Introduction

Since the end of the colonial rule in Africa, democracy, multiparty systems and neoliberal economic reforms have been promoted by western countries and international donor organisations including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as the main development strategy for Africa’s political, social and economic progress (Transconflict, 2015). African countries have been told that good governance, constitutionalism, accountability, respect for human rights and the rule of law are the continent’s answer to realizing peace, security and sustainable economic growth and development (Mbaku, 2020). The African Union (AU) and many Africans including former United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, a Ghanaian native, also embraced democracy and good governance as the main vehicle for development and poverty alleviation (Ibid). In the 1990s, many African nations embarked on institutional restructuring to change their governance structures and political leaders including long-standing dictators (Mbaku, 2020; Ayittey, 210). Many African countries adopted multiparty political and election systems to choose their leaders by majority votes (Ayittey, 2010). Ghana, for example, adopted a new constitution and institutional reforms to ensure a separation of powers, transparency, accountability and respect for human rights (Mbaku, 2020).

In the last several years, Africa has achieved many successes in its democratic experiment. Countries including Ghana, Kenya, Côte D’Ivoire, Morocco, Senegal, Namibia and South Africa have been hailed for their remarkable improvements in governance structures, leadership, political stability and respect for civil and political rights under very challenging circumstances (Mbaku, 2020; Cheeseman, 2019). Many African countries have also achieved improvements in the provision of political, economic, social goods and services for their citizens in recent years (Oneko, 2016). The development of information and communication technological infrastructure has improved remarkably with about 20% of Africans currently accessing mobile broadband and undersea fibre cables (Oneko, 2016). Africans have witnessed an improvement in political and civic participation, economic opportunities, public management, media freedom and human rights enjoyment. In addition to enjoying “free and fair” elections, citizens of Côte D’Ivoire have also benefited from economic growth, economic and social rights and investigations into the atrocities committed during its 2011 elections (Oneko, 2016). Ghana has undergone multiple elections and peaceful transfers of powers including the 2016 election defeat of an incumbent president, John Dramani Mahamah (Cheeseman, 2019). The Gambia’s former military ruler President Yahya Jammeh was ousted after his 21 year rule. Kenya, Tunisia, Morocco, Rwanda and Cote D’Ivoire have improved their governance performance scores in the Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG) report between 2008 and 2017. With its robust civil and political rights frameworks, Namibia has become one of Africa’s most politically “free” nations. Meanwhile, Botswana and Mauritius have been touted as Africa’s oldest and most successful democracies and have achieved economic development within human rights frameworks (Cheeseman, 2019). Botswana is consistently ranked highly and admired across the globe in the areas of effective governance, political stability, transparency, media freedom, corruption, economic growth and diversity, judicial independence and respect for human rights (Sandner, 2017). Botswana uses revenue derived from its natural resources and other economic expansion to diversify its economy and to provide public goods and services (Sandner, 2017).

Deteriorating Democracy?

Behind Africa’s apparent democratic successes are also some disappointing outcomes (Moshi and Osman, 2008). After more than 25 years of democratization, most African countries have not been able to achieve the necessary economic progress, reforms or vibrant private sectors to prevent corruption, impunity, and unresponsive and autocratic governance (Mbaku, 2020; Temin and Linzer, 2020). Of the 15 African countries which held elections in 2016, only eight led to changes in political leaders (Jalloh, 2015). Ghana has witnessed one of the worst declines in governance performance since 2006 (Oneko, 2017). Several African leaders including Paul Biya (Cameroon), President Yoweri Museveni (Uganda), Paul Kagame (Rwanda) and Teodoro Obiang Nguema (Equatorial Guinea) have stayed in power for decades (Jalloh, 2017). Many countries including Eritrea, the Central African Republic (CAR), the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Somalia are faced with sectarian violence, weak and ineffective leadership and very poor governance structures (Mbaku, 2020). Poor leadership and governance structures have severely affected the region’s peace and security, economic growth, wealth creation, poverty alleviation and human development (Mbaku, 2020). African elections are marked by bloodshed, violence, vote buying, fraud, voter intimidation and brutalities by security forces (Mountain, 2012). Election related violence and tensions are considered so normal that they are not a concern unless they lead to full blown conflicts or wars (Mountain, 2012). Currently, there are nearly as many deficient democracies in Africa as there are autocracies (15 and 16 countries respectively) (BBC 2019). According to the 2019 Freedom House report, only nine of the 54 African states are currently “free” and Benin, one of Africa’s earliest democracies, is now considered to be only “partly free”. At least twelve African countries including Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali and Nigeria have witnessed a decrease in their annual freedom scores in recent years. In the West African region, only Ghana and Cape Verde are “free”.

