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African Democracy Series: The Challenges

29 August 2010 29 August 2010 Tags: No Comment Print This Post Print This Post

This post is the fourth one in a series titled African Democracy that deals with the issues related to democratization process in Africa in the contexts of its historic and contemporary local realities. The general presumption of the series is that immense complexities Africa represents are not necessarily suitable for a direct adaptation of an “American version of Democracy” and that the task of democratization of Africa may require a paradigm shift in defining what is truly involved in building a system that is socially, politically, economically and ecologically just but also feasibly implementable in Africa by peaceful means.

This post is a shortened reprint (modified fragments are marked by square brackets) of the speech by Jerry John Rawling at the 5th Annual Trust Dialogue in 2008.

Jerry John Rawling

Mr. Rawling, a former Ghana’s leader since the 1981 coup until the 2000 elections, was a Flight Lieutenant in the Air Force and a militant populist when he led the first coup in 1979, that overthrew the regime of Gen. Fred Akuffo, who had, in turn, deposed his predecessor, Gen. I.K. Acheampong, in a palace coup. Rawlings, unlike many other leaders in Ghana’s history, subsequently led the country through the difficult years of economic recovery and succeeded in giving back to Ghanaians their national pride. Rawlings saw his leadership role to be that of a “watchdog” for ordinary people and he addressed problems of incompetence, injustice and corruption. Rawlings also instituted a transition from authoritarianism to multi-party democracy by attempting to decentralize the functions of government from Accra to other parts of the country. He remains a subject of diverse opinions.

The Annual Trust Dialogues began 6 years ago where participants brainstorm on key national and global issues. It is a meeting, diverse participants are contributing to discussion on topical national issue of the time including economic reform, free and fair election, etc.

The Challenges of Democracy in Africa

Abuja, 17th January, 2008

[...] Before I go any further, however, let me recall that political observers and leaders of the western world have already judged African countries to be practising democracy only since the beginning of the I 990s, hence the current improvement in security, stability and economies in various parts of the continent. They have therefore concluded subsequently that unless African countries accept western ideas of democracy, especially as formulated in conditionalities of donor countries and international financial institutions, the future for Africa is bound to be bleak. In my view, this is a rather arrogant and erroneous claim which seeks to deny the African originality or any organisational ability in the matter of governance. On the contrary, a serious study of the history of traditional governance on the continent confirms that democratic ideas are not new to Africa, and that the majority of precolonial systems of traditional governance in Africa had, and in many cases still have, strong democratic elements. The pre-colonial contact with Europeans and the colonial period itself rather disrupted the old systems in many ways, and have left behind situations which are the root causes of many of today’s problems. The practice of good governance in Africa today is also therefore an extension of an inherited traditional governance. In stating this point of view, I am by no means denying the possible advantages of western ideas, institutions and systems which are generally labelled ‘good governance’. I merely wish to emphasise that the modern norms of governance are not that foreign to Africans whose decision-making, for example, has too often been erroneously attributed to the whims of their all-powerful chiefs. Traditional societies, as you are aware, have enjoined their chiefs and leaders to consult and listen to individuals, representatives of interest groups such as women, the youth, and even strangers living in the area. Lengthy debates led to consensus that paved the way for unity in action. It is a fact that it was the colonial period that rather corrupted traditional systems of governance and, in many ways, have triggered some of the challenges that confront democratic governance today.

[...] After half a century of post-colonial governance, which was admittedly fraught with many political and economic hiccups, the set of norms generally accepted by our countries have brought only relative stability and prosperity, as indicators have not been quick to point out. Be that as it may, within only two decades, we are all confronted by new difficulties that must be addressed if our system of democratic governance is to survive and move forward. The resulting challenges have arisen also because human society is dynamic and is in itself also impacted upon by political, economic and social considerations at any given time. But, for the purposes of this presentation and in the interest of brevity, let me place the challenges into the following general groups: • Political challenges • The challenges of African Political Leadership, and • Economic and social challenges.

