Former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s recent advocacy for an African variety of democracy as a replacement for liberal democracy should be viewed within the wider ideological currents on the globe.
This is because of the undeniable topicality of the proposition made by the former president.
The liberal democratic order is actually in retreat; it is prone to ideological and political assaults from virtually every continent. This finds expression in Trumpism in the United States as well as the upsurge of right-wing populism in parts of Europe, Asia and Latin America. Obasanjo’s important voice should be counted as another missile on liberal democracy from Africa. Besides, there is indeed an ideological movement canvassing Afro-democracy as the antidote to Africa’s political underdevelopment
In a keynote address to a forum in Abeokuta last Monday, the former President argued that the western-style liberal democracy “is not working” and suggested the alternative of African democracy. Characteristically, Obasanjo puts the matter bluntly like this: “We are here to stop being foolish and stupid. Can we look inward and outward to see what in our country, culture, tradition, practice and living over the years that we can learn from, adopt and adapt with practices everywhere for a changed system of government that will service our purpose better and deliver.”
In short, Obasanjo is saying that “we must interrogate the performance of democracy in the West where it originated from and with us the inheritors of what we are left with by our colonial powers.”
The proposition of African democracy by Obasanjo and others should also be rigorously examined for its inherent conceptual problems.
First, it is important to give Obasanjo his due so as to have proper background to his present posture as a reluctant democrat now seeking intellectual refuge in Afrodemocracy. Although an authoritarian streak runs through his politics, Obasanjo has always been quite at home with ideas. That is when he is not encumbered by the pettiness of his politics, some of his critics would probably say.
As military head of state in the late 1970s, Obasanjo earned the reputation of being receptive to ideas from some the nation’s best scholars, public intellectuals and technocrats who were close to the seat of power. On leaving power, he became a fellow in the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ibadan. He also established the African Leadership Forum to which statemen and leaders of thought from different parts of the world were invited as guests to his base in Otta, Ogun State. The Forum published the synopses of its proceedings, which were well-received in many respectable quarters. Obasanjo is the author of a number of books, some of which have provoked enormous controversies. In particular, the controversy generated by one of Obasanjo’s books, “Constitution for National Integration and Development,” is worth recalling for the purpose of this discussion of Afrodemocracy. The book is essentially a manifesto for building a one-party state. Obasanjo’s intervention came amidst the political transition programme of President Ibrahim Babangida’s military regime. Babangida was working towards the creation of two parties by the state; one “a little to Right” and the other “a little to the Left.” Progressive politician and publisher, Arthur Nwankwo, responded to the publication of Obasanjo’s book arguing vigorously against the idea of a one-party system with all its jack-boot implications. The late Chancellor of the Eastern Mandate Union, Nwankwo, saw through Obasanjo’s formulation and concluded that it was a recipe for dictatorship in the Nigerian bourgeois setting. The exchanges between Obasanjo and Nwankwo were later published by the latter in a 219-page book entitled “Before I die.” The combative book is a compilation of some intellectual fireworks. In one of the replies to Nwankwo, Obasanjo wrote intriguingly: “Utilizing a Marxist methodology to proffer a critique of work informed and instructed by a non-Marxist paradigm is a form of mental laziness and the avoidance of a rigorous and balanced mental exercise.” Obasanjo is, of course, decidedly right-wing in his views. Apart from writing books, he has engaged in spirited intellectual engagement with other personalities with the instrument of letter writing in the course of his illustrious career. A recent book by the editor-in-chief of the online newspaper “Premium Times”, Musikilu Mojeed, is entitled “The Letterman: Inside the ‘Secret’ Letters of former Nigerian President, Olusegun Obasanjo.” It is a story of Obasanjo’s letter writing spanning decades.
Now, the proponents of African democracy as a cure to whatever deficits detected in liberal democracy seem to miss one point. The point is the universality of the core values and traditions which provide the ideological fibre for the liberal democratic system in any part of the globe. This, of course, is not in contradiction with the fact that the practice of liberal democracy has its national and even racial flavours in different parts of the world. The fundament of liberal democratic culture is as universal as the wearing of Jeans and T- shirts or using mobile technology. Advocating African democracy in a country with a predominantly youth population is like persuading members of the Generation Z that the social media is an imposition by the West on Africans or that bankers being in smart suits at work was forced on Nigeria by the colonialists. That would be a Sisyphean exercise by anybody to undertake in the 21st Century.
Instead of such fantasies, however, the contemporary challenge is how to deepen the democratic content of the polity in such a way that it could enhance the overall development of the entire society.
To start with, liberal democracy is not the only form of democracy. Others forms include social democracy, popular democracy and people’s democracy. The taxonomy of the forms of democracy is, of course, ideologically determined. And the ideas propelling these forms are universal in terms of relevance.
