Is Democracy Working in Africa?

Published on 5th February 2008

Democracy is seen by many as a tool that provides “the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people in the society.” To this end, it is given a special place in the study of politics. In any political dispensation therefore, it is pertinent to ask the question: Is democracy working?


A near comprehensive discussion of the topic can be attempted under sub topics such as: Democracy - more than an electoral process; erosion of classical democracies; young democracies at work; Democracy – a universal solution and the democracy peace theory among others.


Social scientist T. J. Moss says that democracy means much more than the elections. Moss’ assertion can be applied to the persistent political upheaval that exists in Angola, Iraq, Uganda, Nigeria and Iran, to mention but a few. In these countries, it is obvious that elections alone are not enough to bring peace and justice. Respect for individual and minority rights and tolerance for a legal opposition are essential ingredients to a stable and vibrant democratic dispensation.


In accepting Abraham Lincoln’s definition of democracy as a “government of the people, by the people and for the people," it must be understood that a government can never be constituted by the generality of the people. In democracy, people govern themselves, by sending their representatives to constitute the government.


Democracy is more than electioneering. It calls upon governments to ensure better living conditions for its people with tacit co-operation. It connotes equality of all persons in the state. The Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789) issued by the National Assembly of France during the French revolution categorically states that “Men are born equal and always continue free and equal in respect of their rights.” The American Declaration of Independence conference (1776) asserts: “We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal.” Further, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) bears witness to this in Article 1: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

The foregone assertions are hinged on the principle that all men are born equal and through hard work can aspire to leadership positions irrespective of their status and pedigree. The principle of the rule of law, respect for the fundamental rights of man and the supremacy of the constitution are brought to the fore. The rights of speech, publication and association are  also integral to democracy for they enable continuous participation of the people in governance.


Classical democracy originated from the Greek city states in the times of Aristotle between the 6th and 4th century B.C. Athenians for example adopted a representative government as a way of ensuring participation of people in politics by instituting government by proxy. Governance was done under a framework that ensured the principle of “one man one vote” in election and guaranteed ruling in accordance with the general will.


Some critics question democracy on the aspects of political equality and majority rule. Such questioning emanates from the supposition that equality is a myth as it is impossible for men to be equal.Most political crises in Africa arise from the inability of African countries to transit peacefully from one regime to another. The incumbents are usually reluctant to relinquish power even when it becomes obvious that they are no longer popular. Electoral processes are fraught with corruption, rigging and thuggery.                                         


Like development, democratization cannot be practiced on behalf of the people or groups. People must practice the process themselves. It cannot be forced on them, as the process would be ridden with incessant conflict and crisis as in Iraq.


Sequel to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the capture of Saddam Hussein, the world seemed to march towards democracy. There was an impetus towards enthroning popular participation in every nation, especially in the third world. No wonder, the United Nations in 1998 signed a treaty deprecating any military regime. In Nigeria, 29 years of military dictatorship gave way to a nascent democracy.


The expansion of democracy across the globe can no longer be doubted. No human political form of government is acclaimed better than democracy. As J. S. Mills opines, it is superior to other forms of government because the rights and interest of every person are assured from being disregarded only when the person interested is himself able to and habitually disposed to stand up for them. The general prosperity attains a greater height and is diffused in proportion to the amount and variety of the personal energies enlisted in promoting it.


The participation in governmental affairs lifts the individual above the narrow circle of his egoism and broadens his interest. It makes him interested in his country and gives him a sense of responsibility. In democracy, the government is less dependent in the psychological than in other forms of government. Democracy makes authority a trust, the common interest, the common welfare and the sole justification of government. Democracy's attachment to human personality makes it valued by majority of the societies. In democracy, decisions are reached by discussion, argument, persuasions and dialogue.The standard by which one can measure the merit of a form of government is the adequacy with which it performs the chief functions of government; the efficient administration of common affairs.


Democracy contains the seeds of dissolution and decay as well as life and progeny. It may lead to the despotism of a collective mediocre, the negation of freedom, the free play of self interest and the deterioration of individual and national character. But under favorable conditions, it encourages the intelligence, self reliance, initiatives and social sense of free men by placing the ultimate responsibility for government on the citizens themselves. Its success depends on the spiritual effort the people put forth and the re- adjustment of democratic institutions in accordance with changing times and conditions.The thrust of democracy is world peace and liberty. Liberty is not safe anywhere until it is safe everywhere. A threat to peace somewhere is a threat to peace everywhere.


Is democracy really working in Africa?


"In the North African region, there are no citizens: only subjects; there is no rule of law: only use of force," says Moroccan Sociologist, Professor Abdessamed Dialmy. Egypt has once had a state of emergency for 24 years due to non democratic rule that many a times created disorder and protest. After the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981, Mubarak has stuck to power. Does this portray democracy or sit-tight? In Libya, Col. Muammar Gaddafi has run Libya as a one man show since 1969, leaving no room for opposition. The Tunisian can only boast of two Presidents since independence. Morocco’s king Hassan II ruled with an iron fist for 38 years. After his demise, his absolute power as both head of state and commander of the faithful was passed to his son King Mohammed VI. While the faces at the top might have rotated a bit in Algeria, it was always same generals falling back behind the scenes. When power really did threaten to change hands in the country’s first multi party election in 1992, the poll was cancelled as the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) seemed poised for victory at all cost. Having gone thus far, the North Africa style is no democracy but a rape of the system. Given the above, it is clear that democracy is yet to start working in North Africa.


There is no real democracy in West Africa. In Togo, it is a two family affair between the Olympios and the Gnassingbes. In Senegal, it is like ruling from abroad as the former colonial master; the French still wield enormous influence in domestic decisions. Nigeria is the sleeping giant, waiting to be woken up by the elite, who make all the decisions. The power drunk and selfish politicians have hijacked power to their advantage against the wishes of the majority. The 1999, 2003 and most recently 2007 elections was nothing to write home about. Cote D’Ivoire has been unstable for a long time with incessant military threat.


In East Africa, the antics of Yoweri Museveni’s rule cannot be likened to a democracy. He repealed the constitution to accommodate another term for himself as President. The Rwandan genocide of 1994 can be traced to abuse of power. The celebrated transition in Kenya that saw Moi out of power has been marred by the recent showcase of electoral malpractices that have claimed hundreds of lives in Kenya. 

In as much as Africa has been on the brink of disaster with regards to democracy, South Africa remains the only country that has conducted free and fair elections for and on behalf of the African people. We hope and pray that the cause that befell other African countries will not affect it in the next general election.  Based upon this, it is clear that while democracy favours a particular state, others suffer from it. It can be a sure way to development as well as a curse.

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