• July 9th, 2020

The paradox of African democracy



Makala Lilemba 

The Greek scholar, Herodotus, coined the term democracy in the 5th B.C. from two words: ‘demos’, which means people and katejn, meaning rule or cratos, which in turn means authority. Many centuries later, Abraham Lincoln, the sixth president of the United States of America defined democracy as government of the people by the people and for the people. This implies that in a democracy, the people themselves must rule themselves. 

Despite the principle of democracy, there have been calls from the Western capitals to re-democratise Africa to qualify for all types of European and American aid. In the process, many African leaders have applied this formula through trial-and-error with catastrophic results of mounting debts, which refuse to be paid off. On the electoral field, there have been political chaos where the vanquished has been refusing to accept defeat, as there have been allegations of vote rigging and, in many cases, the ballot stealing has been an open and naked secret for everyone to see.  

In extreme cases, the vanquished has opted for and sacrificed an armed struggle dealing a blow to the illusion of ‘Silencing the Guns in Africa’ soonest. This scenario has led many people questioning the relevance of Western democracy in the African context. Paradoxically, the so-called democratic West has been trying to impose their rule and will on Africans. It is along these lines of thought that scholars like Lumumba have argued Africa should brew its own democracy for relevance sake. Mazrui is on record to say you can teach other people how to speak the English language, you can teach them how to practise Christianity but you cannot teach them how to govern themselves – that they must learn themselves. This implies that democracy should not be imposed on others.

Meanwhile, the concept of democracy is compounded by some prepositions of other African scholars who think democracy in Africa should be based on African traditional and socio-political institutions, rooted in the African type of democracy as Nyerere observed:

The people of Africa need democracy.  However, it must be allowed to be their own democracy.  By definition, democracy cannot be imposed from outside; nor can it be given by outsiders, how good their intentions are… 

Another rights scholar, Abdullahi an-Naim, best captures democracy and human rights as having been developed, conceived and established by the West. They cannot be accepted and implemented globally by peoples of other parts of the world. 

Nevertheless, this idea formed the philosophical basis for the transition to the notorious single party states in Africa. The history of gross violations of human rights, the tragedies of civil strife, refugees and underdevelopment are the legacy of Abdullahi’s and Nyerere’s relativist philosophy.

The paradox is that early nationalists preached ‘one man; one vote’, which would usher in a period of democratic rule. They targeted and castigated the oppressors for being undemocratic. Paradoxically, few years into nationhood, African leaders emerged with one party-rule citing that Western democracy was not fit for Africa. The paradox that Africans cannot comprehend democracy is far-fetched because African leaders simply came up with this philosophy of greed just to blind the masses to embark on a massive scale of thuggery and looting. Africans, like their counterparts in other continents can exercise, democracy. This can be illustrated by the fact that Africans have mastered some of the white man’s skills, including the Queen’s language perfectly. Why now that African leaders think the masses cannot exercise democracy when their traditional structures have been democratic in all forms?

Namibians fought for their freedom and liberty to restore their dignity and introduce a democratic constitution in 1990. However, having a democratic constitution is one thing and implementing the constitution requirements is another, as the paradox is that the majority of Namibians may not even comprehend and have access to the democratic constitution.

Recently, the democratic crusade has picked up momentum in Africa that it is difficult to simply ignore this trend in all spheres. Other countries have introduced human rights, peace and democracy as a separate subject in schools (UNESCO, 1999). Towards Education for All (1993) states we should not be fooled by governments that preach about democracy when they are in fact authoritarian in nature. The document further says it is possible for any government or any socio-economic organisation to claim to be founded on democracy and yet produce and practice a culture that is undemocratic in nature. 

* Prof.  Makala Lilemba
The University of Barotseland, Mongu, Zambia


Staff Reporter
2020-02-21 12:20:42 | 4 months ago

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