Obasanjo and other proponents seem to be ignoring these distinguishing features. Take a sample. Liberal democracy focuses on the individual liberties; social democracy places a great premium on socio-economic justice in the system while popular democracy’s emphasis goes beyond the mere participation of the people in the democratic process to include the material power to hold those in power accountable.
By the way, liberal democracy based on the rule of law is not the only thing Africa “inherited” from the West. Unlike liberal democracy, however, the other things of great influence on Africa are taken as the way of life by Africans. These are science, capitalist competition, modern medicine, consumerism, and the protestant work ethic. Scottish-American historian Nial Ferguson calls these factors “ the killer applications” which non-western societies should “download and upgrade.” In his book, “Civilization: The West and the Rest,” Ferguson argues that these factors have enabled the West to take a lead over other parts of the world in the present civilization. The dominance of this western civilization is just about five centuries old. Before its emergence other civilizations existed which also dominated their areas of influence. For example, the Ottoman Empire and Ming Dynasty in China had existed before this western civilisation. From an undisguised neo-colonialist perspective, Ferguson targets the younger generation in telling this story of western greatness while celebrating the days of the empire. He is worried that the West is taking freedom for granted in the face of the ascending authoritarian tone of populist politicians in the West. Well, no empire lasts for ever, as they say.
The ideas of liberal democracy are as much universal in application as the ideas of science, modern medicine and the consumerist society. The domestic application may vary but the fundamental principles are the same everywhere.
Freedom of the individual, for instance, is basic to liberal democracy. In all liberal democratic systems this is held as sacrosanct. India is an Asian country that was also colonised by Britain just like Nigeria. India’s experiment with liberal democracy is not immune to problems. It is said jokingly in some sanguine quarters that an Indian election in which only a few dozens of people are killed is considered a relatively peaceful election in the largest democracy on earth. Yet Indians of various political parties are not seeking Asian democracy because colonialism forced liberal democracy on the Asian people.
Incidentally, this year marks the centenary of political party formation in this country, with the birth of Herbert Macaulay’s Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP) in 1923. The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) is just about a quarter of a century old. In other liberal democratic climes, there are politicians of the same age as Obasanjo who have been leaders of their parties as conservatives, liberals or radicals p for decades. They defend fiercely the ideologies of their political parties.
The reverse has been the case in the politics of Obasanjo, who has had the privilege of being elected as President twice on the platform of PDP. On Sunday, a fellow columnist, Simon Kolawole, did justice on this page to the emergent issues from the Obasanjo advocacy. Rather than repeat the valid points made by Kolawole, this column today is only an attempt to look at Afrodemocracy beyond Obasanjo’s advocacy.
One day Obasanjo elected to tear his party membership card because of intra-party disagreements and he made a public of show of it. This spectacle was staged years after he proclaimed as a sitting president that an election would be a “do or die” matter. Only a few weeks ago, Obasanjo’s deputy, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar claimed that he intervened to ask Obasanjo to spare Lagos state from being “taken” in the 2003 governorship election. The language of the election was that the PDP “captured” the states controlled by the Alliance for Democracy (AD). So, the question may be asked: was what happened in the southwest in 2003 an election or a conquest by Obasanjo’s PDP. Obasanjo was once the leader of the party; he determined who could be the party chairman at will.
The foregoing are just samples of Obasanjo’s practice of liberal democracy as an extremely lucky politician with a military background. These distortions of liberal democracy did not happen because the West forced liberal democracy on Nigeria or because liberal democratic principles are not intrinsically African. Obasanjo’s acts while in power were distortions in the same way that Donald Trump asking the electoral official in Georgia to “find” 11,780 votes for him to win the American presidential election were distortions. Trump is also alleged to have instigated the assault on the Capitol on January 6, 2020 by a mob when the electoral process was to be concluded. Trump has western blood in him and he is not by any stretch of imagination an African. So the problem is not the non-application of liberal democratic principles in Africa. The problem is that those who are supposed to practise democracy, especially as leaders, lack the liberal democratic culture. For as the radical social scientist, Claude Ake, famously said you could not practise “democracy without democrats” whether in Africa or in the West.
The idea of Afrodemocracy is reminiscent of a debate among socialists in the last quarter of the 20th Century. There were proponents of African socialism, in which class struggle might not be a primary a factor. The Tanzanian Marxist, Abdulrahman Mohammed Babu, embarked on a sharp critique of African socialism in his 1982 book, “African Socialism or Socialist Africa,” in which he argued for the intensification of class struggles on the continent for the socialist transformation of Africa.
The caption of this column today is actually a paraphrase of Comrade Babu’s book in a vastly different context. That is to say that instead of the quest for Afro-democracy, the struggle of democratic forces should be to deepen democracy as a universal political culture practised in the African context. Among other things socio-economic justice and popular control of political structures are some of the ingredients needed to improve the democratic content of African polities.
Rather than advocate for a nebulous African democracy, forces of genuine freedom should struggle for a democratic Africa.