Economic inequality and political repression in Africa have worsened under African democracy (Lucas, 2017). Many African countries are still battling dictatorship, political gridlocks, tribal politics and economic decline (Mbaku, 2020; Nlasia 2020). Africans have witnessed some of the most protracted and violent conflicts in the world (Moshi and Osman, 2008). Poor leadership and governance have led to sustained civil strife and violence in countries including the CAR, Eritrea, Somalia and South Sudan (Mbaka, 2020). Due to lack of peace and security, many African countries have failed to generate economic growth, create wealth, improve human development and eradicate poverty (Mbaka, 2020). In recent years, extremist activities have significantly increased in African nations including Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, and Nigeria with serious implications for physical security, free movement, free speech and access to government services (Temin and Linzer, 2020). Incidents of political repression, opposition crackdown and arrests and human rights violations have increased in many countries. In 2016, Uganda’s opposition leader Kizza Bisigye was arrested for campaigning against the President. In Kenya, opposition leaders have faced political repression and gross human rights violations (Lucas, 2017). In Nigeria, Benin and Senegal, democracy has been marred by election irregularities, the exclusion of opposition leaders from contesting in elections, voter suppression and politically motivated prosecutions (Temin and Linzer, 2020). Togo’s president, President Faure Gnassingbé recently declared victory in an election that was tainted by observer interference, lack of transparency and media suppression. Benin, Niger and Cameroon are currently under political gridlocks while Uganda and Rwanda have regressed in democracy with the leaders modifying their constitutions to extend their terms in office (Temin and Linzer, 2020; BBC 2019).

In the last few decades, the quality of civil and political liberties in African countries (except a few) has worsened faster than any other region (Lucas, 2017). In 2019, the West African region witnessed the fastest regression in political rights and civil liberties according to Freedom House. African democracy largely excludes women, ethnic minority groups, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, queer and transgendered (LGBQT) persons and people with disabilities from political processes (Lucas, 2017). Human Development in Africa has not improved while inequality has widened in the region. Africa’s most democratic countries including Botswana, South Africa and Namibia have some of the worst inequalities in the world (Lucas, 2017). African democracies give a false sense of democratic participation since they exclude many voices (Lucas, 2017). In 2015, the controversial third re-election of President Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi led to an opposition boycott, an outbreak of violence and the displacement of over 400, 000 Burundians (Jalloh, 2017).

Africa continues to be plagued by poverty, famine, HIV/AIDS, human displacements, refugee movements, violence, inequality, corruption, repressive and failed governments (Lucas, 2017; Moshi and Osman, 2008). The continent is still faced with poor leadership in addition to lack of access to basic amenities and accommodation, food security, affordable healthcare, education, job creation and income security (Mountain, 2012). Many Africans rely largely on food aid and imports because their countries cannot produce enough food for them. The region’s overall poverty numbers have increased dramatically from 278 million in 1990 to 413 million in 2015 (Mbaka, 2020). Meanwhile, many Africans are disappointed in the failure of democracy to bring them economic transformation, credible and accountable elections, transparency, broadened and increased civic participation, responsive governance, improved infrastructure, access to public goods and services, and a reduction in corruption.

Is Democracy the Right Political Framework? 

