Is it time for Africa to look beyond the West for democracy?

On Monday, the military in the western African nation of Burkina Faso seized power, overthrowing President Roch Kabore. According to media sources, one of the army officials cited the deteriorating security situation for the takeover.

In neighbouring Mali, the country is still under the junta rule following a coup in 2020. Mali’s relations with France have since gone sour over the junta’s delay in organizing elections to usher in a civilian government. France, which first deployed troops in the West African country nine years ago to fight a jihadi insurgency, has spent around $1 billion a year on the fight. It is now pondering its next move.  

Further down in East Africa, Uganda witnessed one of the bloodiest election campaigns in November 2020 when more than 54 people were killed and others injured when protests broke out in different parts of the country following the arrest of then presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, alias Bobi Wine. Several governments and rights groups condemned the violence.

These unfortunate incidents have characterized many African countries that it is sometimes shocking when they do not happen. Fueled by the promise of attaining democratic rule of law to foster economic growth and development, the actors suffer the brunt of jailing, beatings, others are killed by the regime in the struggle. But is this the kind of democracy that Africa needs? Does Africa have to adopt to western democratic values? Different scholars propose five democratic models whose ideals in one way or the other can provide the continent with alternatives.

Under the Nativist model, proponents argue that democracy in Africa can be consolidated only if it is articulated with the “consensus” or “consultative” model of democracy found in “traditional” institutions. According to Maxwell Owusu, Africa should consider its language, rituals, and working assumptions of traditional chieftaincy, which is easily understood by local communities. George Ayittey supports this view, saying a return to indigenous practices and values in political and economic management is necessary if Africa is to recover from its debilitating crises of poor governance and development. We see this model being predominantly practiced in the pre-colonial period.  Societies highly valued their local chief and kings. But today, there are still isolated communities in Africa that still practice this model. In other countries the traditional kings are barred from politics, with their role restricted to culture. Despite this, they have been instrumental in rallying the masses to respond to social concerns, and preserved cultures and norms. They have also ushered in the traditional systems of administering justice, saving communities from spending resources on modern court systems.

Then there are the pragmatic defenders of the liberal model, such as Jibrin Ibrahim and Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o, who argue that democracy rests solidly on a multiparty system and periodic electoral contests to promote the trinity of good governance: efficiency, accountability, and transparency. Many African countries practice this model by holding periodic elections, but their results are sometimes contested, citing voter bribery, ballot stuffing, killings, and violence.  In 2007, Kenya, which had had a series of peaceful transfer of power, witnessed mass killings with more than 1,000 lives lost.  

Critics argue that this model, which allows different players, allows the powerful to take advantage and exploit the masses.

“They make arguments on how democracy and its accompanying checks and balances, a free press and freedom to organize; reduces corruption, leads to accountability, promotes economic growth and development, ensures service delivery etc. These arguments are made even when there is overwhelming evidence that in many poor countries, democracy leads to increased corruption, undermines accountability, induces governments to focus on short-term vote-winning policies that may be economically harmful in the long-run,” Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda states in his article Democracy, new religious crusade.

Thirdly, there is the popular democratic model advanced by Samir Amin and others. They argue that democracy restricted to the political sphere, as in Western democratic regimes, while economic organization is held captive to nondemocratic principles of privatization, is an incomplete one.
According to scholars such as Mahmood Mamdani, African states are confronted with the challenges of democratizing the state, particularly customary power, removing state control of citizenship rights, deracializing civil society, and restructuring the unequal external relations of dependency.

Feminist scholars such as Amina Mama and Ifi Amadiume have called attention to the gendered dimensions of state formation and power and the fact that democratization without women’s empowerment and gender equality is clearly inadequate. African governments have responded to this by ensuring a sizeable number of women representatives in key government positions plus promoting the girl child education through affirmative action, among other reforms. However, these are susceptible to infiltration of the western norms that are contrary to African culture.

There are also theocratic visions and discourses about political transformation and democracy in Africa as advanced by Ali Mazrui. He argues that different forces in different countries have fostered Islamic revivalism. For example, in Somalia and Sudan. Militant clerics and intellectuals such as Hassan El-Tourabi in the Sudan, propose sweeping political changes to enshrine Islamic law (shari’a), ostensibly to strengthen the Islamic community and eradicate the Western influences of modern society.

However, reformist scholars, such as Abdullahi An-Na’im, also from the Sudan, prefer a modern version of Islamic law that conforms to international standards of human rights. For instance, communities in Somalia and Nigeria have suffered due to the Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram, whose policies have been discriminatory, according to the western ideals.

Lastly, other scholars push for the transnational model of democratization, which subscribes to regional and continental integration as a result of globalization. The economic and diplomatic justifications of regional integration for Africa’s global competitiveness are as old as independence; the cultural and racial rationales go back to colonization and the origins of Pan-Africanism.

They argue that these might curtail the authoritarian reflexes of the postcolonial state, thwart coups or raise the costs for the perpetrators, and facilitate the decentralization and dispersal of power, thereby dissolving incendiary clashes in conflict-prone countries. For instance, the West African bloc, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), recently slapped sanctions on the Mali-led junta government for delaying elections.

These models are better analyzed in the current African context. With the continent’s leaders advocating for independence, rights and freedoms, the prevailing conditions are often a setback for Africa in rejecting the Western’s models. Many African countries are heavily indebted, with their budgets largely funded by the donor community, leaving them at the mercy of the West.  According to scholar Tigist Mekonnen Melesse, more than 75% of the world’s poor live in Africa today. In 1970 the figure was 10%. Some forecasts suggest it could rise to 90% by 2030.

But with the emergence of other global powers such as China, India and Japan, which are aiding several infrastructural projects across Africa, these countries have been able to assist the countries, without interfering in much of the receivers’ policies, unlike the West.  (Though this support has not been without its own controversies.) It is no coincidence that the Ugandan government suspended the activities of the Democratic Governance Facility (DGF), a global funding group, on condition that it takes part in the monitoring of its projects, citing subversive activities from the group.

This what journalist Andrew Mwenda argues in one of his articles saying: “Therefore, giving us money and/or being richer does not necessarily make a country have a messianic and evangelical approach to foreign relations. Thus, there must be something in the Western cultural mind, which is absent in the Eastern cultural mentality, that makes the peoples and governments of the Western world have this impulse to lecture to others and seek to impose their values on them.”

Conclusively, he argues that democracy should be practiced considering different societies have different histories and circumstances which give them different priorities.  “They need to be given time and space to experiment with different forms of government. It is the political struggles of their citizens over time that will shape the democracy they get or lack of it. To demand and expect that the whole world should converge on one form of government that evolved organically out of the experience of Europe and her offshoots in North America and Oceania is simplistic, utopian and even dangerous. It is an attempt to impose the values, and indeed the history, of one society onto all other societies. And that is undemocratic.”

For the continent to do that, it needs pragmatic, uncompromising and resolute leadership that will not solely sacrifice its values on the altar of western democracy.

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