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Bumps, but Africa’s Democracy Rises

After much misunderstanding, with all the anarchic one-party ordeals and self-serving dictatorial military juntas, it appears Africa is nearing a turning point in its democratic grasp. There may be divergent signs, some incredibly disturbing as Guinea Bissau and the Central African Republic indicate, but it looks like a turning to democracy as the best option to solve Africa’s development challenges. This is Africans new trust, for cultural, historical, moral and material reasons, in resolving decades of political mix-ups, contradicting irrational international exuberance and governance deficits, in relation to the African reality.

Nigeria, the giant dances with democracy

Nowhere in Africa has democracy seen much trial but yet moving on confidently than in continental giant Nigeria, where the fever of long-running military juntas is gradually giving way to vigorous democratic ascent, with former military junta members being democratized and former military leaders such as Gen. Ibrahim Babangida attempting to be elected democratically as civilian presidents. Nigeria’s Senate President David Mark was a former military bid wig but now highly democratized.

The principled democratic horse trading that occurred during the long illness of the late President Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, against the ancient view that Nigeria is disorderly and may curve in under pressure, improved the country’s democratic wellbeing. And that led to Vice President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan first acting as President and later sworn in as President, against the backdrop of the country’s legislature playing with the vibrant civil society, the judiciary and the executive bode well for Africa’s democratic vigor. President Jonathan, among his new agenda, is electoral reforms to further open up Nigeria for democratic growth.

Yes, there were stress, strain and pain and the test of Nigerians patience for democracy to resolve any constitutional hurdles but in the final analysis democracy prevailed and have made the country healthier. The thinking among African democrats is that if continental giant Nigeria, with its enormous weight and immense global gravitas, can fertilize and project coherent democratic ideals, it will have cosmic boomerang Africa-wide and help inspire, project and grow Africa’s democracy as a vehicle for rapid progress.

Kenya and democratic wrangling

The thinking is that if Kenya, East Africa’s regional giant, could heavily democratize, like Nigeria, it will have continental contagion on Africa’s democratic enlargement. The need for democracy to release Africa’s long-running “rage” tested the organic foundation of Kenya, where unresolved extensive ethnic predicaments mixed with wrenching poverty since independence have impacted on the country’s appropriate progress. Kenya’s 2008 presidential elections were thought to be flawed, rigged to the advantage of the incumbent President Mwai Kibaki, despite high indications that his rival and current Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, won the election. With democracy misunderstood in relation to the country’s make-up, there was widespread violence with over 1,300 killed and thousands displaced.

The two rivals were later united in a grand coalition government following international mediation, led by former UN chief Kofi Annan (a Ghanaian), under a power-sharing National Accord on Reconciliation Act, entrenched in the constitution. Despite this, a shaky truce held, and the Kenyan reality saw a Harmonized Draft Constitution minted in 2009 as a way of enhancing democracy. As the new constitutional draft debate reveals, the attempt is to use the new constitution to further democratize Kenya in relation to the reality of its tradition, history and material wants.

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Democracy as best card for the African reality

Whether in Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central Africa Republic, Burundi or Guinea Bissau, the practical insight is that democratic tenets are the best solution to any of their intractable problems, especially in using democratic ideals to refine most of the inhibitions with the African culture that have blocked progress. Human rights, the rule of law and freedoms will help correct genital female mutilation, child slavery, witchcraft accusation, human sacrifice, tribalism, or early child-girl forced marriage.

Africa’s Big Men, notoriously known for much of the continent’s troubles could be cut to size with the vigorous enforcement of rule of law, accountability, human rights and freedoms. Here the democratic tenets such as the rule of law and human rights will mediate relations between the rich and poor, the weak and the powerful. For long, in Africa, as we see in Nigeria and Kenya, the law has been owned by the politically powerful and the economically wealthy.

Without qualms, the African Union and other regional bodies have come to the conclusion that democracy will solve most of Africa’s development ordeal and free the continent for greater progress. This has been enshrined in their charters. In mineral rich Sierra Leone, democracy is unlocking the country’s potential, helping to heal the deadly wounds of ten years civil war, including high-profile corruption trials that were unthinkable decades ago. Aware of this, Niger’s new military junta that removed the autocratic President Mamadou Tandja named itself the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy. Here democracy is sinking in as solution to Africa’s complex problems; no African military junta had been convinced of the true values of democracy as development tool and had named itself of growing it. And mechanisms are underway to restore democracy in Niger against pressure from the flowering regional democratic climate.