The failures of African democracy have led to frustration among westerners and a re-examination if not a rejection by many Africans (Transconflict, 2015). Some analysts wonder if African democracy is regressing, others question if it is feasible while some wonder if it is even the right political framework (Adejumo-Ayibiowu, 2019). A Ghanaian scholar and author, George Ayittey has noted that multiparty democracy may work in Africa but it may be “[un]suitable” because of its neglect of minority groups (CNN Opinion, 2010). Although the majority (68%) Africans are still in favour of democracy over autocracy, there is also a growing number of Africans who are beginning to lose faith in the capacity of democracy to address Africa’s problems (Tendaishe, 2015). Some Africans even believe that autocratic governance may in fact be more suitable (Temin and Linzer, 2020). Malian music legend, Salif Keita, for instance, has argued for the adoption of the Chinese model in what he refers to as a “benevolent dictator” in place of democracy (BBC, 2019). Many Africans adore Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame who they see as an effective and efficient leader who is unrestricted by the slow and costly processes of democracy often without concrete results. Some commentators argue that democracy cannot work in Africa because Africa’s cultural values are inherently corrupt, autocratic, repressive anti-development and incompatible with western democratic principles (Gumede, 2016). But is the African culture the main problem?

Contrary to popular beliefs, African scholars argue that democracy is neither new nor inimical to the African culture (Adejumo-Ayibiowu, 2019). Rather, Africa, like other cultures and societies (including Asian), has had its own rich democratic traditions that are based on African culture and institutional arrangements (albeit with some autocratic elements) (Gumede, 2016). Democratic systems often referred to as “cultural democracy” existed in pre-colonial Africa and are still present in many African societies particularly in the rural areas (National Academies Press, 1992). Examples of culture based democratic systems in Africa include the Ashantis of Ghana, the Igbos and Yorubas of Nigeria, the Somalis, the Tswanas of Botswana, the Shonas of Zimbabwe, the Xhosas and the Zulus of South Africa (Gumede, 2016; Ayittey, 2010). According to Ayittey, democracy is not exclusive to western based multiparty models and votes-by-majority systems only but it also includes other forms of governance systems whereby decisions are made by consensus (Ayittey, 2010).

Unlike the western style democracy which is based on free-market, individual self-interest, multiparty elections and a winner-takes-all ethos, indigenous African democracy is based on consensus, morality, inclusiveness and collective interests (Adejumo-Ayibiowu, 2019; Gumede, 2016). Consensus is normally built through a “Council of Elders” who consult and negotiate with all stakeholders until they reach a consensus (Mountain, 2012). Traditionally, Chiefs and Kings who are heads of villages, clans and communities are normally chosen from royal families by the Queen Mothers of the clans or villages with the approval of Councils of Elders who are representatives of the clans or families, to rule for life (Ayittey, 2010). In spite of their seemingly absolute authority, Chiefs are required to consult with their Council of Elders on all important issues to seek their input and agreement on all decisions. When there is a deadlock between a Chief and his Elders, the Chief is required to bring the matter to the entire village or community for a public debate before a decision can be made (Ayittey, 2010). Popular participation and broader support for policies and decisions put forth are sought through consultations (National Academies Press, 1992). In Botswana’s Tswana culture the chiefs and tribal heads are expected to consult citizens in a public gathering referred to as Kgotla before any important decisions can be made (Lewis, Jr, 2020). Disputes are resolved through consensus and mediation facilitated by Elders to ensure a peaceful resolution of conflicts. (Mountain, 2012). Parties are bound by final decisions and are expected to respect and comply with them. Peaceful resolution of conflicts between parties helps members of the community to live peacefully and in unity.

Why is Democracy Failing in Africa?

