Can Africa sustain a truly democratic culture?

Democracy has loosely been defined as the government of the people, by the people, for the people. This definition has stood the test of time, be it in Asia, Latin America, Europe or Africa. Therefore, the demand for political participation and the involvement of the people in the choice of their leaders and in the decision –making process which constitutes the critical hub of political democracy is not a new phenomenon in Africa. 
The current democratic effervescence in Africa could be regarded not as a process of ‘democratic birth’ but a process of ‘democratic renewal’.

The Democratic Pillars
In the language of democratic governance, openness and transparency are key ingredients to build accountability and trust, which are necessary for the functioning of democracies and market economies.

Unfortunately, the actual and present condition of Africa is one of deep trouble. Harsh governments or dictatorships rule over peoples who distrust them to even a point of hatred, and usually for good reasons. All too often, one dismal tyranny gives way to another worse one. Despair rots civil society, the State becomes an enemy, and bandits flourish.

In spite of this dismal picture, it would be apposite to note that the performance and outcome of political regimes in Africa have varied among and within Nations at different periods. While some immediate post-independent regimes like that of Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, and Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya, though statists in character, did place some premium on the welfare of the people, and constructed what could be described as minimally or fairly good government. On the other hand, political megalomania like Mobutu in the then Zaire, Samuel Doe in Liberia, and Saiid Barre in Somalia created for themselves ‘political fiefdoms’ in their respective countries. Miscreantly, they peculated national wealth, devalued the lives of the people, and destroyed the fabric of the society.

 What is peculiar About Africa?
The trouble with Africa is the orgy of bad governance. It looms large no matter whether the regime is military, parliamentary or one party. To me, the reasons for these are legion:
Firstly, is the colonial pedigree. The political structures and values, economic base and social orientation promoted in the colonial era were antithetical to the evolution of good governance and democracy.

Secondly, in the post colonial period, the emphasis of the political rulers was on national integration, unity, and development. Hence, the dominant doctrine was one of a ‘dictatorship of development’, rather than the ‘democracy of development’. The tendency was that governance degenerated significantly, as the State became an arena of fratricidal struggles for primitive accumulation of wealth and power control. The net effect was that political alienation and de-participation and increasing material poverty became the norms of political governance in Africa. Both democracy and good governance took a retreat.

The present agitation for democratic reforms by the African people shows a clear predilection for plural politics and democratic governance. The expectation is that this will transform the social sphere and make life more abundant for the people. The pattern and modalities of such reforms have differed from place to place, ranging from the national conference model in French West African countries, to the State authored democratic transition process. Between 1985 and 1990, no less than 20 authoritarian regimes were forced to liberalize the political arena, while multi-party elections were held in 8 countries. By 1997, about three-quarter of African countries were under ‘democratic rule’.

By and large, the democratic project in Africa remains wobbly and qualitatively stunted. For instance, in countries like Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Togo, Gabon, and Kenya, one could at best talk of a ‘facade’ democracy, in which massaged elections were arranged, with the perpetuation of civil political autocracy, under the guise of democratic rule. In Ghana, Uganda, Equatorial Guinea, Niger, and Gambia, yesterday’s military dictators have suddenly become ‘overnight’ democrats, through corrupted electoral processes. In Nigeria, and Algeria, callous autocrats, reluctant at disengaging from power deliberately subverted credible electoral processes by annulling elections. The struggle for power still rages on in Sierra Leone, while in countries like Liberia, Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, Sudan, and the DRC, peace and national reconciliation  and reconstruction are more urgent agenda than the object of democracy.

In  Perspective?
True to itself, civil and political liberties remain highly constrained in Africa, and the parlous economy does not brighten democratic prospects on the continent. However, to effectively and efficiently sustain a veritable and viable democratic culture in Africa, in my humble opinion, three conditions must be interwoven.

Firstly, civil society must be strengthened and involved in governance and in the political process. Civil society constitutes the key of the society, an intermediary force, and social agent between the individual and the State. The civil society is generally conceived to be an organ for democracy, good governance, and development, which presses for civil and political rights, institutional reforms, economic concessions, and welfare for the people, and socio-economic empowerment.

Secondly, the military question. The crux of the military question centers on the problem of demilitarization of the political arena and society, and how civil control and supremacy could be established over the military. It is a twist between force and freedom, order and liberty, as well as might and right. Achieving civil-military stability and control requires the re-professionalization of the armed forces, the inculcation of civic values of servile obedience to civilian authority, reducing military expenditure etc.

Finally, the international economic and political environment must be made hospitable, for democracy and good governance to evolve and be sustained in Africa. Issues of Africa’s external debt, deteriorating commodity prices, and terms of trade and economic dependence have to be addressed. All these factors affect Africa’s democratic stability.

With the rise of terrorist groups like the Boko Haram in Nigeria, whose tentacles spread to neighbouring Cameroon, Chad, Niger etc, the challenges of sustaining democracy in Africa are very huge. Alternance of power is rare, and every day new tactics are used to maintain dictators in power. The struggle continues.

Mukete Tahle Itoe
Practising Judge in Cameroon


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