Rethinking democracy on the African continent
Public attention being drawn on the efficacy of democracy as a system of government desirable or preferable to any other such as monarchical or military, is a necessary subject, going by recent happenings in neighbouring Niger Republic and Gabon, where soldiers have toppled democratically elected governments.
Not a few other African countries are running under one form of autocracy or another. The debate is equally spurred by the mixed reactions that have greeted the development, coupled with glaring misnomers in the polity under democracy. The question thus arising is whether democracy is imbued with the efficacy and capacity as a system of government to deliver good governance and meet socio-economic needs of the people.
The urge to revisit and debate the particulars of democracy, a system that was thought to hold the aces for social growth and economic development in 21st century Africa, has become urgent because of glaring lapses – bad governance and failure to deliver dividends, unfair elections and winner-takes-all attitude, misapplication and stealing of state resources.
It was former president Olusegun Obasanjo who lately tickled the subject in a recent interview with TheCable. Asked what type of democracy will work for African countries, the former president said: “I don’t know. But we have seen that the liberal type of democracy as practised in the West will not work for us. We have to put our heads together.” A number of scholars and politicians have since weighed in, sharing some of Obasanjo’s reservations and frustrations with democracy.
Former governor of Ekiti State, Kayode Fayemi, said he agreed with the former president. According to him, “what we need is alternative politics and my own notion of alternative politics is that you can’t have 35 per cent of the vote and take 100 per cent. It won’t work. We must look at proportional representation so that the party that is said to have won 21 per cent of the votes will have 21 per cent of the government. Adversary politics bring division and enmity.”
Professor of International Law and Jurisprudence, Akin Oyebode also joined the debate. For him, liberal democracy is yet to take root in Africa because of a cultural history where the older members of the society rule in the affairs of the people. He thinks it will take time to germinate well, thus suggesting continuous research and reconfiguration of the modalities of democracy in Africa until it is weaned from historical authoritarianism.
It was Alexander Pope who posited in his famous couplet titled Essay on Man, “for forms of government let fools contest; what is the best administered is the best.” That suggested that even in the early days of Western political discoveries, there had been the contention that it made little difference if governance was done through monarchy or a republic, what mattered was good results. Reviewers of literature on Western democracies would be quick to dismiss poesy because it did not belong to the realm of political science. But what has become prevalent even in Europe and in America, which is the bastion of democracy, is that it is still a work in progress. It is challenged by the resort to noxious nationalism and emerging paradigms in identity politics.
Scholars who are enamoured of the developmental strides in China, Turkey, even Russia get lured to romanticize that alternative, even suggesting that such quasi democracies that deliver results qualify as reference materials in this recalibrating process.
However, the resort to rethinking our type of democracy and how to make it serve the good of the majority is not a futile exercise. It is a welcome development against the background of emerging distortions and inherent failures in the systems in Africa. It is also a commendable call given the history of political developments in the continent and the urgent need to develop processes that serve the people well.
Democracy remains the best system of government but the onus is on the leadership and people to let democracy work. Democracy is about representation of the people and those who take on that responsibility must realise that it is about service and not an opportunity to cultivate hegemonic and authoritarian rule by a few and for themselves alone. That has led to the capture of the State and its resources by a privileged few as seen across Africa. The situation that led to the coup in Gabon, where father and son had appropriated to themselves the reins of democratic rule was clearly an abuse of the tenets of representative governance.
Another enabler of democratic rule is the presence of a constitution that sets the rules and terms of the system. Constitutional democracies are tenured and change of government is hallmarked by regular elections that are free and fair and credible. But we have seen over the years that elections in most parts of Africa are not free and fair. By nine out of 10 chances, a ruling party would win an election in Africa and by an absurd and contentious margin.
In the area of elections, a rethinking of the winner-takes-all syndrome that is prevalent in African democracies must be revisited to make representation proportional and equitable. That will reduce the contention that is associated with elections and give a sense of ownership to minority political parties.
Governments in Africa need to urgently engage thought processes in their parliaments in this regard and to embark on reforms that will usher in improvements in the democratic system of government.
As a matter of conscious necessity, political leaders must develop and demonstrate character in the service of the people. Leaders must think about the next generation and the survival of positive legacies handed over to them. They must groom successors and above all, allow the principles of democracy to guide their actions if they want posterity to judge them well. They must stop stealing the resources of the people and thereby creating economic disaffection in the continent. They must let democracy work for the people.
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