Dr. Edmund Abaka reviews some arguments on democracy in Africa, and wonders about what people mean. Dr. Edmund Abaka is the Director of the Africana Studies Program at the University of Miami. He teaches courses in African history and the African diaspora (including Pan-Africanism and African-American interest in Africa). He has developed a Study Abroad program to Ghana and takes students to Ghana each year. His eclectic research interests include the political economy of kola nuts, African youth/students and popular political protest, the Hausa diaspora in Ghana and "return migration to Africa."
In a March 21, 2000 editorial titled "Violence in Nigeria," the New York Times wrote that:
Nigeria is facing violent political turbulence that threatens to unravel a year-old experiment in democracy in Africa's most populous nation. The crisis was years in the making and underscores the difficulty of forging a stable, accountable government after decades of rapacious military rule.
In recent weeks, hundreds of Nigerians have been killed in ethnic and sectarian violence. Nigeria's population of 120 million is divided roughly equally between the predominantly Muslim north and the mainly Christian south. The most recent violence, which claimed 400 lives last month in the northern city of Kaduna, followed calls by northern political leaders for the introduction of Shariah - Islamic law - in northern states, although Nigeria is supposed to be a secular country.
President Olusegun Obasanjo has failed to provide the leadership needed to resolve this dangerous situation. He has rightly questioned the motives of northern politicians who called for the adoption of the shariah. Many are former cronies of the late dictator Gen. Sani Abacha, who have seen their power diminished under Mr. Obasanjo, a southerner. But these politicians are also exploiting popular discontent with a deteriorating economy, the collapse of social services, widespread corruption and a system of governance inherited from the military that places disproportionate power in the hands of those who control the federal government.
In his 10 months in office Mr. Obasanjo, to his credit, has removed hundreds of corrupt military officers and government officials and brought legal claims against their business associates to recover millions of dollars in stolen wealth. But he has yet to challenge the concentration of power that makes such corruption inevitable. Working with representatives of all regions and sectors of society, he needs to draft a new constitution that establishes a more equitable distribution of executive, legislative and judicial power. Until then, Nigeria's diverse regions have a Nigeria's diverse regions have a stake in the institutions and resources of government, the centrifugal forces of ethnicity and religion will continue to pull at this vast fragile country.
I think the editorial is interesting and would like to begin from where it leaves off. This is the challenge of democracy and the democratic transition processes in Africa today. Democracy with fixed term limits is the best barrier against intolerance, fundamentalism, totalitarianism, fratricidal conflict, intra and inter state wars. However, whose democracy is it? Is it the democracy of the ruling elite, the mercantile elite, the working class or the society writ large? Can we have democracies instead of democracy? How is it practiced? How are the rights of various ethnic groups guaranteed under the law, or are they guaranteed under the law? In 1666, the supremacy of the English parliament over the King was unquestionably delineated. The eventual exhumation, trial, conviction and execution of Cromwell's skeletal remains brought a violent aspect of English constitutional development to a close. 1n 1777, the business of no taxation without representation was declared untenable as eloquently borne out by the Boston tea party. The present democratic tradition of the United States is deeply rooted in this event. Following the 1789 revolution in France, the declaration of the rights of man and the citizen enshrined the rights of liberty, equality and fraternity into the French political discourse, albeit, not without bloodshed. The instability that attended long stretches of life span of the first three republics can properly described as part of the growth process. In the end, the French had to go through a number of Republics before attaining the stability they enjoy today. After centuries of democratic governance, the institutions of democracy in these western countries are so firmly entrenched that it is difficult for an over-ambitious and disgruntled military officer to take up the gun and overturn the democratic process.
On the other hand, democracy in Africa, especially the Westminster type, as opposed to the indigenous Asante constitution which was fashioned by Osei Tutu in the early 1700s or the Oyo constitution which separated the powers of the Alafin, the Eso, and the Ogboni, is a relatively new institution. No African country that underwent the colonial experience is even half a century old after independence after going through slavery and colonialism. Of course the role of the Cold War on Africa is often not factored into analyses of Africa's problems. In my view the current state of chaos, decay, atrophy, so-called warlordism, civil wars, are a costly part of the transition process, however harrowing the experiences are.
