Democracy: Which Way for the Youth?

Published on 9th January 2012

What is an African youth supposed to perceive of democracy, elections and diversity in a continent where elections mean civil war, pain and suffering, displaced populations, women and children confined to camps of Internally Displaced People forever? A continent where, if a leader does not happen to come from my tribe or religion, he or she is not worth his or her salt. How would you explain, the happenings in my own country Kenya in 2007/2008? How would you explain the post-election crisis in Zimbabwe in the same year and worse off, Cote’ d’ivoire’s tragedy of 2010? One way to explain all these cases of post-election crises in various African countries is simply that African leaders do not know when to say goodbye. They do not appreciate the power of the ballot.

Elections in our perception are supposed to affect everyone, lift us up, give us hope, make us believe that all things are possible, that by the very act of elections and the spirit surrounding them, the world would be changed. But is this what elections do for Africa? African leaders are more interested in the votes than in the views of their peoples. They have not yet started putting the interests of their people above their own short term materialistic vanity. That is why it is sad, but perhaps enriching, that African Youth have discovered a different Language, their idea of democracy, the Language of revolutions as we have all witnessed in North Africa especially in Tunisia and Egypt.

Africa probably needs a different type of democracy suited to its own unique and peculiar politic-economic and socio-cultural context rather than mimicking liberal democracies of Europe and America. Perhaps the continent also needs a different electoral system that will satisfy diversity. Perhaps political party systems are irrational, counterproductive, stopping sensible people from co-operating to achieve sensible ends, and reducing complex problems that require thoughtful solutions to battles about slogans and supposed ideologies. Africans must  explore possibilities of crafting an African democracy that is sensitive to the continent’s various social diversities.

African countries have never bothered to seriously sit and develop home-grown democratic institutions. Unless this is done, we will never witness true democratic institutions emerging in Africa.  The only period in which Africans seriously showed that they preferred to be governed by institutions rooted in their own traditions  was during their fight against colonialism. In rising up against colonial discrimination, marginalization, forced labour, taxation, forced growing of cash crops, forceful removal from ancestral lands and other forms of oppression, Africans demonstrated that they value peace, justice and full participation in governance of their countries.

Africa needs to develop a formula of democracy that enables its citizens to fully and equally participate in all its governance systems. We do not need to copy any foreign system just because it is attractive and trendy. We should strictly filter out foreign ideas and borrow only the ones that serve our values and needs. Dialogue with other civilizations does not mean we should contaminate our African civilizations until we cannot recognize our African values anymore.

It is proving difficult to manage Africa’s social diversities partly because we have borrowed foreign governance systems which are not suitable to our own contexts. For instance, why would Algerians reach for fellow Algerian throats, why would the Somalis seek to experiment their choice of guns on fellow Somalis?  Why would Rwandese try the sharpness of their machetes on fellow Rwandese?  Something is not right with us.

It is disenchanting that Africa always plays a central role in the analysis of fragility, since it is in this continent that fragility is especially widespread. Indeed the European Report on Development (2009) is entirely devoted to the problem of fragility in Africa. In particular, the probability of a country having a fragile state appears to decrease with the level of civil liberties and to increase with the number of revolutions, while economic factors do not matter. It therefore perhaps means that if we as young people of Africa took over political power, in well-organized democratic elections, of course the odds are grave,  and we gave our citizens a bit more civil liberties then we might progress somewhat? Perhaps that is not right, because I am also informed that, it is necessitous men that dictatorships are made, so that we must struggle as a people of the African continent to do whatever it takes to liberate the status of our citizens economic social-cultural needs for what is free speech on an empty stomach! Maybe someone on a full stomach would appreciate that even though they have freedom of speech and other fundamental freedoms, the same are limited, as rights and obligations have a form of jural correlativity.

Africa needs honest leaders, not marionettes. Leaders who appreciate that life is finite and has to be lived with that sort of Knowledge. That life is no rehearsal. We may never be here tomorrow but we can choose to favorably shape our tomorrow and secure the competitive global position for the many African generations to come. Like Dr Martin Luther King Junior, we need to say that  even if I knew the world would go to pieces tomorrow, I would still plant my apple tree. This is the least we can do for our people. We have to begin to act now.

After 50 years of various African Countries achieving independence, what do we have to show? We should be tired of the 50 years of zig zag democracies; economic slavery; corruption; economic mismanagement and above all, 50 years of wars and political instability.

I feel the hand of history upon our shoulders.  Opportunities will come knocking, but it will also be wise to know when to answer and not to answer. 2012 is our hope to get out of the mud of dictatorial rule, we must design the way forward, protect our Nationhood and together as young Africans struggle to improve our destiny. Let the African youth be like a movement connected by a single converging interest to chuck out the old and usher in the new. Let us learn the lessons of political courage, to think anew, to be prepared to lead and decide, and take calculated risks. We should really think, not just criticize, analyse and dissect the problems from their first principles, having deconstructed the problems construct the solutions. In 2012, we must begin to take Control of our destiny, and this is how:

1.Africa should develop new democratic models rooted in its people’s traditions that embrace such aspects as sharing, defending each other, protecting natural resources and respecting each other. In this way, peace and justice will flourish in Africa. The new democratic model should embrace inclusiveness. All political parties in Africa should be broad based and draw members across all tribes and religions in their countries. The zero-sum “winner-take-all” politics should cease. It should be replaced by the positive-sum and consensual politics. Opportunities should be based on merit instead of party loyalty and the big man syndrome.’

2.Since the consequences of holding elections especially in the quest to satisfy democratic credentials are nothing to write home about, it will be politically prudent if new research can be undertaken to investigate the viability of the current electoral models in use in Africa. Evidence abounds suggesting that the dominant First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) electoral system is not assisting our countries deepen democracy, widen representation for greater gender equality, manage social diversities constructively. While Botswana, Mauritius and Ghana could be exceptions to this trend, it is evident that fundamental electoral reforms towards adoption of Proportional Representation electoral models could be useful as in the cases of South Africa, Mozambique and Namibia, just to mention a few countries. My belief is that the limitations of winner-take-all elections are sky-rocketing, it is time sovereign states begin to re-draw electoral and party systems mindful of imperatives for broadening representation and ensuring inclusiveness in our governance systems.

3.And as vividly noted in the African Youth Report 2011, the destiny of this amazing continent is in the hands of young people. The Young African Citizens are the key to an African renaissance and they are critical players and partners in ensuring social transformation and development in many spheres. There is therefore every need to invest in the younger generation, in their education, employment, health care, empowerment and effective civil participation, if Africa is to realize its true potential and be able to stretch even further. 

In his acclaimed 1968 book, ‘The  beautiful ones are not yet born,’ Ghanaian novelist Ayi Kwei Armah lamented the dearth of a new generation of political parties and leadership, which are committed to the interest of the mass of  people. Armah’s beautiful ones – who are a new generation of leaders not corrupted by money and materialism, are the young people.

There comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other. That time in my opinion is now. To our old generation, we live today with a renewed commitment to serve our continent. We do not want to have lived our lives fine examples of people who were right but irrelevant. Politics is for purposes of  improving the quality of lives of the masses.

If we are going to move Africa forward, if we can't fly, let us run. If we can't run, let us walk. If we can't walk, let us crawl. But by all means, let us keep moving or just like Josh Billings in that Favourite quote, "Be like a postage stamp. Stick to something until you get there."

By Caren Wakoli.

The author is a consultant on matters of youth and governance.

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