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Africa’s distorted conception of democracy

Africans are obsessed with concepts such as elections, term limits, peaceful transfer of power, and constitutional order, even though these have not improved their conditions. One wonders why


Before I begin this article, I would like to ask readers, especially Africans, to reflect on the number of people who have lost their lives since the Western conception of democracy was imposed on Africa. In the late 1950s, the colonial powers suppressed nationalist movements and promoted post-independence puppet leaders whose parties were based on tribalism, regionalism, or religious fundamentalism. These were allowed to flourish as long as they served the West’s neocolonial project. Since then, the continent has lost many of its children in civil wars, coups, rebellions, terrorism, etc.

More than eight decades after the first African countries gained independence, Africans are still grappling with the true meaning of democracy. They are obsessed with concepts such as elections, term limits, peaceful transfer of power, and constitutional order, even though these have not improved their conditions. One wonders why. There are many answers, but some seem more plausible than others. I believe that colonisation, (mis)education, and poverty explain why Africans continue to embrace systems that are detrimental to their well-being.

Building on the ruins of colonialism

Africans inherited their current governance structures from their colonial masters. Western countries had spent years experimenting with systems of governance before arriving at the present format called democracy. It is important to note that even Western democracy comes in different formats, parliamentary systems or presidential systems. The former grants executive power to the prime minister, while the latter grants executive power to the president.

Without gauging which form of government was appropriate for Africa’s newborn countries, most of which were republics, post-independence leaders embraced multi-party electoral democracy. But in most cases, the people were lured by a few elites into the trap of tribalism, regionalism and religious fundamentalism. The exercise was not about electing effective leaders.  As a result, the evils of nepotism and corruption became entrenched and synonymous with the continent. Moreover, since the 1960s, many governments have been overthrown by military coups, armed rebellions, and Western interference, despite the fact that elections were held in this format. Today, only a few countries in Africa are able to unite their citizens around a common vision of governance and economic development.

(Mis)educated elites

There is a huge gap in the contribution of countries to world knowledge when it comes to social sciences, including political science, sociology, anthropology, and administration. As a result, Africans have found themselves adopting the dominant ideas in these fields and governing Africa as America or Asia. This has not only been detrimental to Africans but has also created instability across the continent. In the 60s and 70s, the proponents of democracy loudly proclaimed that no form of government other than Western liberal democracy could promote prosperity. Yet, recent history has shown that the Asian tigers, including China and Singapore, took a different path and experienced unprecedented economic development, challenging Western democracy scholars.

Instead of learning from the Asians and experimenting with other forms of governance, African pseudo-intellectuals continue to sing about term limits, elections, and constitutional order and engage in endless debates about the number of years a leader has been in power. This shows a dark side of our education system, which is the suppression of critical thinking skills.

Here I would like to give three examples: Rwanda, Uganda, and Cameroon. On the one hand, due to continuity of good leadership, Rwanda has become a favorite tourism and conference destination for many including Western organizations, companies, and private investors. This would have not been possible if Rwanda had been under the politics of the 90s where tribal CDR, MDR, MRND, and PARECO were the rulers of the land. The outcome of their politics led the country to the Genocide against Tutsis. On the other hand, long-serving Presidents Paul Biya and Yoweri Museveni made Cameroon and Uganda food-secure countries. This is mainly due to the fact these countries have been stable with no rebellions and military coups for a long time. While there are certainly things to improve in each of these countries, we need to acknowledge that continuity and stability present advantages that we should preserve in our quest for meaningful democracy. Sadly, the suppression of critical thinking by our education prevents these healthy debates from taking place.

A poverty mindset  

Poverty is another reason why Africans have not adopted appropriate forms of governance. Africans accepted Western liberal democracy not because it was appropriate for the continent, but because their material conditions required the financial support of the Britton Woods institutions. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund attached conditions to their loans. One of these was that loan recipients should embrace liberal democracy. So poverty has led African countries to adopt systems they don’t understand, just to get financial support from Western countries and financial organisations. Ironically, African countries pay for these poor choices with unnecessary conflicts that leave them unable to repay the loans, keeping them in perpetual debt while decimating their most valuable resource: their people.

Suffice it to say that colonialism and neo-colonialism, colonial education, and endemic poverty have created an inferiority complex in our people. Africans have reached a point where they embrace any form of darkness, or immorality just because the ideology supporting immorality is Western. This way of thinking continues to keep Africa in perpetual wars, poverty, and governance issues – a state of “polycrisis”. Africa is in polycrisis and only enlightened sons of the continent can stand up and give the right direction.

As Rwandans plan for elections on 15 July 2024, it is a moment to reflect on where Rwanda was in 1994 and the progress Rwanda has made in 30 years, in terms of infrastructure, education, health systems, and political stability. President Kagame has exceeded expectations in terms of both governance philosophy and development. This is a time when Rwandans should put aside their colonial-invented differences and take a bold step to vote for efficiency, stability, and economic development.

Africans in general need to reflect on current governance issues on the continent which have led to military coups, terrorism, failed states, rebellion, poverty, hunger, endemic diseases, etc. African think tanks have a responsibility to redefine democracy in African contexts, otherwise Agenda 2063 risks becoming empty promises leading to a desperate fate.

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