The failure of Africa’s democratic experiments is not necessarily due to African culture and traditions per se; rather, analysts say, it is due to multiple factors including Africa’s colonial legacy, lack of integration of African culture and traditions in the implementation of western democracies and the absence of the necessary prerequisites for establishing strong and stable democracies at the time of implementation. Unlike other democracies that are founded on their own histories, traditions and culture, African democracies ignore Africa’s colonial legacy and post-colonial events (particularly during the Cold War) which have had significant implications on the socio-political environment of African countries (Transconflict, 2015). African democracies are built on western ideologies, traditions, values and constitutions which are models of colonial laws that facilitate elitism, individualism, autocracy (Adejumo-Ayibiowu, 2019). Modern African states are administered under colonial-based governance structures that ignore African culture, traditions, identities and other basic social structures and units that govern the functioning of African societies. Traditionally, African societies operate within a complex structure of family lineage, clans, groups, tribes, cultures and inter-communal relations which greatly influence all political, social and economic transactions (Deng, 1997). During colonialism, arbitrary boundaries were drawn to cut across families, communities, ethnic and cultural units and to disrupt traditional power structures (TransConflict, 2015). A collection of autonomous ethnic units, families, clans and tribes were placed under newly-created colonial administrations, rules and values to control populations and national resources using the police, the military and other authoritarian machinery (Deng, 1997). These mechanisms of control destroyed indigenous African institutional structures and traditions, deprived Africans of their identity, means of livelihood and sense of purpose and brought them under the control of the state to compete for basic services and limited resources (Deng, 1997).

Unlike other democracies with identical ethnic identity, western style democracy was imposed on ethnically diverse, fragmented, weak and micro African states that are characterized by chronic inter-ethnic tensions. Tribal and ethnic identities are exploited by political leaders who fuel inter-ethnic tensions to advance political ambitions and agenda (Deng, 1997). Even in Africa’s most democratically successful countries like Ghana and Mauritius, political networks are usually built around ethnic identities (Cheeseman, 2019). Political leaders exploit multiparty democracy to fuel tribal politics which in turn sustain corruption, nepotism, economic mismanagement, impunity and a cycle of violence because ethnic identities are more important to many Africans than national interests.

Western style democracy in Africa was implemented in a rush and under pressure from western donors in exchange for foreign aid after the collapse of the Soviet Union (Ayittey, 2010). Democracy was also pushed with neoliberal economic reforms which also sustains imperialism, through a continuous market access and the exploitation of Africa’s resources by the west. Moreover, western style democracy has created severe challenges in ethnically and culturally diverse African societies in which a loss in a multiparty election could mean the total exclusion of certain groups from all decisions. African democracies have become defective models which allow autocratic leaders to hang onto power by manipulating elections under the disguise of democracy. Western style democracy in Africa has worsened ethnic divisions and led to the marginalization of minority groups from power and wealth. Africa’s political elite monopolizes state political leadership through corruption, repression, and the concentration of power and national resources among a privileged few. Leaders such as Uhuru Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi (Kenya), Paul Biya of Cameroon, Gnassingbé and Faure Eyadéma of Togo among many others, have exploited western democratic tools to promote the interest of the Gikuyus, Kalenjins, Betis and Kabyes at the expense of other ethnic groups (Ayittey, 2010).

The indigenous governance systems prevented this level of marginalization and corruption because they promoted high moral standards, cultural values, hard work and cost efficient administrations through the swearing of oaths, training and equal distribution of public resources. The Yoruba governance system, for example, ensures responsiveness, accountability, good leadership, public participation, representation, consultation and compliance. The Chief’s role was not “political” but rather “spiritual” because he is the mediator between his people and the “gods” including the “sky”, the “earth”, the “universe” and even his ancestors. As such, the Chief was expected by the gods and the people to act morally, perform his functions properly and responsibly in order to prevent the gods from getting “angry” at him and his people (Ayittey, 2010). The Chief was required to ensure the economic, social and political welfare of all families, clans, tribes and ethnic groups to facilitate peaceful and harmonious inter-group relations (Aytittey, 2010; Den 1997). If the Chief failed to meet these expectations or conform to the will of the people, he could face severe consequences including his removal or death (Adejumo-Ayibiowu, 2019). If the Chief committed a wrongful act, he could be summoned by the Queen Mother or higher order Chief, be removed by the Council of Elders or be stripped of his shoes or chair (sign of rejection or overthrow), be ostracized or at times be banished from the village altogether (Ayittey, 2010). In more recent times, in July 2020, an Ashanti chief in the suburb of Kumasi, Bantamahene Baffour Owusu Amankwatia VIwas nearly dethroned by the Ashanti King, Otumfuo Osei Tutu II, for trespassing and building “illegal” structures in a major waterway and sacred area in the city. Many of the indigenous traditions, structures, rules and institutions of authority were disrupted or destroyed during colonialism through the drawing of arbitrary boundaries between families, clans, ethnic groups, communities and cultural units and “divide-and-rule” strategies (TransConflict, 2015).

