The Grim Prospects of Tilly-style Democracy in Modern Africa

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Political scientist Charles Tilly popularly theorized that the formation of modern democracies had come in the context of war. For Tilly, the financial expenses of war inevitably gave rise to the institution of complex bureaucracies capable of taxing the people efficiently. These bureaucracies would then remain in the post-war context, primarily with the intent of conducting campaigns to reconstruct war-torn political entities; thus, a “ratchet effect” that allowed for greater taxation and bureaucratic expansion of what would become the modern democratic state. And, while scholars such as Herbst (1990) hold that Tilly's thesis is merely characterization of the formation of modern democracies and not a universal imperative, the mechanisms for a peaceful transition to democracy continue to elude world leaders and political scientists alike. It is on this premise that the present essay posits Tilly's path to democracy as the one most likely to be pursued by states in Africa hoping to accomplish the imposition of a democratic mechanism from governments. Ultimately, the essay concludes that the prospects for African nations' transition to democracy are grim.

Perhaps most apparently limiting to African nations' transition to democracy is the existence of international norms that appear to inhibit such a transition. Central to Tilly's thesis was the presence of an existential threat to the polities of early Europe; that is to say, by means of war, smaller states would consistently be annexed by larger ones, and would simply cease to exist. This was the case, for example, in the Acts of Union that served to consolidate Great Britain as a single kingdom before that state's transition democracy (commonly regarded as the establishmen...

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...tually impossible. However, it is worth noting that the essay rests on a very precarious foundation in positing Tilly's method of democratic transition as that which is most likely. To be fair, Tilly's method has given rise to the most vigorous democracies history has seen, but there is an argument to be made that only time will tell if the world's new democracies, many of which have established by less conventional methods, will prove healthy or not. Indeed, perhaps the essay is justified in this assumption merely by the fact that the system—and history itself—provides few standards by which to measure “democracy,” and the essay concedes the apparent elitism in claiming that only mature, Western democracies can serve as a model.

Schmitter and Karl (1991) best articulated the difficulties in the transition to democracy; to be sure, it is nothing but “uncertain.”

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