Alarmingly a question being increasingly asked is whether democracy has failed in Africa, or similarly, whether democracy is unworkable or perhaps not suitable for Africa: this, given the fact that many African countries, which are supposedly democratic, are characterised by dreadful human rights abuses, ethnic conflicts, life presidents and economic chaos.

Many African leaders wrongly argue that democracy is “unAfrican,” “Western” or somehow anti-African “culture.” China’s economic rise without democracy appears to have emboldened those who argue that Africa should push for development first, and think about building democracy later.

I think, to the contrary: it is not that democracy has failed Africa; it is that Africa’s current version of democracy has failed the continent.

Since independence from colonial powers, Africa has developed its own peculiar brand of “democracy.” This is best defined as an adaptation of the worst kind of colonial methods and systems combined with the worst kind of African traditions, behaviours, laws, and practises. The result is often a “democratic” system of toothless democratic institutions staffed by docile incumbents and unending empty rhetoric about democracy.

African-style democracy is often the most minimalist, most limited and most elementary kind of “democracy.” It is often based on the premise that democracy is only about elections: if an election takes place, the country is supposedly democratic. This cannot be more wrong.

Sadly foreign donors, Western nations and electoral observer missions often endorse this view by declaring countries where elections take place “democratic”: When undemocratic African leaders “win” such so-called elections, their countries are then endorsed as being “democratic.”

What this creates is a cycle prior to the elections in which dictators intimidate and bribe voters to vote in their favour, and/or threaten to withhold basic public services and goods which citizens should be entitled to anyway, should they dare to vote for the opposition.

Ballot boxes in Kanyama, Chipata, Zambia, in 2011 © afromusing | Flickr
Ballot boxes in Kanyama, Chipata, Zambia, Sept. 19, 2011 © afromusing | Flickr

Democratic citizenship is often narrowly defined. Sadly, ordinary citizens in African-style democracies often have few rights beyond voting every five years, which in any case is often circumscribed through intimidation, violence and electoral rigging.

The content of democratic citizenship is often defined by ethnicity, region, class or ideology. The fullness of one’s citizenship often depends on one’s ethnic group, regional or religious community, or on one’s political or economic status.

In many African states, continental and regional institutions such as the African Union, the focus have been to safeguard state sovereignty and leaders, rather than individual citizens, as an apparently underlying principle of African-style democracy.

African governing parties often do not govern in the interests of all citizens. Many African political parties, whether ruling or opposition ones, are not diverse in their membership and leadership. They are often dominated by one ethnic group, are primarily from one region or from one religious community.

When these political parties come to power they tend to look after their “own,” rather than governing in the interests of all — which is what genuine democracy is all about. Opposition parties which come to power often behave the same in government. When, and if, an opposition party finally manages to unseat a ruling government, they then also govern in the interests of their “own,” purging the former incumbents and excluding them.

There is the phenomenon that winners take all in African elections: they often appoint only their “own” to government positions, and maximise tenders and services for “their” group. This means that electoral competitions are not competitions over policies, but competitions over control of a government system in order to secure control and dish patronage to one’s own.

Further, in African-style democracies, such leaders do not willingly step down. Presidents tend to be there for life and elections are manipulated to ensure they are re-elected, again and again and again. With the state and its resources as one’s personal property, the African style democratic leader becomes like a traditional chief. Winning means the state resources are the spoils, part of which you may use for yourself.

In African-style democracy the state is the major tool for accumulating wealth. That is also why there is a proliferation of political parties in African “democracies” — everyone wants to have access to the state so they can become wealthy. Rulers cannot be dislodged. As a result, we have seen a procession of coups on the continent: leaders can only be forced out of government by violent means.

Another marker of African style democracy is that the leader is all powerful and cannot be questioned or challenged. In an African democracy, if you win an election and become president, the government and its property become yours. These leaders have the right to appoint whom they wish to political institutions, the judiciary and public services. Of course, this undermines and contradicts the very fundamental principles of democracy.