Political scientists have noted that most African countries lacked all the necessary prerequisites for establishing strong and stable democracies at the time of implementation (Cheeseman, 2019). In order to build an effective democracy, certain important pre-conditions including cohesive national identity, strong infrastructure and a framework for the rule of law, strong economic base, effective private sector, a vibrant middle and business class, and mobilized civil society, must be in place (Cheeseman, 2019). These conditions help promote good and responsive governance, accountability, transparency, political stability, public participation, wealth creation, effective legal systems and law enforcement (Mbaku, 2020; Cheeseman, 2019). With the exception of South Africa, no African country had the economic strength and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) required to create economic growth, employment, a vibrant middle class and private sector to ensure accountability and prevent corruption (Cheeseman, 2019). Besides Botswana, no African country has the ethnic unity required to maintain a unified national identity, peace, political stability, economic growth and internal capacity for sustainable development (Deng, 1997). In countries like South Africa and Sudan, ethnic pluralism is complicated by race and religion which determine a person’s citizenship, social status, resource access and human rights enjoyment (Deng, 1997).

 

The Way Forward?

It is true that the wave of African democracy that has swept through the continent since the end of the Cold War has not addressed the continent’s political, economic and development goals. But the majority of Africans still prefer to live in democratic, open and freer societies over autocratic rule. The AU’s priorities and goals in its Agenda 2063 include aspirations for democracy, good governance, respect for human rights, justice and the rule of law, participatory development and the preservation of peace and security. Despite these aspirations, many Africans are very dissatisfied with the continent’s current “dysfunctional”, “unaccountable” and “unresponsive” democracies and would like to see changes in their governance structures and living conditions. Something must be done to create the changes Africans hope to see. As demonstrated by countries such as South Korea, Japan, Botswana and Mauritius, democracy can be successfully implemented in non-western cultures to bring positive changes and progress (2016). Africans states can learn from the political and economic successes of Botswana, Cape Verde, Namibia and Mauritius which have largely been attributed to integration of western democracy to African culture and traditions to promote development over market-driven competitiveness (Gumede, 2016).

Botswana, Africa’s oldest continuous democracy, has successfully integrated certain aspects of its culture including the promotion of popular support, public participation in decision making, consensus building, modesty, responsiveness, good governance and accountability into its democratic institutions (Gumede, 2016). The Tswana Kgotla tradition which facilitates consultation and dialogue between the Chief and the people has been integrated into Botswana’s current democratic institutions (Lewis Jr, 2020). In pre-colonial Tswana society, a kgotlawas presided over by the Chief or tribal headsman who also ruled the people or tribe in his territory and was responsible for the adjudication of disputes, administration of justice, allocation of land for farming, housing and commercial development and the management of the people’s affairs (Lewis Jr, 2020). Botswana’s political structures, parliamentary debates and political campaigns are modelled after the kgotla system. Under Botswana’s 1961 constitutional arrangement, kgotlas representing various tribes form the membership of the “African Council” that is part of the nation’s administrative body that is responsible for the selection of eight of the ten members of the nation’s “Legislative Council” (Lewis Jr, 2020). The kgotlatradition is utilized to promote free speech, public consultation, citizen participation in political and policy discussions (Lewis Jr, 2020). Botswana has a history of holding direct policy discussions between cabinet ministers and technocrats to facilitate a mutual understanding of each other’s perspective. Since everyone’s input is sought, legislation, policies and government programmes are often tailored to the needs of everyone, including the rural dwellers.