Why long-delayed African democracy

Ramesh Thakur, director of Balsillie School of International Affairs at Canada’s Wilfred Laurier and Waterloo universities, would argue that there are generally three explanations for the long-delayed but nevertheless welcome signs of democratic reforms in Africa’s governance. First, as Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa reveals, there is emerging African middle-class that is strengthening as a political force to be reckoned with, especially in the urban centres of Lagos, Nairobi and Cape Town. Educated and informed, the expanding middle-class is starting to assert itself democratically by exploiting the citizen’s levers in a free society, including the judiciary and a vigorous competitive mass media. Second, as part of the tenets of globalization and diaspora Africans dealings with their homelands, the rising prosperity of the growing African middle class has empowered its members to travel abroad and start evaluating domestic governance against international standards.

Remember that Sudan’s London, UK-based billionaire Mo Ibrahim has instituted governance prize to check how healthy African governance is doing annually. Third, as Kenya demonstrates in regards to the International Criminal Court (ICC) investigating post-election violence, African civil society is pushing for justice. Lawyers, human rights advocates and social activists such as Nigeria’s Nobel prize-winning laureate Wole Soyinka have maintained the demand for criminal accountability through the growing mass media, the political process and the justice system. In an increasingly connected world, African democratic activists have joined forces with international counterparts to publicize, harass and otherwise exert pressure for a settling of accounts in Africa’s disgracefully sluggish courts.

The Mauritian miracle and the African struggle

While African democracy undergoes bumps along the way, some of the rising successes are best captured in Botswana and Mauritius, countries with Africa’s best development indicators. As symptomatic of the African reality, other African states can draw lessons from Mauritius. Despite some negatives – colonialism (British, independent in 1968), remoteness, lack of natural resources and tropical climate, Mauritius have been able to appropriate its human capital superbly, foster good institutions, according to David Carment and Yiagadeesen Samy (both at Canada’s Carleton University), represented by the rule of law, democratic tradition, freedom of the press, and property rights. These conditions have created better growth in a continent with appalling development indicators. Growth rate in Mauritius averaged 5.2 per cent over the period 1981 to 2008. Income per capita increased more than three times to reach US$11,165 in 2008. So, how can we reconcile the Mauritian growth and development phenomenon with other African states?

Carment and Samy give four reasons. First, under its thriving democratic ethos, there have been efficient taxation system and invariably better accountability regime. Second, political stability, better property rights, the rule of law and reasonably high degree of human capital has made investment “attractive prospects for foreigners.” Third, Mauritius has been able to exploit its ethnic diversity and diaspora by attracting foreign direct investment from Hong Kong and India.

And fourth, good leadership, drawn from the Mauritian traditional values and history, which accommodate every religious and ethnic group, with less traces of Africa’s tarnished Big Man syndrome that weakens and wreck institutions, as one of Nigeria’s prominent journalist, Dan Agbese, have argued. Without any hesitation, since independence Mauritius has always been ruled by credible coalition government, borne out of its resilient political mechanisms related to good democratic governance and its related economic management. The lesson from the Mauritian case is that Africa will not look democracy directly on the face only to stubbornly turn its back and walk off in the opposite direction and further darkened the African development process.

Democracy from within African traditional values

Carment and Samy’s argument is that the key determinant to the Mauritian miracle is excellent leadership (brewed from within its traditional values and blended with modern democratic ideals), and lack of which in other African states is significant determinant of Africa’s letdown. The Mauritian thinking is popping up Africa-wide. African democratic activists and civil societies are increasingly coming to terms that Africa’s budding democracy needn’t be like that of Britain or USA – it has to be fermented from within Africa’s traditions, histories and material desires, as means of resolving practical developmental wants on the ground. Check Kenya and understand how it is battling to indigenize its prospective new constitution as a way of entrenching its democracy to its real environment.

