So many times I have heard one too many African leaders deriding the idea of democracy as a Western driven agenda meant to achieve regime change. They have argued that the aim of the West is to get rid of all the strongly nationalist and patriotic leaders and movements that have been in power since independence from colonial rule. They have insisted that the West seeks to assist weak-minded politicians to come into power. The argument is that these weaklings would then serve the interests of the West, particularly through giving them easy and unlimited access to Africa’s vast resources in the extractive industry including oil, gold, diamonds and other precious stones, uranium and other minerals. My president has often called such leaders ‘puppets’ and at times ‘stooges of the West.’ He has also referred to the main opposition leader as ‘an ambitious frog’ ’a white man masquerading as a black’ and ‘a tea boy for his white boss.’ Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has alleged that Africans cannot speak of democratisation until they have transformed their economies from the pre-industrial age suggesting that democratisation should be a separate process from economic development yet it is the democratisation of these economic policies, of the political space and of society in general that African citizens are seeking.
Should there be a grain of truth to the African leaders’ position, that the West has hidden behind the veil of ‘democratisation’ to selfishly serve their own agendas; that cannot be used as a justification in concluding that democracy is merely a Western tool to gain access to Africa’s resources. It cannot also be the reason why African leaders continue to repress the press, harass fighters for social justice, resist electoral reforms and launch terror campaigns to remain in power. In fact a quick survey will show that most of Africa’s terrible leaders have survived because of the support they have received from the West. To mind comes the case of the US whose engagement with the highly corrupt Gabonese government has never considered prioritizing meaningful reform. Besides the obvious benefits from the oil, the thousands of Gabonese languishing in poverty could as well be invisible to the Americans. The same can also be said in the case of the government of Obiang Nguema in Equitorial Guinea which for years has exacted a terrible humanitarian crisis on its people through its corruption and repressive rule yet few in the West have raised a finger against it.
Besides, this manipulation of political power for personal gain by influential states is not just a ‘Western’ phenomenon. The rising economies in the Global South such as China have also supported terrible governments such as that of Sudan and Zimbabwe in exchange for oil and mineral deposits respectively. South Africa for instance; which has the military, political, diplomatic, and financial/economic capabilities to influence the affairs of the region has for years ignored the quest for human rights, calls for freedom of speech, assembly, and association by Zimbabweans when they were being trampled upon by the Zimbabwean government. South Africa idly watched on as a spectator. Indeed the Zimbabwean political and economic meltdown served the South African agenda. Being a new nation, requiring extensive properly trained and qualified professional personnel in their numerous schools, hospitals and companies South Africa did nothing to stem the flow of trained brains from Zimbabwe into their country. The vacant posts were filled and continue to be filled; cheaply too because the ‘desperate’ Zimbabweans do not hold too many bargaining chips.
It is with these facts in mind that I ask myself whether the question of the Africanness of democracy, the meaning of democracy and its relevance as a phenomenon to the African context should be asked at all. I would think not. Scholars might have debated this concept left, right and center and some may have concluded it is a nifty ideal but who needs a fancy definition of democracy when the people on the ground are defining it themselves. Africans are tired of enduring long years of dictatorships, brutality against peaceful democracy campaigns, as well as series of coups and protracted civil wars. They have had enough insecurity and are looking for stability which allows them to live normal lives. They are seeking to set up governments of the people, for the people and by the people taking us back to the simplest and most accurate definition of democracy.
A wise African woman said something that I found to be quite profound and a concise summary explaining the rising quest for democratisation and improved governance amongst African populations. She said;
“African states have failed to inspire loyalty in the citizenry; produce a political class with [real] integrity and [genuine] national interest; [they have failed] to [impress upon] the military, the police and security forces their proper roles in society; to build nations consisting of different linguistic and cultural groups and to fashion economically viable economic policies.” (Makau wa Mutua in Human Rights and the African Fingerprint)
Indeed these are the woes besieging the African continent- despotism, autocracy, police brutality, ethnic strife, poverty, inequitable distribution of wealth and corruption. Africa is riddled by self-serving governments and politicians whose sole purpose for participating in politics is their own self aggrandisement. In my country as in many others on our continent I have never heard the politicians mention the words ‘Nationalism’ or ‘Patriotism’ unless elections are around the corner and usually those words are mentioned to discredit their opponents perceived to be ‘sell outs’ trying to subject the nation to neocolonialist ideologies.
Police forces and in some cases military forces, terrorise the very populations they ought to protect. Reports of police brutality and abuses by the military against political activists, journalists, student activists, women activists and the general masses are widespread on our continent. Africa has recorded scores of deaths and has seen untold suffering because of wars fought merely because people belonged to different ethnic groups. More often than not politicians fuel these differences in order to capitalise on them to score political victories. Most recent examples would be the ongoing fighting in the Southern Kordofan and Darfur regions of Sudan. Also still fresh in our memories would be the genocide in Rwanda and the period of the Gukurahundi in Zimbabwe when one’s ethnicity was the difference between life and death. Corruption is also endemic. Governments have poor or poorly executed economic policies ploughing our continent underground and causing it to be identified as the richest continent in abstract but the poorest and least developed in reality. In the case of Zimbabwe, an economy that was so prosperous and deserving to be called Africa’s ‘breadbasket’ has indeed become a ‘basket case.’
