As to be expected, the issue of democracy, originally raised by Dr. Abaka, will continue to generate attention. In this piece Dr Aidoo questions an assumption, as he originally did when he set the tone of the debate.
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Akwasi Aidoo is a sociologist and Director of the Ford Foundation's Special
Initiative for Africa. He was educated in Ghana and the United States,
obtaining his Ph.D. in 1984 from the University of Connecticut. He has
taught at universities in Ghana, the United States, and Tanzania. From 1988
to 1992, Akwasi Aidoo was responsible for the health and development program of the International Development Research Center (IDRC) in West and Central Africa, covering 22 countries. He joined the Ford Foundation in 1992 and headed the foundation's offices in Senegal and Nigeria before moving to New York to head the Special Initiative for Africa, now called Trust Africa,
which is being established as an endowed African foundation dedicated to
supporting continental and regional initiatives for peace, African
integration, and democratic consolidation. Trust Africa's work comprises
(1) convenings of experts and practitioners; (2) grants for collaborative
projects; and (3) support for long-term organizational development and
strengthening of African institutions. Akwasi Aidoo is a member of several
non-profit boards, including Oxfam America, the Africa Grantmakers' Affinity
Group, the Crime Prevention Centre of Southern Africa, and the AfriMAP
Initiative of the Soros Foundation. He writes poetry and short stories in
his spare time. [editorial: His wife, Ayesha Imam, is one of Africa's most eminent intellectuals)
I think it is important to clarify my disagreement with Dr. Edmund Abaka on the question of the link between democracy and poverty in Africa. Before doing so, I would like to apologize for using the word "scandalous" that possibly conveyed a negative sentiment and disrespect.
I should also say that there are at least two closely related ideas in Dr.
Abaka's presentation with which I'm in full agreement. These are:
1. The benefits of democracy must accrue to all members of society,
especially the poor rural majority.
2. Governments, especially democratic ones, have a responsibility to
correct the rural-urban inequalities and elite privileges that still
characterize the state of democracy in Africa. I think most people will
agree that the credibility of democracy will be enhanced if this were
This is what the concept of broadening democracy is really all about, and
I doubt that there are many people who would dispute this. The question
then is this: how does one go from these basic points to the statement
that "democracy is useless to the poor"? With a positive spin one can
argue that this statement does no damage to Dr. Abaka's overall argument.
But is that really the case? If so, then what is the import of that
statement? Why make such a statement if it has no significant meaning in a
position that is otherwise basically sound? I can't answer for Dr. Abaka,
but I can say this: that statement is a very handy tool in the hands of
those who have absolutely no truck with democracy. Obviously, Dr. Abaka
is not one of those, so, why does he use such a powerfully sound-biting
statement with which anti-democrats of all hues have always sought to deny
the intrinsic superiority of democracy over dictatorship? It's a fair and
important question, no?
Hopefully, this brief response will help to clarify things so that the
debate can move on to other equally important issues. One would hope, for
example, that we can begin to address other even more critical questions
of strategy that I think bear reflection. For example:
1. How exactly does one broaden democracy and its benefits to include
the rural majority of Africa, beyond simply issuing platitudinous
2. How does one build on positive historical forms and practices that
resonate with the rural majority? This is where Dr. George Ayittey's
concerns are very relevant, I think.
3. What is the impact of the brain drain on Africa's current democratic
transitions? This, of course, is a hugely controversial question which
makes many (including myself) defensive, but is our absence not a big part
of the problem (not merely a result but also a cause?). How, for example,
can we "give there if we can't live there"? What role can we play beyond
In a word, we need to think strategy above all else. I'm reminded of this
haunting poem by Duddley Randall -- referring, though, to a vastly
The intellectuals talked.
They had to decide on principles.
Nothing should be done, nothing legislated
Till a rationale had been established.
The intellectuals talked.
Meanwhile the others,
Who believed in action,
And that they should be up and all others down,
Stormed the hall, shot the leaders and arrested the remainder,
Whom they later hanged.
There was no more talking.
By the way, about fifteen years ago, CODESRIA run a long and rich debate
on the link between democracy and development. I don't have the reference
handy, but perhaps one can find a source on that debate at the CODESRIA