By Okot Nyormoi, Editor

Okot NyormoiDemocracy is one of the most important ideas in human history. Different people in various places, and at various times often hotly debate it, fight for, and even die for it. In Western cultures, it is believed that democracy was invented in Athens, Greece a long time ago (7th century BCE), though the idea and practice also existed in various cultures in Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, and America in one form or another without necessarily calling it democracy or having it written down.

Africans and non-Africans have discussed democracy with respect to Africa in many forums. However, the discussions often present democracy as something alien in Africa. Colonial narratives are quick to claim credit for introducing democracy in Africa despite finding various forms of democracy present when they arrived. In contrast, Africans are quick to blame colonialism for introducing something foreign to their cultures, whenever democracy fails, even though some of the failed systems preceded colonialism.

Recently, Mr. Krispin Kaheru published two articles in a Ugandan daily, the Daily Monitor. The first one was, “Africa should breed its own type of democracy”, a version of which was republished in the Nile Journal and the second one was, “Yes, Africa can breed its own type of democracy” which was published by the Daily Monitor. In both articles, Mr. Kaheru argued that the effort to practice democracy in Africa after independence failed because Africans ill-advisedly adopted foreign models. He specifically blamed failures of democracy in Africa because of adopting Western democracy. To succeed, he proposed that Africa should and can breed its own type of democracy, based on its own history, culture, and specific environments.

Unfortunately, blaming foreignness for the failure of democracy in Africa is an oversimplification of the problem. First, Africa is complex in terms of geography, history, and culture. Thus, the question arises as to what constitutes African democracy since some pre-colonial forms of governance were more like those of Europeans than those of other Africans. For example, some African societies had communal, feudal, and monarchial modes of governance like those in Europe and elsewhere. Some of these modes of governance still exist today in Africa as well as Europe. Such systems of governance are neither uniquely African nor can they serve as models for developing democracy in Africa. While colonialism rightfully bears the blame for the failure of democracy in some African countries, it is also true that some African countries adopted non-Western models of democracy, namely Russian and Chinese. Unfortunately, they, too, failed.

Another problem Mr. Kaheru focused on is the Western electoral practice of “winner-take-all”, which he argued, contributes to failure of democracy in Africa. As a solution, he proposed an African model based on consensus and the sharing of power between election winners and losers. However, such ideas are not uniquely African because they are also found in America and Europe. For example, in the USA, both the majority and minority members of the winning and losing parties serve on congressional committees. Issues are often discussed in search of a consensus within or between the opposing parties. Similarly, many African parliamentarians share committee work and consensus is always sought. African countries like other countries have constitutions for guiding national governance as well as international relationship.

To this extent, there is no fundamental distinction between foreign and African systems. The problem lies in individual autocratic African leader or political parties who regularly violate the rules with impunity. There have been leaders in Western countries who had also violated or created anti-democratic rules to serve their interests. Yet, people in other countries and in a few African countries abide by the rules which give a chance for democracy to work.

The failure of democracy in Africa is not simply due to adaptation of foreign democratic models, the “winner-take-all” election model, lack of rules, or lack of consensus. Instead, at a minimum, it is due to failure to follow the rules of democracy. Ironically, the rules are sometimes set up by the same people who later come to violate them.

It is misleading to think that Africans can simply resort to traditional systems to develop modern day democracy. The form of democracy that existed in communal, semi-feudal, and feudal societies worked because they existed in small communities which were mostly mono-ethnic. Besides, some of the kings and chiefs had to use force to coerce reluctant citizens to work for them. Many people were illiterate and were not politically conscious of their rights. Such systems simply cannot work nowadays in countries with multiple ethnic groups and where people are now aware of their human rights.

A more useful way to look at the way forward is not so much to focus on whether a model of democracy is foreign or indigenous. Rather, the focus should be on common values which are shared by different national groups (political parties, religions, ethnicity, and social class). As discussed in a previous article, Binary application of social values”, every human family, groups, organizations, and countries, embrace most, if not all, of the following social values: fairness, authenticity, justice, honesty, freedom, compassion, and kindness. It is upon these values that democracy should and can be built to include popular participation, transparency, accountability, freedom, security, justice, fairness, empathy, respect, and equality. Unless a system of governance can deliver on these values, it cannot be democratic. If it can deliver them, then it does not matter whether the model used is foreign or indigenous.

Obviously, creating a functioning democracy is easier said than done because of multiple factors which are a hindrance. They include differences in social class, ethnic, regional, gender and religious interests. Equally important is the existing mindset among most Africans, more than 70% of whom are peasants, who think that government is not for the people and that they are powerless to effect political change in their countries.

Democracy is not deliverable as a finished product. It is always a work in progress. Indigenous African modes of governance cannot be adopted willy-nilly, nor can all democratic practices be mindlessly rejected just because they are foreign. Retreating to African systems of governance of the olden days when most of the anti-democratic practices operated overtly will not advance the cause of democracy. Since many of these factors still exist, it will take years to overcome them. Past failures should not discourage the struggle for democracy nor is it realistic to expect any proposed novel approaches for building democracy to succeed immediately. So long as humans continue to harbor the mindset of "us against them", true democracy will never materialize locally or internationally. Though it may seem impossible that a world of "us together" instead of "us against them" can ever exist, it will definitely not exist unless we can dream of its possibility and work toward achieving it.