Page last updated at 10:08 GMT, Thursday, 16 October 2008 11:08 UK
Head to head: African democracy

Almost two decades on from the difficult birth of multi-party democracy in much of Africa, the BBC's Focus on Africa magazine asks whether the continent should be held to western standards of democracy?


Keith Richburg
Keith Richburg is a former Africa correspondent for The Washington Post and author of Out Of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa

The late conservative thinker, William F Buckley, writing in defence of segregationist Jim Crow laws in the United States, opined back in 1957 that democracy and universal suffrage should not be extended to American blacks because they were not ready for it.

Blacks, he said, were in essence too backward to be trusted with the right to vote.

"The question, as far as the white community is concerned, is whether the claims of civilisation supersede those of universal suffrage," Buckley wrote in his journal The National Review.

It is easy now to dismiss Buckley's 50-year-old musing as the outdated thinking of a right-wing racist and elitist.

But exactly how outdated is the view that certain people are not capable of responsibly exercising their right to vote?

'Big man rule'

It is a view I have heard more often than I care to recount, except these days it does not necessarily come from right-wing racists.

It's a view more often voiced in another form by despots usually as a justification for their own continued hold on power.

Western-style democratic theory simply isn't suited to African conditions, but rather carries with it the root of disaster
China's People's Daily editorial
I heard it repeatedly as a foreign correspondent for nearly 20 years while travelling around Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

I was lectured about "Asian values" and told how the tradition of Confucianism meant Asians favoured a paternalistic, authoritarian form of rule.

And in Africa I was told about the benefits of "African-style democracy," which sometimes meant "no-party democracy," as in Uganda.

I was warned about the dangers of unfettered democracy leading to tribalism, chaos, violence and worse.

Africans, I repeatedly heard, preferred "Big Man" rule, modern-day versions of old tribal leaders.

Consider the official Chinese view of the recent turmoil in Kenya, as evidenced by an editorial in the People's Daily, which normally touts the government line.

"Western-style democratic theory simply isn't suited to African conditions, but rather carries with it the root of disaster," the editorial said. This is just an excuse for a ruling elite to cling to power, and justification for repression of those who dare demand freedom, accountability and justice.

Yet serious academics, diplomats, journalists and others continue to perpetuate the nonsense that there should be different standards of democracy for different people and different countries.

Human values

As I travelled around Africa in the 1990s and watched Africans bravely struggling to overthrow entrenched dictatorships - usually without success - I often marvelled at their tenacity.

I talked to newspaper editors who had been in and out of prisons and who had had their offices ransacked by police and firebombed.

I met brave political activists who were beaten by government thugs and jailed.

And I went to college campuses in Nairobi, Kampala, Kinshasa and Lilongwe, and became even more aware that the things we all want - the right to vote, the right to choose leaders, the right to live free of government harassment and the freedom to read and to think - are not American values or European values or Judaeo-Christian values, but are human values.

For me, the greatest crime now being perpetuated by the West on Africa is the failure to hold Africa and African leaders to the same high standards of decency, morality, human rights and accountability that Western countries expect of themselves.

There are of course reasons for the double-standard.


First, there is guilt for centuries of colonialism and the sin of slavery.

And African despots - think Robert Mugabe here - have proven deft at playing on Western guilt, particularly since the West is easily cowed when accused of racism.

For these African strongmen, any question of accountability for aid money and how it is spent is immediately deemed a form of neo-colonialism and "interference" in an African country's internal affairs.

A Kenyan foreign minister once publicly derided a particularly outspoken American ambassador, Smith Hempstone, by calling him "a racist" with "the mentality of a slave-owner".

Second, with some countries that have experienced violence, there is a palpable sense of relief when the bloodshed ends and a measure of tolerance for the emergence of thugs and despots, as long as they bring "stability" to the country in question.

In Ethiopia, for example, Meles Zenawi has presided over an authoritarian regime that has jailed journalists and whose troops opened fire on unarmed demonstrators protesting against election irregularities in 2005.

But it is often said, among diplomats and aid workers, that he has kept the country stable after the atrocities of Mengistu Haile Miriam's dreaded Dergue regime.

Uganda's Yoweri Museveni too has ruled his country autocratically, but he is still lavished by aid from the West mainly because he is not Milton Obote or Idi Amin.


Finally, there is often the economic argument which holds that Africans are more concerned about development than democracy, and things like elections and a free press are luxuries that poor countries cannot now afford.

This argument might be more compelling if the dictators and authoritarians advancing it were actually presiding over improving economies.

But in too many countries, development has been paltry, while corruption has been rampant.

To say that Africans are somehow different, or not ready or enlightened enough to be held to the same standard smacks of racism.

It is a view that Buckley might have approved of 50 years ago. And one that too many African authoritarians, and their enablers, espouse today.


Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific