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Democracy in Africa: Don’t blame the player, blame the game?

  After a hard day’s job, it was time to go home, so I took a taxi, where I got into a conversation with the…


After a hard day’s job, it was time to go home, so I took a taxi, where I got into a conversation with the taxi driver.

The driver whose name was Eddy told me he graduated with a first-class degree from a Nigerian University. After five years of graduating without a job, he resorted to taxi driving to make ends meet, but that’s the problem.

In my conversation with Eddy about the state of the nation, I realized how pessimistic he was about the prospect of a better country. Disappointed with the political system and the economic trajectory of the country, he believes Nigeria is beyond redemption and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

To him, no amount of participation, activism, transparency advocacy, demand for accountability by the citizenry can make the leaders do right.

In my attempt to make him rethink, I shared my optimism about the potential of Nigeria as a great country. I asked if he voted in the last election, Eddy responded by saying “election is just a charade and democracy does not have the potency to deliver good governance to the people” as it was set up to fail in Africa from the onset. There was nothing I could say that would change Eddy’s mind about Nigeria’s failed democracy.

Eddy is not the only one holding this view, it is a view held by many, not only Nigerians but many Africans, rightfully so.

The story of democracy in many African countries is that of unmet expectations, muddled up with authoritarianism and sit tight rule, poor participation and ineffective representation, identity politics, weak electoral systems and institutions, among other challenges.

What is wrong with democracy in Africa?

If anyone needed a confirmation on the failures of democracy in Africa, the number of successful and attempted coups on the continent, political conflict, poverty rate and under development settles the matter.

The despondency of citizens with the democratic system is evident by the jubilation that trail military takeovers in the last few years.

The recent attempted coup in Sierra Leone is a reminder that the last of military coups in the continent is yet to be heard, after civilian governments were truncated in eight countries in only three years.

Voter cast his vote in Benin city

The celebration and global recognition accorded former Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan and more recently Liberia’s President George Weah for conceding defeat after one term as president is yet another indication that playing by the rules is considered extraordinary in a continent where many would rather change the rules in the middle of the game.

While there is no lack of political activities in the continent, elections often serve to deepen divisions rather than build social cohesion as political actors exploit ethno-religious fault lines.

Social injustice and suppression of dissenting voices has seen many countries engulfed in protracted politically motivated conflicts that have defied every attempt towards restoring peace.

Don’t blame the player, blame the game?

The most popular definition of democracy is arguably the one by the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, who sees democracy as “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

With this definition in mind, political pundits in Africa have contemplated whether the model of democracy practiced in many African countries is representative of the people.

Echoing this argument in a recent speech, a former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo said “Western style of democracy has failed in Africa because it does not take into consideration the views of the majority of the people.”

He described Western Liberal Democracy as a “government of a few people over all the people or population.”

“These few people are representatives of only some of the people and not full representatives of all the people.”

“Invariably, the majority of the people were wittingly or unwittingly kept out. This is why we should have ‘Afro Democracy’ in place of Western Liberal Democracy.”

However, the question of who to blame for the seeming failure of Democracy in Africa, is one that has generated debate over time. While some argue in favor of former President Olusegun’s thoughts, critics are of the view that African democracy is evolving and should not be considered as failed.

Others hold the view that regardless of the version of democracy, certain democratic tenets are universal, without which dividends of democracy will not be felt.

There are those who opine that both the political actors and western liberal democracy are responsible for the failings of democracy in the continent.

Democracy must always be tailored to the local norms – Ogbole Amedu-Ode

Speaking to Daily Trust on Sunday, former Nigerian diplomat and international affairs commentator Ogbole Amedu-Ode, said “Representative democracy is alien as it were to Africa and Africans, having been imported across the ocean into the continent” being a legacy of the colonial masters.

Ogbole argues that although the Westminster parliamentary system was foreign to Africa, it could be domesticated for effective governance as was done in  Malaysia, Singapore, India.

“Democracy as it were is not a one size fits all. The concept and practice of democracy must always be tailored to the local norms and practices of a people and I think that the Westminster parliamentary system that we inherited at independence was fairly tailored to our needs as a people.”

“If we look at it from the perspective that in each of the regions, they had regional house of chiefs, which put into consideration our traditional leadership structure and the influence that they will have.”

Ogbole argues that the military incursion brought in the American executive Presidential system that has proven to be humongous for us financially and otherwise and unbearable.

The former diplomat said the failings of democracy in Africa could be attributed to both the political actors and the model of democracy practiced in many African countries.

Liberal democracy could work if played by the rules – Amb. Bulus Lolo

In his own submission, Nigeria’s former permanent representative to the African Union, Amb. Bulus Lolo, said the fault is more with the political actors than the system.

“Liberal Democracy as we understand it is a model that has worked elsewhere and can work in Africa, if the practitioners do what is required of them. So squarely, I think the blame somehow is on the actors who pretend to be practicing liberal democracy,” he said.

Bulus Lolo further explains that “the core of liberal democracy is about the freedom to choose and people participating in their governance. If that is the case, you will discover that in Africa, there is an alienation of the ruled from the rulers and by the rulers, who live in a cocoon, completely alienated from the people.”

He identifies sit tight syndrome as a common problem in African democracy due to “too much power vested in the headship of government” leading to the creation of political dynasties.

“Democracy should have limits where you serve your time, and when it is time for you to go, you pack your things and go. That’s how it is done elsewhere, let the people exercise the will.

Foreign interference a clog in the wheel of democracy in Africa – Dr. Elharun Muhammad

The Director Institute for Policy, Development & Innovative Studies, Dr. Elharun Muhammad, speaking on Trust TV’s Africa Update blames foreign interference for the failure of Africa’s democracy.

“The dilemma of governance is predicated on three factors; the international environment, which entails largely our colonial masters, second the actors who operate democracy and thirdly the electorates i.e., the citizens. So, these are responsible for bad governance and failure of democracy in Nigeria and Africa at large.”

“In the process of colonization, the colonialist succeeded in disrupting our indigenous political and cultural values… by imposing their political system.”

“By the time they were leaving, they made sure they trained the citizens that will serve as their stooges or puppets who will perpetuate the colonial enterprise,” he said.

Linking the political elites to the colonial powers, he says the foreign powers ensure that before any citizen attains political power, they must be endorsed by the former colonialists.

In the final analysis, considering the varying forms of democracy practiced around the world, which could be direct (in which the people take decisions), semi-direct (a combination of the elements of direct and representative democracy), representative (a model where citizens express their will through elected representatives who make the law and control the government), or participatory (that emphasizes people’s participation in political decision-making), some African countries may be required to rethink the model of democracy practiced for suitability.

However, for any society to be deemed democratic, the essential elements of democracy as declared by the United Nations, some of which includes; Respect for human rights, Freedom of association, Freedom of expression and opinion, Rule of law, Periodic, free and fair elections, multi-party system, the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary, transparency and accountability, free and independent media, must all be visible.


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