Wednesday September 15 was the International Day of Democracy. It was established through a resolution passed by the UN General Assembly in 2007, encouraging governments to strengthen and consolidate democracy.
Current debates point to growing ‘authoritarianism’ or at least how the continent’s colonial past continues to shape the present. Questions continue to be raised whether democracy has failed in Africa, or whether democracy is unworkable or perhaps simply not suitable for Africa. Some bizarrely claim that democracy is “unAfrican,” “Western” or even “anti-African”. Africa’s brand of democracy has been portrayed as a minimalist, most limited and most elementary kind of governance system. It is depicted as an adaptation of the worst kind of colonial methods and systems combined with the worst kind of African traditions, behaviours, laws, and practices.
In reality, democracy is an intrinsic part of African culture. The Europeans who originally came to Africa encountered egalitarian kingdoms and communities, which they had to demolish first before their colonisation agenda could take root. However, euro-centrism distorted Africa’s democratic political history. There has been a consistent portrayal of Africa’s culture as totally autocratic, archaic and anti-development. The imposition of Western ethos, including Western-style democracy, on Africa, has produced distortions because the culture, history, and values of the indigenous are pivotal to any development agenda and governance framework.
Many African traditional governance systems were democratic. African kingdoms like the Mossi, Songhay, Mali, and Kongo had sophisticated democratic features with representative structures. These kingdoms, for instance, had clauses in their constitutions (albeit unwritten) that limited the power of the kings or emperors and gave governors and ministers the right to impeach their rulers. In some of the east and southern African traditional institutions, the Yoruba traditional governance system and that of the Akan in Ghana remain exemplary because even though they are monarchical, they blend elements of representation, participation and institute adequate checks and balances.
On the other hand, the majority rule of Western democracy is a ‘winner-take-all’ system, which could be inadvertently repressive in communities with minority groups. However, in pre-colonial Africa, the Igbo, Yoruba, and Ashanti in Ghana, decision-making was largely consensual, which ensured that every interest was represented, thereby reducing disputes.
Western-style democracies were patriarchal for a very long time. In fact, British women were, for instance, not allowed to vote until 1928, at which time many African women, especially in the eastern-southern and west Africa, were participating in public decision-making unhindered.
Similarly, the constitutions that were enacted to nurture Western-style democracy in Africa were largely modifications of colonial laws. They were, on occasions, at odds with the precepts of the local culture. Take an example: African public morality was based on a strong sense of shame for the individual who behaved contrary to the common good of the community. There was an evident carrot-and-stick system. If one violated societal norm and edict, they were punished and seen to be punished in a timely fashion. African democracy exercised mechanisms which were able to compel the citizenry and their leaders to comply with traditional laws.
The lack of cultural elements is a strong reason the Western-style democracy has led to occasional spins in Africa at the expense of uninterrupted progress. Instead of replicating Western liberal democracies and the attendant neoliberal reforms, I am of the view that Africa has a lot to learn from its own culture and values. The danger of a borrowed democracy or any ideology is that it may, in addition to its fascinating qualities, contain other non-traditional elements, which are misaligned with our in-bred aspirations.
As we reflect on the International Day of Democracy, let’s challenge ourselves to build our homegrown brand of democracy, one that works. African policy-makers ought to consciously and continuously study various indigenous African societies for valuable democratic principles and practices to be adapted to reflect contemporary African situations for better governance and development.