- Held Together by Pins: Liberal Democracy Under Siege in Africa
Tetah Mentan’s Held Together by Pins is a critical analysis of the fluctuating fortunes of the democratization process in Africa. The primary goal of the book is “to produce an intellectually challenging text that at the same time would be accessible and engaging to students, scholars and political practitioners” (xii).
The book presents itself, therefore, as an alternative to some texts which, out of a desire to be user friendly, sacrifice rigor and thereby “fail to prepare [the students] for critical thinking about democracy in Africa” (xii). The book is organized into ten chapters. In the introduction, Mentan effectively problematizes the deepening contradictions of democratization in Africa: “democracy under siege” is defined not in terms of dramatic coups, but in terms of “a steady, creeping deterioration of the quality of democracy” (15). Mentan argues that democracy is threatened when power is concentrated in the executive, the rule of law is undermined, and basic rights and freedoms are violated. He identifies six major factors that have [End Page 178] laid siege to liberal democracy in Africa: the centralization of executive power, the emergence of the military as a political actor, the lack of the rule of law, weak representative institutions, social exclusion, and corporate imperialism (20).
In subsequent chapters, Mentan attempts to drive home his main points theoretically and empirically. Chapter 2 acts as the theoretical anchor of the book, distinguishing between procedural and substantive democracy. It also reflects on the negative effect of anarchic globalization on democracy in Africa. The author then focuses on the theoretical insights offered by “narcostatization and anocratization”—the latter connoting a situation in which the state combines the features of autocracy and procedural democracy, leading to increasing corruption and a deepening legitimacy crisis. In chapter 3 Mentan traces the precolonial roots of democracy in Africa, measured in terms of the devolution of power down to local units such as territorial divisions, clans, lineages, and extended family. The notion that the mere devolution of power is an adequate measure of democracy is bound to meet with objection in some quarters. Nonetheless, Mentan succeeds in identifying basic features of governance in precolonial Africa that were in tune with democratic ideals, including justice and fairness, equality and freedom, and people’s power.
Another major issue raised in the book is the resurgence of the military as crucial political actors affecting the democratization process. This is an important point, especially given the extended military complex of retired officers able to hijack the process. The same concern for the corrosion of democracy derives from a series of what Mentan defines as other African crises, including the perennial crisis of constitutionalism, the patrimonial state, corruption, the politicization of violence, rising conflict, and most important, the identity crisis.
Mentan’s discussion of the global dimensions of threats to democracy in Africa is particularly interesting, revealing the various ways in which globalization (including transnational organized crime) is part of the siege of democracy in Africa. However, the book does not portray only the challenges to democracy in Africa; it also leaves readers with an alternative conceptualization of the salient infrastructures of democracy, including accountability and transparency, political culture, civil society, the legislature and representation, the judiciary and the rule of law, elections and electoral systems, political parties and the party system, and political leadership. The policy and research implications of these ideas provide compelling food for thought.
Overall, this book represents an excellent contribution to our understanding of the state of democracy in Africa. Its research problems, objectives, and hypotheses are well thought-out and appropriate, supported with adequate data, and presented with effective argumentation.
By showing that the patterns of democracy in Africa are not sufficiently in touch with the realities of African histories and cultures, Mentan raises [End Page 179] the pertinent question of “whose democracy?”—what is the reference for defining “democracy” in Africa? Given the book’s theoretical, historical, comparative, and analytical depth, it will be...