‘Africanisation’ of Democracy: My take

Thu, 31 Oct 2013 Source: Ohemeng, Yaw

On the 16th of October 2013, when addressing the 5th China Europe International Business School (African Programme) lecture in Accra, the former Italian Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, is reported to have challenged Africans not to imitate entirely the democracy practiced by western countries. During the lecture, he was said to have urged the continent’s leadership to pursue the type of democracy that suits Africa’s culture of governance and to develop a kind of democracy that would suit the way of life of Africans.

He then went on to declare that democracy is not global and that western countries have only mastered some basic identical rules like elections, alternative power and transparency. He thought each nation must find its own way after accepting these basic identical rules. He noted further that African leaders have been limited by their perception of democracy to be that of a certain model (presumably the Western model).

This exhortation appeared to have resurrected the debate that was prevalent in the 1960s, in the immediate aftermath of independence for Ghana and a few other African nations. At that time, those who supported ‘africanising’ democracy used it to justify the one party state prescription and autocratic rule that had reared its ugly head in the newly independent African nation states.

The argument then was that Africa was not ready for the Western type democracy on account of the need for rapid development without hindrances placed in the way by an active and vigorous opposition. Those who could not tolerate vibrant opposition elements sought to hide behind this excuse. Another reason given was that tribal allegiances made it difficult to practice multi-party democracy as any attempt at that degenerated into tribal politics. There were even some European commentators who approached this debate from a racist angle who thought that the African is incapable of practising such a ‘sophisticated’ governance system, given the ‘primitive’ and autocratic indigenous systems of the pre-colonial past.

But what really is democracy? Abraham Lincoln defined it simplistically as ‘government of the people, by the people and for the people’. If you study Mr Prodi’s speech, he sought to situate democracy in ‘elections, alternative power and transparency’. Deeply studied, though, democracy has certain moral bases that go beyond these simplistic definitions and prescriptions. It flows from some larger societal values that also contribute to its acceptability.

We cannot therefore begin discussions on ‘africanising’ democracy until the moral bases have been defined. Any governance system has to recognise that every human being is born free with god-given rights to life and liberty. For individual prosperity and consequently advancement of society, every individual should have the right to legally earn a living using the resources available to them. No legal opportunity should be closed off to them in this quest. Part of the moral underpinnings to a governance system should also be to protect minorities and the vulnerable. Some might add that no one should be left behind when society advances; hence the less privileged should also receive a helping hand to be able to live decent lives. Lastly, individual members of society should have the right to express dissenting views, have the freedom to associate with whoever they please and to form associations.

All these values or variants of them are to be found in Ghana’s 1992 Constitution. So when people romantically call for a type of democracy that suits Africa, what do they actually mean? Are they talking about amending, adding to or subtracting from these values that underpin our democracy so that they become uniquely African?

To construct a democracy requires that individuals, out of their own free will, surrender their freedoms and liberties to a collective entity called the state. In return they expect all the forms of protection, improved welfare, and actualisation of their individual ambitions and aspirations. They freely accept that the state may have to balance their individual aspirations and needs against those that would ensure the stability and viability of the collective entity. They accordingly regulate their behaviours and actions to ensure these, and those who do not, are sanctioned by law and order institutions. Some individuals are selected to run and administer the state to achieve common aspirations, which in the process translates into individual prosperity. The selection is based on agreed rules and those who fall foul of them are sanctioned. The selected individuals are accountable to all and society reserves the right to review their performance, at set intervals, to decide whether to retain or replace them with alternatives.

As a summary therefore, democracy requires the following essential elements:

1. Larger moral values that flow out of the culture, history and peculiar circumstances of the nation or people involved;

2. Systems and institutions that will ensure the achievement of these moral values.

3. Representation units as well as the hierarchy and relationships between the different types of representation units;

4. Rules for selecting and de-selecting the representatives who work within the systems and institutions. These include specifying who qualifies to take part in electing the representatives; who qualifies to offer themselves up for election; and the channels through which aspiring representatives may present themselves (i.e. whether through political parties or other groupings or as individuals).

Out of these elements come Constitutions, laws and statutes to regulate the behaviour and actions of the members of society and also to limit and control the powers of the elected representatives. They also lead to the creation of state institutions that make and enforce laws, deliver services to seek the welfare of people, offer protection to life and property and aggregate the resources, energies and aspirations of all to the greater good.

If this premise is accepted then it is about time we move the debate on ‘africanising’ democracy on from accusations of western imposition. The Western democracies are themselves not uniform; they only share common threads, which are the moral values. Thus on closer examination one may find that the Western democracies only ‘export’ the moral underpinnings to democracy rather than systems and institutions. African traditionalists might even claim that these moral values are not alien to pre-colonial African societies, thus making them universal.

