OPINION: Democracy is a state of mind

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

A recent BBC Newshour Extra program hosted a panel that discussed the question, “Is Democracy working for Africa?” This question is as old as African independence. In fact, prior to independence, colonial authorities and African nationalists had debated whether Africa was ready for self-rule and therefore the practice of democracy characteristic of the western nation nation-state system they would be presiding over after independence. And while the answers given by the BBC panelists provided interesting perspectives, they were not new either. Three of them made strong arguments in favor of democracy and cited a number of reasons why democracy is not working in Africa. One panelist, a member of Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s advisory council gave the usual total and unqualified support for authoritarianism in his country, citing among other things the economic and other developments that Rwanda has registered under Kagame. Since democracy is articulated as a set of shared understandings of what constitutes proper political behavior, it might be useful to conceptualize it as a state of mind that is universal and amenable to cultivation in any and all human civilizations. That hopefully, will put to rest the oft repeated fallacy that democracy is western and therefore not suitable for Africa.

The Rwandan panelist was loudly vociferous in his unconditional defense of anything Kagame. He stoutly defended Kagame’s 98 percent victory in that country’s recent election by arguing that nine other presidential candidates supported Kagame. He also argued that Kagame’s critics are lying and don’t know what they are saying because according to the Rwandan constitution, the governing party cannot hold more than fifty percent of the seats in parliament. He strongly castigated panelist Professor George Ayittey and by extension all who dare to question the legitimacy of Kagame’s 98 percent victory, or the quality of Rwandan “democracy”. He delivered what he felt was the killer blow by repeatedly emphasizing that “democracy is a process, not an event”. The Rwandan panelist’s line of argument in defense of Kagame’s strong man “democracy” is not new in Africa either. It echoes an age-old tradition of African neo-exceptionalism that is the stock in trade of African dictators since independence. It is the same old fraudulent suggestion that while Africans are not inferior to westerners, Africans are a different enough people for whom “western” democracy is not suitable. According to this distorted justificatory logic of African dictators, Africans are better ruled by their own form of “democracy” of the sort in which the ruling party bans all other parties and arrests, detains and kills all citizens who dare to express different, enlightening or empowering opinions and strategies that threaten the security and longevity of the state, which is to say the president. Confronted with the fact of rampant press censorship under Kagame, the Rwandan panelist blurted out that newspapers that print only 200 copies cannot be allowed to derail Rwanda’s development. Echoes of the infamous 1% nonsense that used to be routinely uttered by our ousted “dictator for development”.

It was rather surprising that none of the panelists in favor of democracy in Africa put it to the Rwandan panelist that the issue is not whether Kagame could win 98% of the vote, with or without the support of nine other presidential candidates or parties. The issue is that after 17 years as president of Rwanda, Kagame should not have sought re-election in the first place. Kagame has been president since 2000; he was effectively de facto ruler of Rwanda since the end of the 1994 genocide. Elected president in 2003 and 2010, he was supposed to step down in 2017 at the end of his second seven-year term. But like many African rulers, Kagame had developed a sweet tooth for power. He also knew that Rwanda’s political culture is such that he could cling on to power with little difficulty. So in December 2015 he manipulated and won a referendum by 98% of the vote that allowed him to change the country’s constitution and run for a third seven-year term. That constitutional amendment also allows Kagame to seek re-election to two additional five-year terms after his third seven-year term expires in 2024, which means that Kagame could stay in power until 2034 at the least. In essence, Kagame has made himself life president of Rwanda through an ugly politics of constitutional manipulation masquerading as democracy that in the long term does not bode well for Rwanda. As two of the panelists repeatedly pointed out, authoritarianism has never created lasting economic success for any country in Africa. In the end, the peace of the iron grid imposed by Kagame in Rwanda will break down and give way to a conflict situation that will destroy all or most of the gains made under his authoritarian regime. 

The Rwandan apologist for Kagame’s authoritarianism alleged that those advocating liberal democracy in Africa are trying to “copy and paste” western democracy and institutions on African realities, as if African realities are some strange and alien phenomena beyond the pale of human understanding and resolution. In fact, liberal democracy is failing in Africa not because of a policy of copy and paste, or an attempt to emulate western democratic practices, but because western democratic practices are considered inimical to the selfish interests of African dictators. Democracy in Africa is subjected to selective rejectionism where those aspects of democratic practice that favor African dictators are adopted and those that do not favor dictators are rejected out of hand, regardless of their overall utility to the national interest. The west does not own democracy, but democracy is successful in the west because the rules of democratic political behavior are better followed in the west than in Africa. The reasons for this are legion, but prominent among them is the fact that significant sections of western electorates hold shared understandings of their political institutions and the rules that govern proper political behavior and are therefore capable of democratic behavior and of holding their political leaders accountable under the rule of law.

The three panelists in support of more and better democracy in Africa suggested that strong and effective institutions are indispensable to functional democracies in Africa. They argued that in order for democracy to work in Africa, we need effective separation of powers with judiciaries and legislatures free of executive control, free electoral commissions, and free media. These are certainly required for democracy to work effectively. But here again, the question arises as to what makes these institutions effectively independent and how do we sustain the independence of these institutions? Certainly the independent media, but more importantly, the general public, the electorate. But the electorate can only be guardians of their democratic institutions if they are suitably educated on the nature of these institutions and the rules of the democratic political game. Democracy can only work in Africa if the people, all of the people or as many of the people as possible are politically enlightened and empowered to the extent that they can hold both themselves and their governments accountable for their political behavior and actions.

As political culture, democracy is a state of mind: a widely shared understanding of the proper rules of political behavior that all citizens of a country can aspire to attaining; a state of mind that projects knowledge and awareness of our rights and responsibilities as citizens of a democratic nation state; a state of mind that accommodates, tolerates, and welcomes political diversity in the nation state; a state of mind characterized by civility and unconditional tolerance for contrary opinion; a state of mind that endorses civil non-compliance with the abuse of political office or public service and resources. This state of mind can be nurtured and universalized within the nation state through a conscious process of civic engagement and enlightenment. This state of mind is not western. It existed in ancient Greece and Rome, where citizens assembled and debated and elected or selected their public officials or expelled them from power. It existed in ancient Africa where people also discussed, debated and elected, selected or deposed their political leaders. It existed in all known civilizations of human history to varying degrees. It is a universal human culture that can be nurtured and perfected in Gambia as much as it can be nurtured and perfected in any western country.

But because democracy as a state of mind existed in precolonial Africa does not mean that we can go back to the democracy of our precolonial African ancestors as advocated by one of the contributors to BBC panel. For one thing, the temporal, spatial and institutional contexts of precolonial Africa are different from the temporal, spatial and institutional contexts of present day Africa. Today, unlike precolonial Africa, our politics are conducted within the geographical and institutional framework of the nation state in which people from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds support political parties and candidates from equally diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. What all citizens have in common is a sense of belonging to the nation state that was forged out of the colonial experience and that is governed through western forms of political administration that work best for everyone only within the context of democratic practice. And since there is no changing this nation state system to a precolonial form of political formation such as a chiefdom or kingdom, our challenge is to cultivate and nurture a democratic state of mind that will allow us all to live peacefully together within this nation state system while maintaining our political orientations without fear or favor, affection or ill will. For as a prominent statesman once suggested, while democracy is by no means perfect, it is the best form of government that human beings have ever tried. And, we may repeat, democracy is a state of mind, not a western possession that Africa can emulate or not.
Author: Baba Galleh Jallow