Far from seeming insensitive and numb to the suffering of the continent, I will argue that the current democratic transitions in Africa have failed partly because they are a result mostly of western hegemonic discourse, especially after the collapse of the Iron Curtain, bad leadership, meddlesome external influences, political horse-trading for favors with powerful international allies, a shameless policy of putting square pegs in round holes (i.e. an infantryman as education minister for example), and a powerful international economic order that continues to pay Africa a pittance for its agricultural product.
African democracy has not taken into consideration the African polity itself. The rural area is an afterthought and infrastructure development in such areas are only important when they help win votes rather than promote the welfare of the people. The Bretton Woods prescriptions for Africa have not fared very well and Western donor aid prescriptions will continue to fare poorly unless it is recognized that democracy is not only a political system, but also a way of life. For it to work effectively in Africa, it must be accepted as a way of life by Africans and, therefore, should take account of the process of state formation in the colonial period. Therein lies the question of majority-minority rights. Democracy in Africa should also take cognizance of the various ethnic diversities that make winner takes all an unworkable proposition.
Furthermore, democratic transitions in Africa should take into consideration secular and sacred institutions as well as other indigenous institutions that exist in the various countries. This will not lead to layers of authority as some may argue. African chiefs were the cornerstone of local administration during colonial rule. The British, French, and German colonial administrations used chiefs effectively as the focal point of local government. In the post-colonial period, however, the state in Africa has flexed its muscles and curbed the role of chiefs in the political system. In a few places, however, they still play some role. In Ghana, the late Osagyefo Kuntunkununku was a member of the Council of State. What is the role of chiefs in the current transition exercises? Or do we forget about chiefs because of the Swazi king?
Last of all, democracy is useless to the hungry. In this case, Kwame Nkrumah's maxim, "Seek ye first the political kingdom," will not work. The material kingdom - basic necessities - supercede the political kingdom. Unless Africans and their leaders work assiduously to correct the crass poverty, gross mismanagement, and human rights abuses that permeate daily life democracy may continue to be an exercise in futility. The poverty level in some places is so bad that it can only be described as "criminal negligence" by some leaders who are more concerned for themselves rather than the people they claim to serve. In this case, Africans (especially the African political and mercantile elites) and their allies should re-examine their performance rather than blame everything on enemies of the state and their foreign collaborators. The youth should speak up and let their voices be heard in these crucial times. Democracy movements in Africa should ensure constitutional provisions that will prevent the African political elite from siphoning the coffers of various nations into fat bank accounts in Switzerland. In fact, democracy movements should take up the issue with the United Nations to retrieve the African loot in Swiss banks.
Finally, we should insist on an African educational system that will promote the culture of democracy rather than perpetuate authoritarian tendencies. That is to say, it should encourage openness, collaboration, and participation. This is where the youth of today have a very important role to play as purveyors of new technology, new ideas, new focal points of education, mobilization, organizing and disseminating information. (And mind you, we are just older youth).
A cursory glance of the role of the African youth at the turn of the century (the West African Students Union which fought against racism in England in the 1900s, African students in Europe and the United States who participated in the Pan African Congresses of W.E.B. Du Bois, other African Students Unions or Organizations show that the youth have a lot of give and contribute during this transition process. For me, this is enough proof that African intellectuals abroad have a platform from which to organise, co-ordinate, plan, and execute a plan of action as our contribution to African development. This is Pan-Africanism par excellence, whether it is nation-centered or continent-centered. And we are continuing a trend that was in vogue not too long ago. If we cannot come together and work as a people with a common aim, a common destiny - that is to ensure human rights, access to basic necessities of life, then one may as well tell us that: "your great learning has not been beneficial to your people.
If the youth are the leaders of tomorrow, we need to work and get it wrong, and learn how to get things right in the end. Let us have confidence in the youth (just older youth, i.e. us). The youth faced bullets in South Africa, they have faced tanks in China, they faced police armored cars in Ghana, they contended with the military in Nigeria. This just older youth forum should make a strong case for the return of African money stashed in Swiss banks by the Marcia Nguemas, Jean Bedel Bokassas, Mobutu Sese Sekos, Mengistu Haile Miriams, and Kutu Achempongs of Africa as various African countries make the transition to democracy. It should also insist that African leaders retire on their salaries, and in return constitutional provision criminalize the practice of stealing the people's money and stashing them in foreign banks for the development of some Western countries. After all, the salary of an African leader will never bankrupt any country.