Modern democracy, says the Oxford Dictionary, “is a form of government in which the power resides in the people and is exercised by them either directly or by means of elected representatives.” If democracy means the people’s power, then the people’s traditional values, the source of their power, should inform their democratic practices and material needs. Either because of colonialism that suppressed Africans’ traditional democratic political systems, the thinking universally had been that only the Athenians had the idea that only the common citizen should decide governance rather than the elites.

Like Athens’ Pynx hill, various African ethnic groups debated, listened and decided their progress before European colonialism under shade of trees. Either because of colonialism or its consequent global power outreach, Athens has been projected as the model for democracy, as citizens play the deciding role in public affairs. The over one billion Africans with 2,000 African ethnic groups, too, have had a tradition of participatory democracy, as enshrined in their traditions, but have not been touted as prominently as the Athenians. The operative norms in African tradition, as have been in Europe, were, and, are still, consensus and participation.

Direct democracy of the Akans or the Athenian form had a flaw of not been able to put all citizens on top of a geographic spot to deliberate issues. The British, who had moved past direct democracy, resolved the complications of direct democracy and invented representative democracy. This was the institution transplanted into Africa by the Europeans without considering Africa’s cultural values. Over time, the struggle, as Thomas Axworthy, chair of Canada’s Centre for the Study of Democracy, Queen’s University, explains, was “how to transform a representative legislature into a responsible government.” The test had been how each ex-colony mixes the European’s with their indigenous systems, as the Southeast Asians, Botswana and Mauritius have brilliantly done, as a way of making democracy very realistic or very responsible on the ground. This means a Nigeria democracy will be slightly different from a Malaysian one because of different traditional values, history and material needs on the ground.

Mauritius and Botswana aside, the rest of Africa is yet to fully go the Southeast Asian way. Daniel T. Osabu-Kle, a political scientist at Canada’s Carleton University, expounds in Compatible Cultural Democracy: The Key to Development in Africa that “instead of adapting the deeply embedded indigenous political cultures to achieve the appropriate political conditions, the new [African] nations adopted alien democratic practices, which served to undermine the attainment of the political prerequisites for genuine decolonization, divided the elites, stifled economic and social growth…” Added to Osabu-Kle, the Washington-based social justice advocacy Africa Faith and Justice Network, has advised that “Africans need to define for themselves the meaning of democracy in their own historical and cultural contexts, drawing on their participatory traditions and the experience of democratic societies elsewhere.”

In the midst of African elites’ struggles to imagine a home-grown African democracy, Africa’s democratic growth has seen bumps over the years. In its uncertainty, Africa states have created many constitutions but as Mauritius and Botswana teach Africa, the trick is in good leadership and political resilience, and not the creation of one constitution after another. Till now, Ghana, which is touted as West Africa’s oasis of democracy today and had had its fair share of leadership troubles over the years, has created four constitutions; three have been suspended, as result of military coups. On the other hand, Mauritius still operates its March 12, 1968 constitution since independence.


As Nigeria demonstrates, African democratic activists are increasingly proving to be a complex historical surprise, surviving in the sizzling African political climate where democratic bumps and lack of leadership undermine democratic growth and economic management. All these, against the backdrop of the restless African Big Men, such as Ghana’s ex-president Ft. Lt. (rtd) Jerry Rawlings, a tyrant, heckling the democratic process. In Ghana, ex-President John Kufour, himself part of the democratic activists that forced the Rawlings military junta to democratize and who had the best index of experiences as public figure among all those who have ruled Ghana, mastered the Ghana’s fragile security game, putting potential forces of instability at bay and growing the rule of law, human rights and freedoms, as well as property rights.

As African democratic activists work to secure the African state democratically, they are drawing from the continent’s history of instabilities and democratic stasis. This is progressively deepening African democratic activists’ historical size and democratic force. In the final analysis, as Botswana and Mauritius would tell their fellow Africans, the practical relevance of democracy to Africa’s progress, as part of the universal democratic movement, is how African democratic activists ferment democracy from within African traditional values and institutions. And it is when this is done that for the first time recent developments will mean that the winds of change may be blowing at the cross-roads of democracy, economic management, leadership, African history and tradition.

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