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How Africans “perform democracy” for the western gallery


A recent article by Reuters titled “What limits? How African leaders cling to power for decades,” and another by The East African’s Charles Onyango Obbo titled “African democrats: going, going, gone” got me thinking about the obsession of term limits as a key measure of democracy and how we got to the point where our democratic concern is how long our leaders are in office rather than what they do while they are there, as well as the dangerous conclusion that those who “respect term limits” are Africa’s democrats.

The danger of lumping countries such as Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Comoros, Congo Republic, Djibouti, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Rwanda, Togo, and Uganda should be apparent. So is the suggestion that term limits, rather than being a process, are in and of themselves an essential outcome of democracy. Such a danger must be obvious from the idea that Liberia’s Sirleaf Johnson and DRC’s Joseph Kabila are Africa’s distinguished democrats for the mere fact that they respected term limits and left office.

This is the tragedy of Africa. When we talk about democracy, who do we have in mind? Ironically, Obbo has the answer “In the ‘second liberation’ wave that followed the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s and early 1990s, new political forces and parties formed, and were weak. They sold and went along with term limits, in part to buy themselves legitimacy because it cast them as different from the old one-party African states and military dictatorships that were crumbling all round.”

In other words, African leaders still conceive legitimacy externally – something that must originate from outside. The “outside” is the Western world. Moreover, they play along the game of democracy not because they are aspiring democrats but due to the external legitimacy it confers them.

The application of this logic has made democracy a ritual that happens every five years or so. It is a performance for the western gallery. The effects of this performance on the lives of the African people, it seems, is of no concern to either the African leaders or the western gallery.

Whoever performs to the gallery’s satisfaction is blessed with legitimacy. This is the “performance” that African leaders have learned to play, sometimes to exceptional standards. However, from time to time those watching from the gallery get played. But neither side feels cheated; it’s all fine as long as the performance goes on.

Perfecting the dance

Sirleaf Johnson perfected “democratic performance,” for instance. Upon leaving office, her successor George Weah declared, “I inherited a broke Liberia” during his first trip abroad as President in February 2018. Weah went on to pledge “to fight endemic corruption” amidst a “dire economic situation” he had been bequeathed.

“I inherited a country that is very broke, depleted by political malfeasance. We have to make sure that the things that happened will not happen again,” he pleaded amidst promises to do more to ensure that Liberia’s children “leave the street.”

If Sirleaf’s celebrated legacy as a democrat includes leaving children on the streets and a depleted economy, then she must be one of the greatest performers, a dance she punctuated by respecting term limits – a grand exit involving a standing ovation and deafening cheers from the gallery.

It follows, therefore, that assessing democracy on the basis of performance is a diversionary pursuit from the perspective of the African people. It is an exercise that assesses the dexterity to perform and shouldn’t be confused with an examination of democratic credentials; it cannot tell us who is or is not a democrat in any meaningful sense.

Consequently, illegitimate African leaders have learned that they can still be conferred with legitimacy for as long as they master the dance in ways that elicit the most cheer from the gallery. They know that the expectation of the gallery is that legitimacy has nothing to do with improvements in the socioeconomic conditions of the people they lead. We know the losers are the ordinary people whose needs have no bearing on the dance, as to who has proven worthy of leading them. But one wonders: Between the gallery and such leaders who is playing whom?

African leaders know the dangers of going against the wishes of the gallery. That dance, they must. Indeed, they know that it is cheaper to pursue external legitimacy – to dance – than it is to pursue internal legitimacy. They are aware that the quest for legitimacy is between the laborious task of delivering on the needs of the people and showing up to dance.

Three categories of African leaders have emerged, as a result. There are those, like Sirleaf, who have perfected the art of democratic performance. They will dance to the gallery with almost no concern for the lives of their people. Such excellent performance will win them unreserved legitimacy from the western gallery and global leadership prizes await in retirement. Even in death their offspring will benefit from the foundations that will have been established in recognition of their enormous contributions to the arts.

There are those, like Peter Nkurunziza, who neither have the skills to dance nor the competency to craft a vision for their people from which they can earn legitimacy. They have foolishly refused to dance to the gallery without creating a domestic shield of internal legitimacy. Rejected and openly defied by their people, they have concluded that legitimacy is overrated and have turned to brutal repression that invariably leads them to the ICC, itself punishment for refusing to dance.

There is the third category that has refused to dance to the gallery while creating innovative ways for winning domestic legitimacy. They may dance a song or two. They dance because the pressing needs of their people compel them to so. They only dance for pragmatic reasons. But most importantly, they recognise that ultimately their own security can only be guaranteed by their people for whom they seek legitimacy by delivering on their most pressing needs. This is the same as eating a pursuer’s money without giving them the goods, otherwise known as “detoothing.”

Obbo writes that “there’s little good news” for Africa going forwards as more and more “African democrats” disappear. Nkurunziza is offered as the redemptory “miracle” for Africa’s democracy.

Clearly, African leaders are not the only performers.

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