.
Many of Guinea-Bissau’s elite give off a professorial vibe; four of the 16 current ministers are sociologists by profession, and the country’s intellectuals seem to enjoy abstract conversations with more questions than answers. Dautarin Monteiro da Costa, the current minister of national and higher education, explains that Guinea-Bissau has always functioned in two realms—the formal central government and the informal decentralized structures that existed long before colonialism. Two weeks before the first round of the election, da Costa was staring down the threat of a teacher’s strike when he brought the informal power of religious leaders to the table.
“The unions scheduled a strike for today, but they changed their mind. Why? Because in our process of negotiation, I [called on] the religious leaders to mediate,” he explained. Their presence adds “an important variable,” da Costa said. “When they understand my point of view, and they transport that point of view to the unions, they understand better. That is a strong example of African democracy.”
Da Costa contends that Guinea-Bissau needs a system that includes its own governance traditions, such as the influence of those traditional religious leaders, and incorporates them into the formal system of government. While such influences are very much a part of current everyday government decision-making, they are still mostly informal. That informality, coupled with weak checks and balances at central government institutions such as the judiciary, makes it hard to hold officials or traditional leaders to account. When everyone plays by a different set of rules, no one can really be held accountable.
Despite the hope placed in Pereira, it’s essential to look past the man and ask whether the flaw is in Guinea-Bissau’s system of governance and not the leaders elected to govern it. Analysts point to gray areas when it comes to delineations of power between the president and the prime minister in the country’s constitution—for example, the constitution says the president can lead a ministerial meeting whenever he wants. He can also fire the government in the “case of serious political crisis,” but the constitution does not define what a serious crisis is.
Unlike in the past, the military has remained out of the fray during the country’s latest bout of political instability—thanks in large part to mediation from and sanctions applied by international organizations. Indeed, in the recent presidential election, external actors such as ECOWAS and delegations from the United States kept the electoral process on track.
But when international organizations provide support to Guinea-Bissau, they also feel entitled to make their own demands on the country and its leaders. As a result, outside support can quickly become outside pressure.
“The foreign pressure is so high that it doesn’t let us have enough time to develop our own process,” da Costa said, while acknowledging that such pressure does help keep the peace. We “have to conform our political actions, our political decisions, with these big Western concepts.” Rather than relying on imported ideas, he argued, “our political system should align the formal with the traditional, because we feel the state as an entity only here in [the capital of] Bissau. When you pass Safine,” an area on the outskirts of the capital, “what you see is a regulation of social life through the traditional mechanisms,” he added.
Pereira insists that there needs to be more input from the country’s grassroots. “For the most part, we let people come in to help decide what’s good and what’s bad because we are presented as the bad student,” he said. “By teaching you, people sometimes will impose.”
It doesn’t help that international donors tend to bristle at any challenge to their models and values, which place a high premium on successful democratic elections.
Indeed, even questioning the supremacy of democracy as a form of government can make some international partners anxious. But Oumar Ba, who grew up in neighboring Senegal and is now an assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College in the United States, says such debates are necessary.
“The freedom of assembly, freedom of press, freedom to choose their leaders, these are important things that African states owe to their citizens,” he argued. But it’s also vital to have “a system that places the well-being and the dignity of the citizen at its center.” And that, in turn, requires “having an economic system that allows the citizens to have access to education, access to health, and [that protects] the citizens from the predatory economic system of global capital.”
It’s a point on which Pereira seems to agree. “It has not been proven that liberal democracy necessarily favors the market economy,” Pereira said. “It’s not a prerequisite in my understanding.”
Ba points to the origins of liberal democracy and the whitewashing that has occurred around its history as one reason that the model should not be accepted uncritically. “The Enlightenment philosophers who were debating freedom and liberty were writing at a time when slavery was how Europe was governing the world,” he said. “They did not write about that. They did not discuss that.” Such oversights, Ba argues, undermine the legitimacy of the so-called liberal values that Europe and the United States export to other nations in the name of progress.
Before he put his Ph.D. on hold, Pereira was studying three African countries: Botswana, Cape Verde, and Rwanda. He deliberately chose countries that varied ideologically and in terms of wealth. He admires Cape Verdean leaders such as Pedro Pires, who once said, “A poor country cannot afford to adopt policies from the rich.” Pereira was awed when, in 2007, Botswana’s then-president, Festus Mogae, turned down an offer for an official state visit to Guinea-Bissau so that his anointed successor could go instead. As for Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, Pereira sees him as a good example of consistency. “He’s very tough, but he’s a man of his word, and he’s implicated in the process. He’s not someone who looks at the country from a distance.” All of these models, he says, are helping him form an idea of what kind of government might work best in Guinea-Bissau.
If liberal democracy were framed as a homegrown African concept rather than an import, the conversation would be different, he insists. “I believe that if we had more appropriation of democracy … Africans could point out things that don’t work in the Western world. But we take it as an outside construction imposed by Westerners and for the most part accept it as a counterpart for investment.” In other words, some leaders go through the motions of democracy without really believing in it.
After weeks on the campaign trail, where Pereira extolled the virtues of voting, he returned over and over to the issue of illiteracy. He even proposed giving veterans of the independence struggle pensions with a requirement that some of it be spent on their descendants’ education. “I’ll give you money, but I’ll use half of it to invest in your children so you get out of the cycle [of illiteracy],” he said.
While it’s clear that low literacy rates don’t mean low political participation—mobilization efforts in rural, remote islands and villages demonstrated the widespread desire to participate in the process—Pereira is adamant that the country needs a democratic system that acknowledges the toll of poverty, complex ethnic power dynamics, and the power and influence of traditional leaders.
In a country where many people live on less than a dollar per day, “If you have 60 percent of your people who don’t know how to read and to write,” Pereira said, “you need to make sure the way you exercise democracy does consider this very important side of your population.”
This article appears in the Winter 2020 print issue.