Political Challenges

Most of our peoples have already noticed that the new system of governance is being severely tested by the lack of good faith in certain leaders and administrations. What is more, it is clear that some of those very politicians who gained leadership positions as a result of the strict adherence to the norms of democracy are now, and at the end of their tenures, the very people trying to corrupt the democratic system of governance because of a selfish lust for power and money. And so, we see emerging a serious challenge to the meticulous adherence to constitutionalism. They are busy attempting to prolong their stay in power through fair or foul means, to modify, sometimes crudely, multiparty democracy into a virtual one-party state, to arrogantly abuse the concept of the separation of powers, to ignore the rule of law, to undermine judicial independence, to interfere with the fundamental human rights of political opponents especially, and to capriciously use decentralisation to promote parochial or sectarian interests.

Ghanaian 2002 election poster (Source: flourish.org)

In Ghana, for example, I am proud to recall that when the National Democratic Congress, the political party that I led in government, suffered a defeat at the polls in December 2000, we ensured that there was peaceful and credible transition to the new government. When the next elections were held in December 2004, however, the National Patriotic Party government stole the verdict by illegally pre-empting the National Electoral Commission when one of its senior Ministers suddenly announced that his party had won the Presidential elections b) a certain percentage of the votes cast — a procedure that is frowned’ upon by our electoral laws. Not satisfied with this fraudulent behaviour, some individuals of our party took the National Electoral Commisson to court requesting it to gazette the results of the polls, polling station by polling station, as required by law. The case is still yet to be heard. Meanwhile, the ballot papers protected by law have been illegally destroyed in some district capitals, in contravention of an injunction granted by our High Court. I understand that the doctored figures have been published recently, four years after the highly controversial declaration of results and at a time when verification is virtually impossible.

A second political challenge is how to avoid the politics of exclusion and the creation of a society of unequals. The ‘winner takes all’ mentality that we have inherited from the Westminster and other systems of western democracy has led to the overt rejection of the concept of power sharing or the involvement of other party members in a government of inclusion even when it is clearly in the national interest so to do.

This form of challenge has manifested itself in a number of countries, mine included, when an in-coming leader and his ministers have resorted to the vilification of the previous leader and his government and the purging of the military and civil services in the bid to gamer support and loyalty for their style of governance. This conduct is particularly deleterious and contributes to political tension that eventually polarises the country because it needlessly excludes important actors and sows the seed of division or polarisation in society.

A third form of challenge to democracy in Africa is the refusal of governments to adhere to the ‘Good Governance’ Agenda. We are all aware that for democracy to succeed, there must necessarily be a role for the opposition, decentralization must also be equitable, the media must be assisted to be free, pluralistic and independent, civil society organisations must have the unfettered freedom to operate and lastly, there must be a strong commitment to anti-corruption. In all these areas, we have seen leaders fail badly as the opposition is openly hounded and denied any significant role in governance, as leaders have themselves become absolutely steeped in corruption and opulent life-styles, as the powers that be refuse to prosecute corrupt Ministers especially, as the purchase of the loyalty and bias of a large section of the press erodes the rights of opponents and as the use of radio stations to attack opponents is sanctioned in the hope of making opponents unpopular over time, and as decentralisation is destroyed by targeting districts and ethnic areas for discrimination. Examples abound in almost all Africa countries, thus impeding fast progress towards the goals that alone can lift our countries and peoples out of poverty, ignorance and economic backwardness. Finally, let me cite the serious challenge of ensuring a democratic dividend for our women, youth, disabled, ethnic minorities, to mention but a few of interest groups. Half a century after achieving political indpendence and after almost two decades of having been acknowledged s practicing democracy, African women still hang precariously on the lower rungs of the political ladder, in spite of many constitutions and United Nations resolutions urging all countries to pay attention to their status and roles. The youth continue to be largely illiterate, unemployed and disillusioned, and ethnic minorities continue to live in fear and obvious disadvantage.

These are political challenges that we ignore to our own detriment.

[Challenges of Political Leadership]

[...] The lapses in the practice of democracy in Africa can be attributed to many factors, both internal and external to our respective countries, but there is the unquestionable evidence that the lapses are mainly as a result of bad political leadership. At the top of this failure of leadership is the scant respect that many of our leaders have for constitution and constitutionalism. The ease with which extra terms of office are pursued by certain leaders and the ruthless manner in which the illegal or unconstitutional objective is pursued has made this failing particularly objectionable and attributable to failed leadership.

A second challenge to African leadership is the tendency of leadership to foster ethnic or tribal ascendancy in political parties, the military and security situations. And so we are beginning to witness the creation of ethnic crimes and civil services. This deplorable tendency is one of the bagagges of our colonial period, when our peoples were not only identified in ethnic or tribal groups but also when in a number of colonial territories but certain tribes were preferred to others. The erstwhile notorious practice in Rwanda and Burundi whereby the colonial administrators formed a preference for the Tutsis as opposed to the Hutus thereby unleashing simmering resentment of Hutu agriculturists and which preference has persisted till now is too well known to be rejected. That was undoubtedly the divide and rule strategy of classical colonialism but I can assure you that its more refined, modern and sophisticated version is unfortunately practiced still in many African countries. Some of these practices have come to grief because they were overindulged in by African countries but by and large, leadership out of fear and insecurity still resort to the deplorable practices and need to be stopped in one way or another.

Perhaps the most current of leadership failures on the African continent is the manipulation of election results, described variously as ‘rigged election’ or ‘sham elections’ or ‘stolen verdict’. Since it is very much contemporaneous, let me cite what is currently happening in our sister country, Kenya, after the December 27th, 2007 elections as an example that African countries must guard against. A stable country until now, Kenya has been plunged into violence by the overt manipulation of the electoral process, as confirmed by international observers and resulting in 600 persons killed, about 200,000 internally displaced and the political credibility of that country damaged severely. But, as you know, Kenya is not alone in this political mess, we have seen similar conflicts and ‘developments in Togo and Nigeria, to refer specifically to our sub-region, and anyone who wishes these countries well will not fail to admit embarrassment and disappointment that leaders of repute have been involved in such attempts to violate the electoral process. Democracy is not only the observance of certain norms and traditions; its first requirement is the upholding of the integrity of the electoral process itself. An inseparable collateral to the respect of the electoral process is the assurance of a peaceful and constitutional transition from one government to another. As a leader whose political party has tasted defeat at the polls before, I can say that there should be nothing to fear in losing an election and therefore there should also be no need to tamper with the rotational principle in good governance.

However, evidence abounds that the over-weaning ambition of some political leaders makes the acceptance of election results rather difficult and has led some African leaders committing electoral crimes and the refusal to adhere to the process of a peaceful and smooth changeover of government.

I would be remiss in my responsibility toward our continent and its people if I fail to also draw attention to the unpalatable truth that more often than not, such deviant political behaviour is prompted and encouraged by certain outside powers who, for their own selfish national interest, prefer one African leader to another. It is a more daunting challenge as this patronising attitude of outside powers is more often than not predicated on the conscious corruption of leaders and the playing upon the abject poverty and ignorance of our people. When all these challenges are seriously considered, is it any wonder that the average African has developed a cynical and opportunistic view of ‘democratic politics’ and is ready to accept payoffs from any quarter? We must, Ladies and Gentlemen, strengthen our resolve to do away with such plain criminality in order to strengthen good governance in all parts of Africa.

Economic and Social Challenges

If any lesson in the experience gained by Africans in the practice of democratic governance is crystal clear, it is that democracy will not survive for long unless the mass of our people are introduced to significant economic prosperity. The failure of a large number of African economies in the first three decades of their independence showed all of us that the economy is also doomed to failure if such internal and external mismanagement of the economy is not brought to an end and reform, based on certain demonstrable capacities of leadership, is immediately substituted. The first challenge of that economic goal is therefore the achievement of economic self reliance and independence. Many African countries, which ignored the lessons of that experience hurriedly became consumer societies and adjuncts to certain developed country economies, following the attainment of political independence. Agriculture in those instances quickly failed from even its colonial standard and there was hardly any interest in creating and promoting of productive manufacturing bases. Today, African governments, by and large, continue to pay lip service to industrialisation and the promotion of production bases. Such countries and economies continue to make very slow progress towards integrating our production bases into the sub-region economic blocs of the continent. But even before we come to that stage, we must, as individual countries, learn the basic lessons of economic self reliance.

