Strengthening African Democracy


African DemocracyAfrica has come a long way. In I960, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan stood in the South African Parliament and noticed a “wind of change” blowing across the continent. Exactly three decades later, in 1990 US President George Bush proclaimed a “new world order” in which “the rule of law supplants the rule of the jungle… nations recognize the shared responsibility for freedom and justice…”. During this period, Africa stagnated on the democracy journey as the continent recorded only one successful civilian-to-civilian democratic succession – an incumbent president actually losing election and conceding defeat (President Ramgoolam of Mauritius was voted out of office in 1982). However, from 1990 to 1999 this feat was repeated 12 times on the continent.

The existential definition of democracy, and also its universal characterisation, is simply the rule of people. It requires the protection of basic liberties such as speech, assembly, movement, conscience, religion and private property and guarantees the rights of the individual to vote, equality, justice and freedom. A functional democracy entails free and fair elections, the rule of law, separation of powers, virile opposition, and strong institutions such as independent judiciary, impartial electoral body, dutiful police force and organised political parties.

However, in a simplified model of democracy, the conduct of free and fair elections is widely believed to be the strongest indicator of a country’s democratic content. As I write these lines, 47 of Africa’s 53 countries are ruled by governments that were brought about by some form of elections. (Even though 17 of such governments have been in power for at least 15 years and a number of others easily ‘win’ re-elections). For the most part, these elections are characterised by voting irregularities and suppression of the opposition. The issues and problems in the conduct of elections can be categorised as legal and constitutional issues; funding; modern technologies; logistics and operational problems; voters’ registration and education; polling day activities/results management; political parties (issues of monitoring, party auditing, campaign and fund raising); and electoral violence. Above all, it is all about governments. Consequently African governments are organising “elections’ but democracy is not taking root.

Without a doubt, strengthening democracy in Africa requires governmental and non-governmental action but if governments do not encourage free and fair elections, which constitute the basics for true democracy, how can they be trusted to undertake the difficult tasks of building a democracy? Therefore strong non-governmental action is required across the continent to strengthen African democracy. I believe that there are three groups that are necessary in the hard work of democracy in Africa: the civil society, Africans in the Diaspora and the international community. I have a ringside seat in our politics, governance, democracy and elections and I know that together these groups (with others) can make up a nexus of action to strengthen African democracy.

The civil society is a veritable tool for transformation and mobilisation in any civilization. In her essay in 1997, “Power Shift”, Jessica Matthews (then Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations but now President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) noted the rise of global civil society in pushing around even the largest governments. She wrote that “they breed new ideas; advocate, protest, and mobilise public support; do legal, scientific, technical, and policy analysis; provide services; shape, implement, monitor, and enforce national and international commitments; and change institutions and norms”. During the dark days of dictatorships in Africa, the civil society in the form of human rights and pro-democracy organisations stood up to such regimes and demanded free elections and democracy. The good news is that that they got the elections (but not democracy). The sad part is that they went to sleep afterwards. The capacity of the civil society to mobilise for noble causes must be in play to strengthen African democracy. The role of the civil society in Africa should not be restricted to election monitoring and subsequent publication of reports. A lot of work needs to be done long before Election Day. Democracy is built on spirited discourse by an informed citizenry, which has always been championed by the civil society. The civil society can reconstitute and rebuild our traditional values, norms, behavioural rules and attitudes. Fortunately, the village square approach in traditional African societies indicates that Africans are democratic, by nature. The civil society’s wide reach and diversity means that they can successfully mobilise peoples around democratic ethos and institutions. They can engage (and where necessary blackmail) politicians into submission to democratic accountability and governance, especially in collaboration with the local and international media. The expansion in information technology means that they have a wider audience.

High levels of abject poverty in Africa mean that about 80% of Africans live on less than a dollar a day. Oftentimes this dollar comes from brothers and sisters in the Diaspora. The transformational power of this “cash from abroad’ is not only economic but also social. Also, by virtue of the global age of the Internet, their impact is no longer restricted through Western Union and Moneygram. Africans in the Diaspora constitute a vast constituency for change in the continent. However, it is time for them to break away from the loving embrace of the comfort zone of the developed societies for the good of our continent. The folks at home respect their voices and they have seen how other civilizations work. Africa now needs them. To this end, participation is key. While delivering a lecture to students of Harvard University in 2002 titled “Looking Back on Perestroika”, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev pointed out that his direct involvement with Soviet politics made it possible for him to see firsthand the deficiencies of the Soviet system and what was required to turn things around. This gave rise to perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness). Participation is everything. In conjunction with other good people residing in the continent who have the local knowledge of the local political environment, Africans in the Diaspora can effect change in the democratic process. According to Gorbachev, “if people unite for some objective, for some goal, they should act without being nudged, without being pushed. They should take the initiative. They should take responsible initiative”.

Globalisation means that in a borderless world there is no longer a clear difference between what is foreign or domestic and what is national or international. Weak democracies leading to poor governance and later failed states have as much impact in the continent as in the world as a whole. Governments are increasingly playing vital roles in instituting democracies around the world, peacefully as in East Timor and forcefully, as in Iraq and Afghanistan. I know that the African literary landscape is beset with a plethora of literature blaming the West for the ravages and scavenges that have led to Africa’s underdevelopment. But can we in all honesty expect to build strong African democracies entirely on our own? If born-again western governments can help us, then we need them especially since a number of our “personalist, neopatrimonial” rulers view such governments with awe and trepidation. The international community must therefore make good its ugly perceptions in Africa by putting it to African governments and reining it on them that only democracy, in its truest form, is good enough for Africans. It is a debt that they owe Africa.

I strongly believe that this nexus for democratic action: the civil society, Africans in the Diaspora and the international community can work together to enable Africa turn the corner on the path to democracy. A lot will still be required to stay the course. We will need high literacy rates, low incidences of poverty, strong institutions and ultimately leadership. Our past was bleak, our present seems uncertain and our future can be bright. But if other continents made it, then Africa can. At the opening of the Africa Conference on Elections, Democracy and Governance in Pretoria last year, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa reminded delegates of what Colin Legum wrote in his 1999 book, ‘Africa since Independence’, that our “dream of a Golden Age had withered on the tender vine of independence, and it became clear that Africa was not going to escape the experience of Europe, the Americas, and Asia in comparable historical periods when they were evolving and consolidating their new nation-states. Many of the factors which destroyed the optimism of the period of the romanticism in Africa were not very different from those in Europe – which had its Hundred Years’ War, Napoleonic conquest, assassinations, times of chaos,…It was similar, too, in the Americas, with the fratricidal killings and the bitterness of the American Civil War; the racism of slavery; the corruption and miseries of the Reconstruction years; and in Latin America, where a succession of wars was fought over the shaping of borders; the rise of dictators and military regimes; oppression and widespread abuses of human rights of the indigenous populations; and the failure of Simon Bolivar’s ambition to unify Latin America. The wars and revolutions in Europe and the Americas exceeded in scale and casualties the violent episodes in Africa, bad as these were…” Today, these continents have made quantum leaps on democracy’s path. The kind of leaps many governments in Africa will not make.

So if this will be the African Century that we all desire then we must strengthen African democracy to ensure that governments of the people, for the people and by the people spread throughout the continent and then this will be the age of democracy in Africa. So let’s do it.