Western style ‘democracy’ in Africa is just a way of pushing the neoliberal agenda

The region has its own rich democratic traditions to draw from.

Damola Adejumo-Ayibiowu
6 November 2019, 9.37am
Nigerian elections, 2019
Image: Commonwealth Secretariat, CC by 2.0

This article is part of ourEconomy's 'Decolonising the economy' series.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent rise of 'good governance' as a development strategy is more than a coincidence. In his famous article The End of History, the American political analyst, Francis Fukuyama, proclaims that the end of the cold war is “the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government." Such statements clearly indicate the readiness of liberalism protagonists to resist any ideology contrary to theirs. It is not a surprise, therefore, that since the 1990s, good governance has become a prescription of the World Bank for all development challenges facing African countries. Notably, the current good governance agenda is mainly a democracy cum neoliberal framework.

The argument for democracy may be very strong for African countries, many of which have had long histories of military rule, unfair elections, unaccountable leaderships, inadequate service delivery, and popularized corruption. Many scholars particularly argue that the lack of democracy is the main cause of poverty in Africa. But despite the implementation of donor’s good governance reforms, corruption, poverty, and other challenges continue in Africa. Moreover, the wave of democratization which swept across Africa in the 1990s mainly paved the way for multiparty elections without improving the welfare of African poor masses who queue for hours to cast their votes. The implementation of Western liberal democracy in Africa has also been characterized by violence and election rigging.

Some plainly call this chaotic electoral system of corrupt governance ‘African style democracy’, while some scholars attribute Africa’s governance failures to African cultural values which, they argue, are inimical to democracy. Unfortunately, those who conclude that corrupt governance is cultural to Africa apparently ignore the destructive and inhibitive impacts of over half a millennium of subjugation of African cultural systems by the West, a situation that led to the perversion of various aspects of African life including its governance systems.

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In actual fact, democracy is an intrinsic part of African culture. Europeans who invaded Africa met democratic kingdoms which they had to first destroy before their colonization project could be successful. However, eurocentrism denies Africa’s democratic political history and projects Africa’s culture as totally autocratic and anti-development. The impositions of Western ethos, including Western-style democracy, on Africa, have produced distortions because the culture, history, and values of the local setting are important in any development and governance framework.

Western donors also contribute to these democratic failures because they always endorse any African country where elections are held as democratic, even when undemocratic leaders win. Thus, democracy has been equated with multiparty elections even when people’s votes never count. Worse still, the promotion of democracy by the World Bank and other Western donors does not change their own autocratic relation with poor African countries. Their insistence on neoliberal reforms contributes to Africa’s poverty and has continued to allow developed nations to exploit Africa.

Despite donors’ rhetoric on democracy, the value of elections in Africa does not go beyond giving the people a sense of involvement even when their opinions never count and as they endure the prickles of western neoliberal reforms. Interestingly, despite these democratic failures, African countries continue to perform well in fulfilling the exploitation purpose of their creation by the Europeans at the Berlin Conference of 1884. I define Western liberal democracy in the African context as a political arrangement that guarantees the interests of the imperial capitalist countries, especially their open access to African resources and markets.

Democracy is not alien to African culture

For those who think democracy is alien to Africa, it is important to clarify the term democracy. Democracy is derived from two Greek words "demos" meaning people and "kratos" meaning rule. Translating directly, democracy means a form of government in which the people rule. Thus, democracy is largely about the ability of the people to determine who rules them, by which law they are ruled and also make the ruler conform to the will of the people. In short, a democracy is a representative and responsive government. By this definition, many African traditional governance systems are democratic. The Yoruba traditional governance system and the traditional governance of Akan Ghana are exemplary democracies because even though these kingdoms are monarchical, they are representative, participatory, and have adequate checks and balances. For the sake of distinguishing the democracy of these traditional institutions from Western-style democracy, it shall be called a cultural democracy.

Unfortunately, Western democracy has been universalized due to Europe’s international imperialism, which subjugated other forms of knowing, especially African indigenous knowledge. Even though multiparty elections are important features of Western democracy, yet, the absence of such an arrangement in other responsive and representative governments of other cultures does not make them less democratic. Arguably, the institutional arrangements that will achieve representativeness and responsiveness may vary across societies. That Africa’s cultural democracy is different from the West’s should not make it invalid. Different must not mean inferior. Even now, African indigenous institutions are preferred by African rural people because these institutions have been found to be comparatively more transparent and responsive. African cultural democracy has got features that make it suit African people.

Western-style democracy versus African cultural democracy

Western-style democracies were patriarchal for a very long time. In fact, British women were not allowed to vote until 1928 at which time many African women, especially the Yoruba of West Africa, were participating in public decision-making unhindered. The majority rule of Western democracy is also a ‘winner takes all' system which may be repressive in communities with minority groups. However, in precolonial African societies such as the Igbo, Yoruba, and Ashanti Ghana, decision-making was mostly based on consensus, which ensures that every interest is represented, thereby reducing disputes. Most importantly, African cultural democracies are founded on the African philosophy of communalism and morality. Western-style democracy however is founded on liberalism, self-interest-seeking free-market principles whose implementation has hurt the welfare of the poor in Africa.

Similarly, the constitutions that guide Western-style democracy in Africa are mostly modifications of colonial laws and they are sometimes at variance with the local culture. African public morality is based on a strong sense of shame for the individual who behaves contrary to the common good of the community and such a person can face a stringent punishment such as banishment. Scholars observe that the divergence between colonial laws and African values created a modern culture which shamelessly supports corruption in the public sector. Moreover, in African cultural democracies, the expectation on governors of the maintenance of a good moral standard, as well as social development, is high and must be met. It is noteworthy that nevertheless, this also does not mean good rulers always emerge in African democracies. However, in many societies, there are mechanisms to make rulers conform to the will of the people or face deposition.

My recent in-depth study of Yoruba traditional governance found a commendable cultural democracy. Remarkably, the findings show that the strategies which ensure responsiveness, participation and accountability among the Yoruba include decentralization of governance with autonomous subunits, people’s involvement, family representation in government, consultations, high moral standards of leadership, non-monetization of political positions, the supremacy of the culture, leadership training, traditional oath-taking, easy provision for the deposition of unresponsive leadership, communal effort to achieve development, low cost administrative structure, hard work and equal access to resources. Most importantly, these features are at variance with the Western-style democratic arrangement implemented in Nigeria, the homeland of the Yoruba.

Arguably, African cultural democracy contains cultural features which are able to compel African people and their rulers to comply with cultural laws. The lack of cultural elements is a strong reason why Western-style democracy has led to distortions in Africa rather than progress. Instead of replicating Western liberal democracies and their neoliberal reforms, Africa has a lot to learn from its culture. The danger of a borrowed democracy or any ideology is that it may in addition to its fascinating qualities contain other non-cultural elements which may be harmful to the society. The challenge for African policymakers therefore is how to consciously and continuously study various indigenous African societies for valuable democratic principles and practices which can be adapted to reflect contemporary African situations for better governance and development.

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