The second economic and social challenge to democracy on our continent is the lack of efficient attention to our non-existent or poor economic and social infrastructure. The building of roads, railways, harbours, and communication as well as the rehabilitation of dams, electricity plants, water systems etc continue to be of top priority for all of us. The reason why only a few are able to emerge out of this particular difficulty is the pervasive and debilitating nature of corruption which make those involved see this need only in terms of what is in it for themselves. The erstwhile 10 percent syndrome of corrupt countries has now turned into an evil partnership between African administrations and representatives of developed country donors to short-change an already poor people. While it is also true that the all-too-evident shortfall in human capacity is also part of the challenge, I have come to the painful conclusion that corruption and political apathy are the main culprits in the slow progress at the provision of the infrastructure necessary for the development of African countries. Another critical challenge at this point in time is the absence of economic cohesion among African states when it comes to confronting the developed economic organisations, cartels and the chief controllers of the changing patterns of world trade. Our south- south alliance in negotiations is weakening and African countries are having to decide for themselves individually how to react to the collective proposals of the developed world. The challenge facing the continent here is to develop the economic and technical skills and the adequate human resource for negotiating with the developed world at the World Trade and other fora. Unless we show a collective resolve in negotiations, our future will continue to be decided by those who are in the race for the fast dwindling resources of our planet.

[...] The last economic challenge to the survival of democracy in Africa which I wish to draw attention to in this presentation is the lack of resolve to empower certain important economic actors in the various countries. As one examines the economic condition of African countries, the abject poverty, illiteracy, deprivation and hunger shocks even the insensitive and one cannot but wonder how democracy and economic prosperity can be built if the unfortunate masses of our peoples are left in the present predicament. There is no alternative to the economic empowerment of the masses through an investment directly in their collective abilities to produce and market. African governments must ensure the survival of their citizens by appropriate administrative, medical and economic policy interventions. Our peoples must of course live and enjoy good health in order to produce. They must be paid living wages and not wage that will put more money in the pockets of those who are already comparatively well- off. What is more, leaders must adopt economic policies that will teach the lesson that work pays as opposed to glorifying corruption.

Conclusion

[...] In trying to find out why democratic governance is not working as well as intended, I have proffered certain reasons which I deem important, even critical, in our endeavour to succeed. The reasons are by no means exhaustive but have been advanced to assist the dialogue that is on-going on the matter. But, perhaps more importantly, let me advance a few ideas that I feel will assist in meeting the political, economic and social challenges. In so doing, it is not my intention to pontificate but rather to instigate discussions among our own peoples as to how to overcome the difficulties challenging us all.

In the first place, I believe that we must persevere and even fast-track the building of those institutions that will promote democracy and economic betterment on our continent. Our laws and institutions such as Parliament, the Judiciary and the Civil Service must be so reformed and strengthened as to make them extremely difficult to be subverted by politicians and political leaders. We must strengthen the judiciary and anti-corruption units in our countries so as to enable them join meaningfully in the anti-corruption war. Secondly, African countries need to develop the systems that will hold their leadership to accountability without fear or favour. This comes from strengthening institutions such as the opposition, parliament, auditing bodies and the general public to be able to ask questions and demand answers. It is my belief that it is through the active vigilance of such institutions and our populations that arrogance and impunity can be discouraged. Thirdly, it is also important that Africans undergo an attitudinal change towards leadership that does not meet their expectations. Unless the citizens learn to boldly reject fraud and criminality in leaders, wrong-doing will persist. Unless our people disabuse the mind of politicians who think the electorates can be bought to surrender their rights and votes, leadership will continue to thereby commit fraud, rig elections and amass ill-gotten gains at the expense of the whole country; unless our people learn to stand up against dictators and political charlatans, democracy will continue to fail in different countries at different times. It is time, therefore, to change our attitude to those things.

Fourthly, we need to co-operate among states in confronting corruption and waging war on other lapses. The continued existence and prospering of many of these challenges in one another’s country gives support and nourishment to the lapses themselves. In this regard, the example of the holding of today’s dialogue is a fitting lesson on how to begin the exchange of ideas and the subsequent determination of how African countries should find strength in cooperation against such the challenges as posed by outside powers. But above all, we must respect ourselves, for without this self esteem and respect for one another, we cannot teach any lessons to those who suffer from tyrants, incompetent leaders and economic exploiters. I hope we are successful in achieving these aims.

[...]

African Democracy Series is compiled by Mark Bajkowski.
Mark, born in Poland, is a Jack of all trades, master of none, who lives in New York since 1979. Mark has an unusually wide range of interests and is known to relate well to the people half of his age. Since his early childhood, he felt a curious relation to Africa, which unavoidably brings up the controversial subject of multiple-life experiences.

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