Africa's Democratic Gains: Fifty Years On

Published on 31st July 2012

In one of his many works, the veteran freedom icon, Nelson Mandela made a profound observation, “To be free is not to cast your chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the life of others.”

In Ghana, one of Africa’s greatest statesmen, Kwameh Nkrumah, is known for his adage; “Seek ye first the political kingdom, and all else will be given unto you…”

While this remains another profound statement, it assumed that independence and freedom are the same narrative, and that freedom would naturally come on its own after independence.

Fifty years later, it is important to investigate whether Africa has made great strides towards democracy. While there have been positive developments, there are others whose record has been associated with advancing tyranny and oppression of the same people they liberated.

Democracy is universal and as Africa, we cannot accept to be sovereign but with a minimum threshold of democracy and basic freedoms.

Let me hasten to say from the outset that the struggle for democracy in Africa has been piecemeal, pedantic and painful. From Tangier to Table Bay, from the coast of Gabon to Mozambique, Africa’s story has been a painful and sad narrative.

It began as a story of subjugation and foreign domination by colonial powers that sought to suppress people, to subjugate them, to pilfer their resources and to curtail their rights.

The struggle for independence in the various African countries marked the first phase of a people that deserved universal standards of equality, democracy and good governance.

Like everyone else across the globe, we refused to be treated as second class citizens in the countries of our birth. Thus, the nationalist movement represented our initial quest to democratise our environment by seeking the same universal standards of equality and freedom.

One by one, all African nations gained their independence and we all celebrated when the last bastion of a racist edifice collapsed with the advent of a new South Africa in 1994.

While we have raised our own sovereign flags after independence, some of the new leadership in Africa betrayed the continent’s collective struggle and inherited the same traits and culture of impunity, corruption, repression, misgovernance and personal aggrandisement.

We have had to wage a new struggle for democracy against some of the former nationalists who have perfected the same repression that so many sons and daughters of our continent fought against for almost a century.

Because the new governments after independence have refused to accept that this is the brave 21st century; indeed the new and modern era underpinned by a new culture of multi-party democracy, tolerance, peace, stability and economic development.

We have struggled in Africa to accept diversity, to be tolerant to divergent views and to create institutions that broaden rather than diminish the people’s basic rights and freedoms.

The misfortune of Africa is that some of our leaders have helped to confirm and to entrench the negative stereotype of a continent of political violence, conflict, disease, hunger and war. They have pilfered national resources, pick-pocketed the collective people’s struggle and shut their ears to the loud national demand for democracy and good governance. They have personalized national institutions, perfected the art of political patronage and undermined their own legacy.

It is the same culture that brought about the spring revolutions when nations and their people became impatient with repressive leaders.

It is sad that what began as a march towards democracy has been negated by internecine conflict and a reversal of that march as characterized by the events in Egypt and Libya.

But whatever the current developments, the situation in those countries will never be the same again as people continue with their brave march towards democracy.

There are many lessons for all of us arising from these spring revolutions, whatever their shortcomings.

The first lesson is that political leaders can only take the people for granted at their own risk. When those gatherings began in Tahrir square in Cairo, it was clear that the people were yearning to be heard.

The second is that we must listen more to the people; because God gave us one mouth and two ears so that we could listen more than we talk down to the citizens that we govern.

The third lesson from the Arab springs is that you must retire at your prime because overstaying in office certainly leads to a time of diminishing returns when our age and competence cannot cope with the dictates of a new era. Like any product, there is always a sell-by date, even for politicians.

The fourth and most important lesson is that we must always respect the will of the people, guaranteed by security of the vote, security of the people and security of the people’s mandate.

Any government and leadership that claims to be in charge should have the clear mandate of its people.

What we have seen in coalitions such as the one in my country, Zimbabwe, demonstrates a serious breach and betrayal of the will of the people because those who lost the election were brought back into government through the formation of undemocratic “inclusive” governments.

Inclusive governments that are exclusive to the people’s will. They have become more of elite pacts that the true expression of the will of the people.

In West Africa, sad developments have retarded the march towards democracy. Fundamentalist groups such as Boko Haram have wreaked havoc and killed innocent citizens. In Mali and Guinea Bissau, the soldiers have refused to stick to the barracks, opting instead to subvert civilian processes and to overthrow elected civilian governments.

We must as a continent embrace democracy and create and nurture those institutions that promote and protect the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens. Any professional security institution must respect the Constitution and protect the people. Any subversion of civilian authority undermines democracy.

That challenge for us as the new crop of African leaders is to consign repression and misgovernance to the dustbins and to create a new society with new values. We are a new generation which must focus on building strong economies, creating jobs and developing a qualitative and affordable social delivery system especially in the fields of health and education.

We must embrace ICTs and become part of the global village. ICTs will enable us to realise our full potential and bring all citizens to the same level in terms of economic development and access to information.

One sees signs of hope; signs of a continent rising to the challenge and beginning to assert its political and economic rights. We have moved from Afro-pessimism to Afro-optimism underpinned by a brave progression towards democratic governance. Our negative history as a continent and as individual countries has not blighted us to new opportunities and the prospect of a new era for our people.

There has been massive economic revival in Rwanda despite its tortuous and painful national story while the big economies of South Africa and Nigeria continue to inspire the rest of the continent.

There is renewed hope following the new government of South Sudan, there is some modicum of stability and a sense of back-to-serious-business in the Ivory Coast while there have been peaceful transitions in Senegal, Malawi, Zambia and Lesotho.

President Joyce Banda came into office this year to join Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as the only two female Presidents in Africa, signalling a great stride in the struggle by the women on our continent. There was a deafening chorus by Africa’s women in support of Dr Nkosazana-Dhlamini Zuma as the first female chair of the African Union Commission!

I am positive about this continent and its prospect for democracy. Africa is the opportunity continent because of its vast resources and its hospitable and hard-working people.

I also wish to state that democracy and democratization alone unclothed by a meaningful change in people’s lives is dangerous. Democracy must be underpinned by wealth creation, jobs and food security.

I urge you all to support SADC and the regional effort in stabilising the situation in Zimbabwe so that the people in our country are allowed to choose their own government without violence and intimidation. I call upon every one of you to stand by us in this delicate moment, aware that we must all become global citizens ready to defend peace and democracy everywhere.

The struggle against apartheid and indeed the new global pressure against repression, terrorism and violence everywhere on the globe is evidence that the world will no longer stand and watch while a people elsewhere are brutalised and killed.

The struggle in Zimbabwe is an extra-ordinary struggle by ordinary people keen to create a new culture and a new country with new values. A new Zimbabwe with a legitimately elected government and in which the ordinary citizen will be free to pursue and live their dream. With everyone’s support and prayers, that new Zimbabwe is possible within our lifetime.

By Rt. Hon. Morgan Tsvangirai
Prime Minister, Zimbabwe
President of the Movement for Democratic Change

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