It is not surprising then that against this backdrop of deteriorating standards of living, high levels of unemployment, and widespread repression nations should rise in protest. So yes, let scholars say all they want and let philosophers find something to ‘philosophise’ but when it comes down to the basics I will tell you that democracy is African too because Africans are defining it for themselves. It is what drove the Tunisians, Egyptians and Gabonese in January; Angolans, Cameroonians and Djiboutis in February, Swazis and the Burkinabe in April; the Ugandans in May and the Malawians in July onto the streets. It is why every year thousands of people take to the ballot box to choose their leaders, despite previous experiences of that process’ futility in bringing about change.
It is in their claim for an environment that allows them to thrive to their full potential economically, socially, politically, religiously, culturally, physically and spiritually. It is in their denunciation of ruthless and corrupt governments and brutal police forces. It is embodied in their demands for equal distribution of wealth and an end to the current dogma where the rich keep getting richer and the poor poorer. It is in their fight for dignity and freedom, their quest for victory.
And it did not begin with the recent protests. The quest for democracy may not have been called as such but it was already evident when the whole of Africa fought against colonial rule. The things we hated in the white supremacist political order characterised by exclusion of the majority from the means of production; deep divides between the rich and poor and the educated and uneducated; the torture, murder, forced disappearances and inhumane and degrading treatment of those who dared to speak against the ‘evil’ white regimes; denial of equal opportunities for all citizens; and the exploitation of national resources for the benefit of a few are the same things we denounce in the current crop of leadership on the African continent. Hence calls for democratisation are calls for a restoration of humanity and dignity to the masses. Surely that cannot be said to be un-African when several African cultures embrace the concept of humanity recognizing that ‘to be human is to affirm one’s humanity by recognizing the humanity in others.’ We call it ‘hunhu’ in Shona in Zimbabwe. They call it ‘ubuntu’ in Zulu in South Africa and Rwanda Rundi in Rwanda and Burundi, ‘botho’ in Botswana, obuntu in Uganda and Tanzania, ‘umundu’ in Kikuyu in Kenya, ‘vumuntu’ in ShiTsonga in Mozambique and ‘bomoto’ in Bobangi in DRC , ‘insenniya’ in Egyptian.
So peoples have challenged the legitimacy of political establishments to the proportions of the Egyptian and Tunisian Revolutions where whole nations brought things to a standstill until leaders were effectively overthrown but also in a series of concerted efforts over a long period of time through organised social and political movements exercising civil disobedience and continually fighting for democratic reforms.
If anyone will insist that democracy is un-African shall we also accept that the opposite is African? Clearly not because autocracy is not an African phenomenon, it is a human phenomenon. It existed throughout ancient civilizations and for generations, monarchies and dynasties on all continents displayed variations of it. From Shaka Zulu in South Africa who buried virgins with his dead mother, to Louis the XVI in France who used the guillotine on every dissenting voice during his reign. Even great historical figures such as Alexander the Great Macedonian King, Napoleon Bonaparte the French leader who tried to control the world, renowned communist Chinese leader Mao Tse Tung and the Great Ethiopian Emperor Haille Selassie have had despotic/autocratic characteristics attached to the historical accounts of their reign.
So neither democracy nor autocracy belong to any specific people and cannot be imported to a people. Democracy is a human element that can only exist when it has been demanded by those who want it in the same way that autocracy can be rid of by those who do not want it. As Martin Luther King Junior rightly said, freedom can never be given by the oppressor; it has to be demanded by the oppressed. As in history when uprisings took place during the Russian, French and Great American Revolutions, the quests for freedom, good governance, and defiance of rulers that deny majorities a life of dignity, remain the reasons why African peoples seek to democratise.
There is no need therefore to look beyond the people’s clamour for freedom and justice to seek imaginary ‘detracting’ external forces. The Egyptian example throws this argument in the face of its expositors because the usual forces perceived to be spreading democracy as an absolute truth in order to serve their own political agendas, were clearly opposed to the revolution succeeding and only supported the revolutionaries when it was clear that it was going to succeed. It was the sheer bravery and courage of the protestors that yielded a success. For days after the people of Egypt took to the streets, the West did not lift a finger to fight for them against the brutal attacks they faced. In fact the West had not lifted a finger for decades when the people of Egypt faced a repression so heavy that they bore numerous violations each day. Egypt had not had a democratic election in ages yet no one from the West seemed to see anything particularly wrong with that. Surely if democracy was a Western driven agenda the West would have rushed to the rescue of the Egyptians in the face of such blatant undemocratic tendencies.
My position may be challenged by the developments in Libya which some have seen as another chance for the West to exploit oil resources in the name of change. Without seeking to dismiss the possibility that the involvement of the Western states might have elements of economic expediency, one must never lose sight of the fact that the forces in Libya are not purely Western. Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Greece, Romania, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom, United States and Turkey may be Western but Qatar, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates are definitely not, yet they all have forces helping the protestors now turned rebel fighters fighting for democratic change in Libya.
So the next time you hear anyone saying that democracy does not exist and that if it does it is not African , tell them it is in your right to practice your religion freely and without fear, to speak freely, and to criticise politicians without fear of arrest, torture or forced disappearance. Tell them it is in your right to elect leaders of your choice and to make such a choice in a violence-free and intimidation-free environment. Above all you must tell them it is in your right to live, to eat, to have clean water, to have a roof over your head with proper sanitation, to get proper medical treatment when you fall ill, and to send your children to the school of your choice. Explain that democracy lies in the collective power of a people; that it is in a people’s perception of how their resources and country should be governed and the measure of how their aspirations can and should be fulfilled. Tell them that democracy is African too.