Botswana traditional Chiefs are involved in nearly all aspects of the political process. Prominent Chiefs including Seretse Khama, Botswana’s first president (1966-1980), his uncle, Tshekdi Khama (also known as Khama the Great, Chief of the Bangwato tribe), and Quett Masire (the country’s second president, 1980-1998) have played a significant role in Botswana’s political leadership, the development of governance structures, human rights promotion, education, modern agriculture and resource development (Lewis, Jr, 2020). Chiefs in Botswana are also Members of the National House of Chiefs and are in charge of advising Botswana’s National Assembly on customary issues. Chiefs can also contest for parliamentary seats or political leadership. Diversity in Botswana’s administration is promoted through representation by European-Botswanans, Asians and government officials. Botswana has incorporated its customary laws into its legal system and established customary courts in which Chiefs adjudicate on dispute and justice cases in accordance with customary laws and traditions. Customary courts are accessible without a lawyer and currently account for the adjudication of up to 80% of the country’s civil and minor criminal cases (Lewis, Jr., 2020). Botswana’s political leaders apply long held Tswana values such as cooperation, hard work, honesty, integrity and modesty, and self-help into their political system to promote fiscal responsibility. The country’s leaders encourage a frugal lifestyle and modest public expenditure during official duties and transactions; until recently, Botswana’s president was the only public official who was permitted to use an official vehicle with a driver or travel by air on a first class ticket to official international events. Consultation, a feature of Tswana governance traditions, is extensively employed by political leaders when recruiting political party members. Consultation is also used in public education, citizen engagement, policy formulation and decision making. Botswana embraces the use of Setswana as its national language in addition to English, its official language. To facilitate popular support and increase people’s understanding of democracy, public education and interpretation is provided in both English and Setswana. According to a recent Afrobarometer report, 80% of Botswana citizens understand and support democracy and appreciate democratic governance and its benefits to them and their society.

Instead of drawing a dichotomy between western democracy and Africa culture, African countries should adopt elements of their culture and traditions that promote development, democracy and social progress. Post-colonial institutions and aspects of the African culture that perpetuate political and social marginalization, nepotism, impunity and corruption, and undermine human rights, must be abandoned. Instead of costly and adversarial western style elections which exclude the voices of minorities, representatives to National Assemblies or Parliament and Councils can be chosen by each ethnic or cultural group who have shared identities and interests (Ayittey, 2010). Presidents can then be chosen from the National Councils or Parliament by Members by votes or on a rotational basis to ensure more equitable power sharing. Decisions can then be made by consensus between the President and Council Members. In case of disagreements between the President and Council Members, the issues in question can be sent to the National Assembly or Parliament to break the deadlock. Chiefs can play an important role by consulting their communities on policy matters and the cost implications and benefits. As in Botswana, the Chiefs can also adjudicate on minor criminal cases, land and other civil disputes to relieve pressure on judicial systems that are bogged down by huge backlogs and long delays. Given the high level of respect and reverence for Chiefs (compared to politicians), Chiefs can be integrated in local administration and law enforcement. Aligning pro-democracy and pro-development local traditions with the western democratic system will promote effective and accountable governance, while ensuring inclusiveness, broader political representation, respect for human rights and peaceful co-existence. Monies spent on elections could also be put towards development projects and services.

 

About the writer

Akosua Gyimah is a Ghanaian-Canadian based in Ontario, Canada. She is an experienced health and social care practitioner, a writer, researcher, legal and policy analyst. She holds graduate degrees in Diplomacy and International Law (LLM), a Master of Social Work (MSW), MA and BA (in Development Geography). Her interests and expertise include social justice, healthcare, substitute decision-making, consent and capacity, patient rights, human rights, governance, African and international politics, conflicts and human security. She can be reached at mongyimah@yahoo.com.

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By Akosua Gyimah

10 August 2020

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