Africa’s garden of democracy

Kabasubabu Katulondi
14 June 2005

The African paradox can be simply stated. Africa is widely perceived throughout most of the world as the continent of perpetual socio-political upheavals and tragic military confrontations; yet its people’s commitment to democracy, far from undergoing any erosion, is, at grassroots level in particular, more and more vibrant.

The first part of the paradox feeds off evidence familiar to me as a writer and political activist from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country where around 3.5 million people have died in a series of wars and invasions over the last decade – conflicts which are now, thankfully, coming to an end. The second part, less dramatic but equally real, was impressed on me during the third conference of the Community of Democracies (CoD) in Santiago, Chile, in May 2005.

Also on Africa’s debt, development and democracy issues in openDemocracy:

Harun Hassan, “Somalia: exit into history?” (February 2004)

Bev Clarke, “Mass evictions in Zimbabwe” (June 2005)

David Styan, “Tony Blair and Africa – old images, new realities” (June 2005)

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work and keep it free for all

In this article I briefly explore some of the key proposals from the NGOs process of the third ministerial conference of the Community of Democracies. An understanding of the importance of these vital proposals starts with the debacle of the post-1990 wave of democratisation in Africa; continues by contrasting them with the newer impetus for democratisation, stemming from the ideal of an “African renaissance”; and concludes by emphasising the fact that African leaders today have a responsibility to think, act and create forms of African democracy that move beyond mere “electoralism”.

The illusion of past democratisation

By the late 1980s, corrupt dictatorships had created general economic misery across sub-Saharan Africa. Coupled with pressures stemming from the end of the cold war, the result was enormous internal political demand for democratisation. In this broad context, many sub-Saharan countries embarked on democratic reforms; national conferences, constitutional conventions and various other negotiations were enthusiastically launched in Benin, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Congo-Brazzaville and the then Zaire in search of political change that embraced democratic principles.

In some countries, elections were successfully organised, and were declared free and fair. The result, however, was not that the interests of the people (demos) became the central focus of political management. Instead, political elites surrounded by their clients and ethnic nomenklatura continued to “privatise the state” (see Munyaradzi Murobe’s essay in Eddy Maloka & Elizabeth le Roux, eds., Problematising the African Renaissance, 2000). Elections came to appear formalities used to sanction and recycle established oligarchies.

Zambia, Kenya, Senegal and Zimbabwe are eloquent current examples of “electoralist” regimes with no democratic substance, in which the people are still marginalised (see the analysis of “low-intensity democracy” in William I Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony (2005). The resulting “façade democracy” has profoundly distorted the essence of democracy and created dysfunctional political systems in sub-Saharan Africa where genuine multiparty politics cannot function.

The reality of future democratization?

Spreading disillusion with the superficial, electoralist democratisation of the post-1990 period called for a fresh dynamic. This gradually emerged internally, propelled by the ideal of an African renaissance. In this process, prominent African leaders such as Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal, and Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria have played a vital role. In the New Partnership for African Development (Nepad) they articulated a coherent vision for the rebirth of the continent.

Nepad is more than a mere economic policy, it is a strategy for Africa’s integral development, encompassing social, economic and political aspects: sustainable growth, poverty alleviation and good governance. Its Peer Review Mechanism (PRM) stands out as an innovative political device, offering African leaders a tool of political cooperation aimed at ensuring that our nations engage in building developmental states capable of promoting constitutional democracy and people’s well-being.

Such efforts – whose value was demonstrated in the forcing of elections in Togo after an attempted hereditary succession of power – clearly signal that Africa has entered a new political era. Its leaders have learned constructive lessons from the failures of the post-cold war democratisation and started to internalise new values. But the long walk to the “garden of democracy”, to use French sociologist Philippe Braud’s eloquent metaphor, needs more: a harmonious collaboration of governments, opposition and civil society.

Africa’s democratic goods

The African delegates at the Community of Democracies meeting in Santiago in May, building on the regional workshop organised in Johannesburg in November 2004, brought some of these understandings to bear in discussing how democracy is unfolding on the African continent. In Johannesburg, NGO delegates representing major sub-Saharan regions had agreed that building democracy is a responsibility shared between governments and communities, and explored key issues of political legitimacy, regular and competitive elections, financing of political parties, and government-opposition relationships.

The NGO process of the CoD in Santiago produced various important recommendations – notably on creating legitimacy through institutionalising multiparty democracy, encouraging collaborative attitudes between government and opposition, ending opportunistic manipulation of constitutions, and the imperative of resisting the politicisation of military and security forces.

Many of these recommendations bear on the importance of avoiding an adversarial political culture in post-conflict and culturally heterogeneous societies, which has caused many tragedies in Africa – in the Ivory Coast and Zimbabwe, for instance. It is also vital that African political systems strengthen democracy by developing their systemic capacities to respond to the real needs of the people at grassroots levels, particularly in semi-urban and rural areas.

An African, humanist project

The idea of democracy in the history of post-independence sub-Saharan Africa has become associated with chaos, daily protests, and the abuse of freedom of expression. The great Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, disappointed by the rampant chaos of the period, once declared that “multipartism is a luxury that we in Africa cannot afford”. Unfortunately, many African dictators who rejected multiparty democracy, arguing that it is incompatible with African culture, were not able to come up with credible alternatives. On the contrary, they developed repugnant dictatorial regimes and justified them as being supposedly congruent with the power systems of pre-colonial, traditional chiefs.

In its final recommendations, the third CoD conference made a specific commitment to strengthen the commitments to reform of sub-Saharan African leaders, including the Peer Review Mechanism. Since democratisation has tremendous financial implications, the CoD also called for the cancellation of the debts of African countries – a call echoed in the G8 initiative announced on 11 June.

The onus remains on African leaders at all levels. The “blame it on imperialists and colonisers” excuse has lost credibility. My deepest conviction is that democracy is a system and democratisation is a process: the way to build both is by using local ingenuity and drawing on the universal heritage, without altering the essence of democracy as a humanist project. Almost a half-century after independence, sub-Saharan Africans still face the tremendous challenge of building industrial societies and creating democracy as their superstructure.

Further Links

Community of Democracies

Foundation for Democracy in Africa

G8 and Africa

Africa Centre

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData