Page last updated at 10:15 GMT, Thursday, 16 October 2008 11:15 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?


Reason Wafawarova
Reason Wafawarova is a Zimbabwean political analyst currently based in Sydney, Australia. He frequently contributes to the state-run Herald newspaper in Zimbabwe, where he was the director of youth services.

In modern society it is generally agreed that democracy is the best system of governance but, as even Aristotle admitted, democracy has its own shortcomings.

Many countries that have thrown off the yoke of colonialism are, by virtue of historical links, either trying their best or being coerced to adopt Western-style democracy.

For Africa, the fact is that this is not only unsuitable but also unworkable.

Since the fall of Western colonial empires began in the late 1950s, Africa has had a bumpy ride.

There was the rise and fall of Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana and the serial military dictatorships of Nigeria.

There were the spirited but ultimately unsuccessful socialist campaigns led by the likes of Mozambique's Samora Machel and Burkina Faso's Thomas Sankara.

Then came the era of Western-propped dictatorships like that of Uganda's Idi Amin and Zaire's Joseph Mobutu and the dissident times of maverick radicals like Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and Libya's Muammar Gaddaffi.

But what stands out for me is the incompatibility of Western-style democracy with the internal dynamics of former colonies, which has led to many civil wars and secessions.


There are a few factors that make Western-style parliamentary democracy a facade at best in Africa.

Many African states are still struggling to become nations after the damaging imposition of colonial boundaries.

Without national unity it is futile to preach Western-style democracy in these countries.

It is best to first establish clearly what the various tribal groupings want collectively.

Some in the West argue that the idea of relative democracy - rather than a one-size-fits-all model based on the unique needs of various cultures - is damaging for international relations.

This is not the case.

Rather, it is dangerous for the spread of Western influence - and the Western concept of what exactly democracy is.

Secondly, accelerated economic growth has been proven to increase the role of governments in economic life.

This means African countries that seriously want to catch up with the West will inevitably have to run planned economies.

Significant government influence will be evident in the running of their economies.

Yet this is what Western-style democracies call a violation of property rights and governance by unsound policies.

But is it not a fact that if strong leadership does not take control of the means of production then imperial capital will?

Social values

Imperial capital, just like colonial capital before it, is for the benefit of the owners of the capital and not for indigenous populations.

Thirdly, democracy is not divinely inspired. Rather it is founded on human values, be they social, economic, religious or political.

Evidently the Western social order is not necessarily the same as that found elsewhere in the world.

As such, many people are simply not prepared to pretend to be Europeans in the name of so-called democracy.

The West cannot democratise the world on matters such as morality, culture and freedom.

These are value-based aspects of social life that vary from country to country if not village to village.

While there should be some form of uniformity in this, there is no evidence that a Western lead is what Africa needs.

On the contrary there is evidence that Western political influence in Africa has been more detrimental than useful.

Fourthly, democracy is supposed to be dependent on public opinion. Since the West wants to shape public opinion across the world, this naturally creates conflict and resentment.


Africa has an opinion of its own and Africans have their own homogeneous aspirations towards happiness and prosperity.

They do not need Western aid in defining what happiness is.

It is the sometimes subversive interference in the internal affairs of African countries that undermines the democratic process on the continent.

The argument that the West cannot leave Africans killing each other is puerile.

One only has to look at how often Europeans have killed each other in the past, but also how they continue to kill people of various nationalities across the world today.

If Africa is allowed to shape its own public opinion free of interference there is no doubt that the African democratic process will develop faster.

The role of South Africa in potentially settling the Zimbabwean conflict is one good example.

Lastly, democracy is now viewed in line with human rights and the West seems to preach the primacy of individual rights over collective rights. African culture is a collective system that views the well-being of society as being fundamental to the well-being of the individual.

This is why there is a tendency to check individual freedom in the interest of peace and stability.

This is often interpreted as repression, yet in Africa it is about the maintenance of order.

Subsistence rights such as the right to land, food, life and shelter cannot be inferior to procedural rights such as expression, association and conscience.

Despite this, there are countless Western non-governmental organisations tirelessly fighting for the cause of procedural rights in African countries where poverty is threatening to wipe out entire populations.

Considering all these factors it is difficult to believe that Western standards of democracy - to which the world is subjected today - will ever in essence facilitate any form of meaningful democracy in Africa.


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