Jacob Zuma campaigning in Ladismith, South Africa © André-Pierre du Plessis | Flickr
Jacob Zuma campaign poster in Ladismith, South Africa © André-Pierre du Plessis | Flickr

In African-style democracy the rule of law is only applicable to ordinary people — unconnected to the governing party leadership or leader. The leaders, their families and allies are exempt. There is one constitution and one set of laws and rules for ordinary people, and quite other for the ruling family and the politically connected elite.

In African-style democracies there is also little leadership accountability — at a personal level or to the nation. The only form of “accountability” is the level to which those who helped get the leader and his faction “re-elected” are able to benefit. This includes those in his “constituency,” region and ethnic group.

In African-style democracy leaders do not explain their actions or submit to questions, or take responsibility for their decisions or for the consequences thereof. In African-style democracy, those in power do not govern — which means they are accountable to citizens — rather, they rule.

In many African countries coalitions of civil society groups aligned with liberation movements, have through people power ended colonialism and apartheid. However, following independence and African-style democracy, ruling parties often perceived civil society groups as either appendages of the state or party, or expect them to “stay out of” politics, unless it is to support ruling parties and leaders. If independent, they are often accused of being fronts for “regime-change” of former colonial and big powers, and are harassed, proscribed or have their funding cut off.

But civil society groups have also dislodged former independence movements turned autocratic governments as well as military regimes and personal rule. Dispiritingly autocratic, African regimes ousted by civil society groups are often soon replaced by similarly autocratic movements and leaders — as can be seen most recently in the North African “peoples” revolutions such as Egypt.

Clearly, well-developed, indigenous African society organisations, combined with active citizens are crucial for building quality African democracies, but also for fostering new generations of democratic African leadership, which will pursue more substantive definitions of democracy, rather than the limited African-style ones.

African countries have often pursued nationalism and national identities based on a shared opposition to imperialism, colonialism and apartheid. Furthermore, many African countries often base their national identities on opposition to former colonisers, big powers and “imperialists”.

Many undemocratic African leaders cleverly regularly attack the hypocrisy of big powers towards African and developing countries. Because African anger against the legacy and continued impact of colonialism and apartheid is now deep, evoke so much emotion and resentment, such undemocratic leaders by rightly attacking big power hypocrisy; plaster their very own autocratic behaviour.

At the same such undemocratic African leaders often suppress domestic criticism and opposition to their rule, as being plotted by these big powers, and therefore it is legitimate to crush such alleged fifth columnist of the big powers.

African countries need nationalisms and identities of the future which are based on democratic values. A “civic nationalism,” whereby the glue that holds different communities together is equal rights and shared democratic cultures, values and institutions, should become our new principle of belonging and of being African.

Book cover of Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism by Mahmood Mamdani © Princeton University Press | Amazon
Book cover of Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism by Mahmood Mamdani © Princeton University Press | Amazon

African-style democracy often entrenches the power of traditional leaders over rural communities, especially women. In fact, rural democracy is often absent in African-style democracy. Colonial powers in Africa often through the policy of “indirect rule” in many African countries used traditional leaders and chiefs to indirectly rule indigenous communities on behalf of colonial powers. Colonial powers often entrenched the powers of traditional leaders and chiefs and introduce dual governance systems and entrenched the most undemocratic elements of traditional African institutions, laws and rules, under the rubric of “customary law,” which applied only to indigenous communities, especially in the rural areas.

Furthermore, colonial powers often specifically discarded some of the democratic traits of the indigenous traditional institutions and practices and subverted it forcefully by more autocratic ones. The autocratic elements of traditional system and rules were often incorporated into the colonial state, bureaucracy and political culture. After independence, new African governments continued with this system, now using it to entrench their power, some arguing cynically that “Western” laws and customs cannot be applied in Africa, but instead the oppressive customary laws should apply.

Because rulers in African-style cannot be easily dislodged, we have seen a procession of coups on the continent: leaders can almost only be forced out of government by violent means. African-style democracy has also been responsible for much of the ethnic conflict, poverty and misery that characterises this continent. African-style democracy has also, to a large extent, created the conditions in which extremist fundamentalist organisations like Boko Harem and al Shabaab are able, not only to gain a foothold, but to thrive and virtually overrun governments.