Towards an African Theory of Democracy
This paper argues that there is a general absence of democratic theory in African political scholarship in terms of providing the underlying principles, meaning, canons and criteria of democracy in African culture. The paper exposes the conceptual errors implicit in the conflation of democracy as a concept and as practiced in different political systems. Consequently, it contends that an eclectic appraisal of our indigenous democratic values and practices as well as democratic ideas from other cultural traditions can provide a resonant African theory of democracy. The paper concludes that eclecticism is consociational in principle, and can help solve many of the contemporary socio-political problems besetting current democratic experiences in Africa.
According to Moshi and Osman, liberal ‘democracy failed in many parts of Africa mainly because the Western political parties aggregate primarily along class interests, whereas in Africa an established class system is mainly absent. Thus contemporary Western insistence on multiparty politics’ does not consider indigenous cultural values, which makes multiparty electoral politics to degenerate into ethnic or communal conflicts. Moreover, in view of Africa’s complex problems, where because of lack of a consensual norm on democracy coupled with insufficient political pressure from the African society, political regimes tend to pay less attention to elite abuse, fears of majoritarian tyranny and corruption prevail. Therefore like Wambia dia Wamba, they urged for a resurgence of African indigenous democracy.
Similarly, Eboh (1990, 167) argues that the Western style of democracy is not an authentic expression of contemporary African political culture, which must address so many peculiar issues. Just as one hears of Greek philosophy, Western philosophy and African philosophy, one can also talk about Greek democracy, Western democracy and African democracy, among others. This suggests that like philosophy, democracy is culturally relative. In different circumstances, various types of societies improvised different social approaches to their respective contradictions. This gave rise to different conceptions of democracy, among which were specific forms of the state and civil society, direct or indirect people’s sovereignty, etc. As a consequence, Eboh notes that the solution to the problem of governance in Africa lies in tackling the African socio-economic and political realities, thereby giving democracy an African flair.
Different reasons have been adduced for why democracy seems not to be working in Africa. Offor attributed this to our refusal to accept that democracy varies from one society to another, and that by reason of this elasticity, democracy need not be practiced in strict adherence to those attributes that define it in its Western conception. For Offor, the problem with democratic practice in Africa therefore stems from a fundamental misconception that democracy as a form of government can be imported wholesale from one society to another, regardless of cultural differences. He advances the thesis that democracy is desirable and can be made to work in Africa only if the indigenous continent’s democratic heritage is explored, and those ideas that define good governance are brought to bear in evolving a kind of democracy best suited for resolving Africa’s peculiar problems. However, the fundamental problem with Offor’s conclusion is in his false assumption that democratic ideals are culturally specific. Democratic ideals such as liberty, equality and peoples’ sovereignty are universal, so that what differs are the democratic practices in different cultural and political societies. Kwasi Wiredu is of the view that Africa’s political salvation cannot come from the presently known model of majoritarian democracy, which African states are currently practicing. Majoritarian democracy involves a multi-party system of politics, in which the party that wins the most seats at the election forms the government. In such a political set-up, the losing party or parties become the opposition, singly or jointly. In this system, the minority representatives’ votes are overridden by the votes of the majority. The implication of this is that the right of the minority representatives and their constituencies to meaningfully participate in the actual making of decisions is rendered nugatory. In many contemporary African states, certain ethnic groups and political parties have found themselves perpetually in the minority, consistently staged outside the corridor of power. Not only this, their fundamental human rights of decisional representation are permanently denied with impunity. This violation of the right to be well represented, Wiredu argues, is one of the most persistent causes of political instability in Africa. Consequently, in an attempt to provide a way out of this serious deficiency of majoritarian democracy in Africa, Wiredu explores the resonance of a non-party and consensual democracy in forestalling many of the socio-political ills in Africa:
A non-party and consensual democratic system is one in which parties are not the basis of power. People can form political associations to propagate their political ideas and help to elect representatives to parliament. But an association having the most elected members will not therefore be the governing group. Every representative will be of the government in his personal, rather than associational capacity.
Fundamental to Wiredu’s argument is the need to consider the individual’s personal views, before all important decisions are made on the principle of consensus. This process of deliberation on issues rather than resorting to popular vote, is according to Wiredu, capable of promoting mutual tolerance, thereby contributing to demarginalization in a polity. Wiredu uses the example of the traditional Akan political system to illustrate the plausibility of this approach.
By Ademola Kazeem Fayemi: Department of Philosophy Lagos State University; Ojo, Nigeria, 05/08/2014