By Oscar Kimanuka*
Western democracy and democratization became the pre-condition for African countries that sought foreign aid and loans, especially from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in order to redress their dire socio-economic and political crisis.
In the words of Paul Zeleza, this “marriage of economic ‘perestroika’ and ‘political glasnost’ “seemed so radical, so new in the emergent world order”.
Interestingly, the idea of democracy itself is viewed almost exclusively as a Western concept of which African societies now stand desperately in need. Similarly, the presumption has been that democratic values and practices are alien to the African continent, with the West posturing as their cultural bearers and defenders.
This kind of mindset, which we Africans have interestingly come to embrace and defend, considers Africans as incapable of democratic thoughts and hence they should be given sufficient dozes of the “civilized” notion of Western democracy. What has been missed out though is that democratic values and processes have been indigenous to Africans as they were to the ancient Greeks.
African traditional political cultures and organizations would give credence to this conclusion. Although the term democracy, now a Western buzzword for representative government, might have been borrowed from the Greeks, and who knows, it could as well be from Mali, democratic thought and values have never been exclusively Greek or Euro-American preserve. These are values that are universal to all humans; the difference actually rests in the methods of attaining these goals.
We should also consider the view that the extent to which a society “democratizes” is to say the least, incontestably dependent on its socio-cultural milieu, whether it is African, European, American, Asian or even Islamic societies.
Efforts by the West to “introduce” democracy to Africa bear close semblance to the well known concept of the “civilizing mission” trumpeted by the Europeans during the era of colonialism in the Nineteen century. In his infamous poem “The White man’s Burden”, Rudyard Kipling considers European colonization of Africa as a blessing to Africans but a huge burden for the Europeans. Europeans sought to bring civilization to Africans, whom Kipling saw as a degenerate race, incapable of development and civilized behaviour.
The United States road map for democratization published in the early 1990s listed the steps to the promised land of democracy as: struggle, transition, institutionalization, elections and consolidation. This roadmap, prescriptive as it appears, does not seem to work for us in Africa.
It should be understood that democracy in Africa is about sharing of resources; it is about peace and security for the man and the woman on the street. It is indeed about the guarantee of basic rights and freedoms as enshrined in the constitution.
While it has been agued that democracy and a robust civil society emerge together, it can be said that in developed countries, like the United Kingdom for example, this took nearly seven centuries. This can be attributed to power struggles between local elites and the central monarchy, not the activity of the masses. Democracy came later.
But most importantly, as it has been agued, civil society was achieved in a way that did not destroy a sense of national unity. For Africa to enjoy the fruits of genuine democracy and avoid the devastating conflicts of the 1980s and 1990s, popularly known as the lost decades, we need to do more than just wait to cast our much cherished ballots, the seemingly magic bullet to all that we lost. As it has been aptly observed by Patrick Smith, the editor of a London-based newsletter, ‘Africa Confidential’, politics in Africa remains too often an expensive game with the spoils of office being shared between members of the same elite wearing different political colours.
Democracy has been neither a linear nor a monolithic concept. In her response to the Unites States House sub-Committee in Africa over charges of tardiness in the democratization process in Africa in 1999, Vivien Lowery Derryck, an Assistant administrator for Africa, USAID, noted: “We have learnt that there is really no uniform model of democracy. To function effectively, a democratic system should reflect the unique needs and culture of a given country.