My take on democracy in Africa

I recently came across a discussion thread on social media.

Members were discussing an article on ‘the africa report’ by Prof. Nic Cheeseman.

The article was titled, Lesson from Africa: Is there such a thing as a ‘good coup’?

The title caught my attention as the discussion went on in the Africa Network Forum (ANEF).

ANEF is WhatsApp platform bringing together think tanks from across Africa and like-minded individuals from other parts of the world.

Everyone had his or her opinion on the different aspects of a coup.

More questions emerged: Is it going to bring about better situation? Will it be better than this or that dethroaned leader? Should we return to our ancestoral ways of living and ruling?

The thread went on and on.

I felt something was lacking, but at the same time I was glad people were interested in this and actually had an opinion.

However, there was one statement that worried me; “… perhaps democracy is not our thing.”

What is democracy and why would someone make this kind of a statement?

First, Zinabala might be disillusioned with the current leaders.

He might have voted for them and supported them but does not see positive results of his efforts.

Second, he might be confused by the options facing him.

Maybe there are several political parties to choose from, all of which are, in his opinion, the same, or similar to each other.

Third is the aspect of fear of social change: know my past, I’m aware of my present, but my future is uncertain. I’m not doing as well as I’d like now, but it’s better to have the devil I know than the one I don’t know.

Fourth, Zinabala has something to gain; perhaps having an undemocratic government will benefit him in one way or another.

We can think of several more reasons, but they will all be in this line.

For the fourth reason and other reasons similar, we should keep an eye on him.

He will undoubtedly trying to recover his loss by any means necessary.

For the other three reasons and other similar, I feel we need to answer some questions before we can condemn democracy or agree with Zinabala that democracy is not for him.

What do we mean by democracy?

Many simply will state that if a country has a general election, then that’s democracy.

As can be seen around the world, there are several countries that celebrate general elections, every now and then (usually every four years), but by no means are democratic.

We can take Russia as an example.

By democracy, we mean a set of institutions, that outlive any government or person, including general elections, with the purpose of allowing for public control of the government and its dismissal by the people in a nonviolent manner, even when it is against the will of the government.

As someone said, democracy was invented so we can change government without executing them.

What is democracy in relation to time?

Democracy is a process. It is a constantly moving process carried on by institutions and people.

It has only one aim: to better the life of the inhabitants within its influence.

What are the alternatives to democracy?

Let us place all political alternatives on a line, from left to right.

On this one let me start with totalitarianism of short, whether it is in the form of a party, like the communist party in former USSR, or in a single leader as in North Korea or Mao (both have a communist party behind them but are (were) de facto dictators.

When we move to the right, we will find more democratic governments.

The word “social” will start showing up, as in social democratic, but do not let your dislike for the word cloud your judgment.

As we get towards the center, we will find multi-party governments with strong institutions and strong social agenda.

Now moving further to the right, we will see few and fewer parties, weak and weaker institutions until we come to totalitarian right-wing rule.

Now, let me make it clear; when conservatives claim fascism and Nazism are left-wing politics, they are wrong.

The reason for this, is simply misunderstanding of a word.

The National Socialist German Worker’s Party (Nazi) includes the words “socialist” and “workers” in its name.

That, in the end has no bearing on what they actually were.

While communists, based on Marxist ideas, fight capitalism, and aim to eliminate private property, fascism and Nazism support capitalism and only add the “nation” as the unifying factor.

What we now have on both ends totalitarianism and in the center democracy.

Let’s now go back to the article that started this discussion.

The question raised in the title is, “Is there such a thing as a good coup?

In short, the answer is no.

Whether the coup comes out of necessity or just because someone saw an opportunity to take over some resources from a weak government, the results are in overwhelming cases, on the whole negative.

You might say a coup without bloodshed is a good coup in regard to the fact that no one was killed.

However, that is not the only measurement.

It must also be asked, (a) what change does the coup bring? and (b) how does the coup affect democratic institutions?

I am, as Karl Popper in his book, The Open Society (that is democratic society) & Its Enemies, of the opinion that a revolution or coup may become necessary under certain circumstances.

However, the only goal of such a revolution or a coup should be to install a democratic government with strong institutions and effective regulatory systems where citizens can have the ability to dismiss the government without violence.

Looking at Africa, I have noticed that frequently people contrast the continent with other parts of the world.

Some compare a specific situation in Africa with situation of sort in other countries.

Although comparison can be good when we are in the benchmarking progress, setting standards, and finding out status of things, such comparison can also be dangerous and may give a wrong picture of reality.

This is especially true when it comes to qualitative or verbal comparison.

Democracy fits well in there. Why should we compare democracy in Africa with, say Sweden or England (yes, both are democratic governments although they have a king and a queen respectively)?

Democracy in Africa is young, less than 60 years in most cases and younger still in others.

One might argue that democracy is not much older in Europe, maybe just about 100 years.

Still there is significant difference.

The institutions backing up democracy in Europe are much older; the court system, central banks, infrastructure development, health-, education-, and social-services, and more.

It is therefore not fear, in my opinion, to compare Africa with Europe.

Democracy is a process. Best results from democracy come from piecemeal social engineering, that is little by little, not from revolutionary social engineering where everything is designed from top down in one big stroke.

Therefore, depending on where a specific country is in the process, it will differ greatly from other countries located elsewhere in the process.

Democracy is a mean, not an end.

Democracy can be described as a bridge of infinite length, used to go from the society where we are, to a better society in the future.

We do not need to have a clear definition of this better society, only that there is something in our current society that needs to be, or can be, improved.

In conclusion, although this is much too short to do justice to this subject of democracy, we can conclude that in the absence of democracy our alternatives are only totalitarianism on the left or the right.

It is therefore incumbent upon us to defend democracy at all costs as Popper states in his book, The Open Society…, “This defense of democracy must consist of making anti-democratic experiments too costly for those who try them; much more costly than the democratic compromise.”

We must always be mindful, as writes H.A.L. Fisher, of the fact that although progress is written plain and large on the pages of history, progress is not a law of nature.

Indeed, the ground gained by one generation may be lost by the next.

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Mr. Thorgeirsson, a Columnist with The scholar Media Africa is based in Puerto Rico, USA. He is a coach in Personal Finance, with an MBA in Finance and Marketing from Inter Americana University, Puerto Rico. His contact:


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