Apart from the common shared values, each major western democracy has evolved its own systems and devised institutions that suit its culture, history and sensibilities. We cannot therefore accuse them of imposing democracy because they have no common systems to impose. As Africans, we have only recently joined the democracy game and are yet to fully address the larger moral values we hold dear and the systems and institutions to employ to achieve them. The discussions should therefore be more about these than the often heard accusations of imposition, which are bringing nothing concrete to the table.

Let us take the case of Ghana. It is a widely held view that democracy has to date failed to bring prosperity to the broader masses. We should not, however, rush to condemn it because we have not practised it for that long. We have only sustained it from the early 1990s. We would have to be patient for suitable systems to evolve as we become dissatisfied with the delivery potential of current structures. It is persuasive to hold that democracy per se should not be blamed for the current predicament in Ghana. Most people will agree that our leaders lack vision, are corrupt and some may even be incompetent. Our institutions are weak because the arrangements for setting them up are not independent of the very people whose conduct they are meant to check. So if we say that we need a form of democracy suited to the Ghanaian situation, what are we really going to change?

The powers assigned to the President by the 1992 Constitution have been described as ‘too much for a bad President to have and yet too much for a good President to need’. Do we dilute them by spreading them over several political institutions or do we abolish the Executive Presidency altogether? The ‘winner takes all’ politics has also been blamed for the current situation. Do we therefore find a way to vest power in an elected ‘Presidential Committee’ (drawn from different political persuasions) instead of in a single individual? Perhaps we may have to go back to the chieftaincy system where people are not even elected but derive their authority from their ancestry and lineage. At least that system, in the pre-colonial times, managed to enstool people considered to be of high moral standing. In those days, though, leadership was intertwined with religion and spirituality. Chiefs then believed that the gods would strike them down if they did not serve their people well. But with the waning of traditional beliefs, can we fall back on the chieftaincy institution that is now replete with corruption, litigation and clashes?

When it comes to members of parliament, some have bemoaned the quality of the representation and of the individuals sent to represent them. Does this call for the re-specification of different representation units? Say instead of electing MPs based on geographical constituencies, should we rather call on each tribal grouping to send their representatives to the national level? Are there even ‘pure’ tribal groupings these days of inter-marriages and migration? How about the qualification of those who offer themselves to be elected or even those appointed to positions? Is there a case for specifying minimum experience and qualifications for those aspiring to become MPs or Ministers or even Presidents?

Some have pointed to the level of illiteracy and its effect on the worth of votes. Majority of voters do not even question the viability of manifestoes presented by political parties and rather choose to vote along tribal lines. Worst of all, some just vote based on looks or symbols or slogans, ignoring the real bases of the choices before them. In Britain, for instance, only those with economic interests (e.g. land owners) were first given the right to vote when democracy began. Universal suffrage was introduced gradually over time. Is there a case therefore for Ghana to consider restricting the right to vote to certain categories of society actors instead of the current stipulation where all Ghanaian citizens, above age 18, of sound mind, qualify to vote?

By asking all these questions (which are but a few of what could be asked), what becomes clear is that it is not that easy to ‘africanise’ democracy; the systems and institutions would have to evolve as we grapple with the inability of existing ones to deliver to suit our particular circumstances. So whilst Mr Prodi’s call may have jolted us, I am not sure that there are any quick fixes.

In the search for answers, though, we also need to be wary of Africans, parading the corridors of power, who are harking back to the old debate of Africa developing its own brand of democracy. Some may only be yearning for the ‘bad old days’ of dictatorships so that they would not have to justify their actions to their people. Some may be seeking the ‘free hand’ to practise the self-adulation, cronyism and political patronage that used to and still characterise a number of African leaders. Another observation is that among the most vocal of Africans calling for the ‘africanisation’ of democracy are those who find democracy, as currently practiced on the continent, a stumbling block to bringing back the failed socialist ideologies of the 1960s. We need to be wary of this too.

It would be an illusion to think that Africa can even have a single concept of democracy; each country has its own peculiarities. So even if the calls are genuine, democratic African countries should take time to systematically construct the moral values to underpin the democracy suitable for its people. This should then be followed by the evolution of systems to deliver them. We are in the experimental stages, and as we continue on the democratic journey, we should make use of the lessons learned to evolve institutions that will deliver to meet aspirations. Considering our post-independent history, though, any quick dash could result in the return of dictatorships and socialism cloaked in ‘African democracy’.

Dr Yaw Ohemeng

Columnist: Ohemeng, Yaw