The argument that democracy is not working for Africa due to our historical and cultural factors is not new. Critics after critics have posited that Africans must evolve indigenous methods of democracy suitable for their temperament. The latest advocate to recuperate this old debate is ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo. At a forum last Monday, he shared his thoughts on evolving what he termed an “Afro-democracy.” Given that Obasanjo was also the one who once suggested that Africans should use juju to fight apartheid, we see where he is coming from.
One of Obasanjo’s arguments was that Western liberal democracy fails us because it was “forced” on the continent and did not involve the people’s contributions. Well, there is virtually no country’s democracy that was not imposed by a conqueror. What makes Africa unique? People who have also argued made similar arguments regarding Asia. They say that due to cultural exceptionalism, democracy does not suit them. However, the argument flies in the face of reality because some of the most successful democracies are in that region. So, what is it about the nature of democracy—a system of government practised by more countries worldwide—that is above the heads and minds of Africans to operate?
Like many others who believe in an “African democracy for Africans, Obasanjo did not detail the legal, bureaucratic, and moral framework of ‘Afro-democracy.’ Well, whatever has stopped Africans from long developing it certainly does not owe to any fidelity to the universal principles of democracy as originated in Ancient Greece or even in the contemporary United States, the putative bastion of democratic governance.
There have been several responses to Obasanjo already, so thankfully, I would not need to repeat them. Some writers pointed out the hypocrisy of a civilian dictator like Obasanjo schooling the rest of us on what is wrong with democracy. For a man who glorified “do-or-die” politics, he needs not look farther than a mirror to understand everything wrong with our democracies. As another respondent pointed out, the idiosyncrasy of our democratic practice already makes it “Afro-” in nature. While we run a structure that upholds the universal idea of democracy, the internal content of the practice is unique to our nature and history.
While it is generally true that Africa has a grave democracy problem, tinkering with the structure without a matching economic plan will yield the same bad results. Politics and economics are coordinates, inextricable and mutually complementing. Bad politics result in a bad economy, and a bad economy cannot but produce bad politics. Africans are not struggling with “Western liberal democracy” because something in their DNA resists its tenets. Some of those arguments are founded on the nostalgia that our pre-democratic societies were better run than the unwieldy contraption we are presently stuck in, and that those who lived in that perfect African past had no exposure to governing practices outside their enclaves that they copied and adapted as necessary.
Our democracy problem is a failure to institutionalise power in institutions, instead reposing it in the hands of a few who manage to finagle it. It is a problem intertwined with the nature of our economies: undiversified, not regenerative, and mostly extractive. For a long time, we have survived mainly by exchanging natural resources (or enslaving humans) for goods and services. We do not manufacture or even refine natural resources; we only maintain the primal level of consuming nature’s free gifts. Nigeria has subsisted on oil for more than six decades, but we have not as much as possible developed the capacity to refine the oil or even properly account for its sales.
Even now that we are looking away from the economy of crude oil extraction to solid minerals, there is no guarantee we are not about to repeat our misadventure. Government agents excitedly inform us that Nigeria’s solid minerals are worth $700bn but say nothing about their refined value. Without solid plans to extend the value chain, they will merely ship those minerals directly from the mines to those who will add value to them. Failure to demonstrate sophistication in managing the affairs necessary to ensure our survival manifests in other areas.
Our “Afro-democracy” is the way it is because it is built around a mono-resource, and it has unsurprisingly evolved into a prebendal state where all the power, privilege, and prestige are reposed in a potentate who holds the key to access. When a state is that unduly strong, all the possibilities of being and existing within its structure are held by the few who can allocate its limited resources. In Nigeria where the almighty figure is the president, all our political activities serve just two purposes: either to get one step closer to presidential power (and commute the proximity to resource access) or to usurp the president (and access the resources directly). There is nothing else to our democracy than that, which is why elections are a war.
All the issues that emanate from our lack of institutionalised democracy: from a castrated legislature to corrupt judiciary, ineffective civil service and ethically compromised public institutions, and the mafiasation of politics—fulanisation, Islamisation, Lagosnisation agenda etc., are symptoms of our constricted means. Without a broad enough economic field where people can explore other options of social relevance, everyone turns towards the state. For the agent who holds the instrument of governance, power must be personalised to be retained indefinitely. Achieving that would necessitate creating vassals, nepotistic networks, and actively compromising institutions to get them to comply with the autocratic agenda. The more constricted the economy, the tighter the reins of control that must be imposed on the power structures. Leaders of mono-resource economies are so constrained in their thinking that they would hold back from even productive economic ventures for fear of inadvertently empowering opponents.
In societies where their economy is diversified, politics is comparatively vibrant because other sources of privilege and power exist outside the state. People can play opposition politics without waking up one day to learn that a crazy minister gave orders for your house to be demolished or your business bankrupted because he needs to diminish opponents before the next election. The worse the Nigerian economic downturn gets, the more our politics has shrunk into a one-party state. By conquest or lack of choices, people get persuaded to fall in line with the dictates of the governing power. The semblance of opposition politics Nigeria had since 1999 is disappearing.
The AD/AC/APC opposition once flourished, but that was also because they had unrestrained access to Lagos purse. In Nigeria where even the opposition is funded from public resources that will never be accounted for, people steal to get into power so they can steal even more to sustain themselves perpetually. The means to political power is to have economic power, and economic power has no other source than politics.
With all the faults of the Western “liberal” democracy that Obasanjo thinks is not good enough for Africa, people at least compete for power by competing for the people’s votes. African democracies, on the other hand, treat votes as secondary; the people who supposedly vote are treated as impediments that must be run over on the way to power. If there is anything exceptional about Africans that results in our democracy problem, it is the extent to which we remain unfortunate in our choice of leadership.
We can tweak politics to be more authentically “African” all we like, but as long as our economies remain in the doldrums our politics will always be volatile. Where survival is at stake, the worst of human instincts can be counted on to emerge. While it is, of course, possible to have a successful economy without democracy, history does not offer us examples of a nation with a stagnant economy running a successful democracy.