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Embracing Homegrown Democracy: Why Western Democracy Might Not Work in Africa

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Introduction:

In the last few years, the perennial argument as to whether democratic regimes are fit for purpose in terms of growth and development in African states has become a dominant discourse in Africa. A combination of two objective conditions is responsible for this development. First is the recent spate of constitutional coups and the resurgence of military coup d’états in Africa; a phenomenon which many observers of African politics had believed was no longer possible in Africa. The second is the dismal failures of African governments on human security and development, which have resulted in extreme fragility of African states.

There are numerous schools of thought on this issue, but two of them seem to be dominant in this discourse. One school believes that democratic regimes are “antithetical” to Africa’s development and should be jettisoned. They cite the example of China as a country that has made tremendous strides in poverty reduction and development in the last few decades without Western liberal democratic dispensation. The alternative or preferred dispensations are less clearly articulated. The second school argues that democratic regimes are sine qua non for development, in recognition of their overarching importance as the principal enabler of good governance and development.

In line with the second school of thought, two very seminal reports (studies): the “United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Human Development Report: 2002” and the “United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) Africa Governance Report (AGR) 2005”, essentially argued that the debate should no longer be centered on whether to democratize or not, but on how to deepen and institutionalize democratic governance in Africa.

The UNDP report, in particular, addressed what the African Center for Governance and Economic Management (ACGEM) considers the point of convergence between the two schools, even when they appear to be divergent positions. It stated, inter alia, that the core tenets of democratic governance have universal validity but notes further that “The democracy a nation chooses to develop depends on its history and circumstances- countries will necessarily be “differently democratic” …. Democracy that empowers people must be built- it cannot be imported”.

The concept of democracy, born in the ancient city-states of Greece and adopted, albeit domesticated, in various parts of the Western world over centuries, has been describe, by many, as the ultimate form of governance for much of the modern era. Even those regimes and dispensations that may not be necessarily or objectively described as democratic, usually claim democratic credentials and profess to be committed to democratic ideals in their constitutions. What has become obvious is that when transplanting Western-style democracy into African contexts, it has often faced significant challenges and hence not led to the desired development outcomes. The failure to see, in concrete terms, the nexus between Western liberal democracy or its other variants and socioeconomic development is at the core of the dissonance between acceptance of democratic ideals on the one hand and wishing to jettison it or search for an alternative model on the other hand. Even when some socioeconomic progress has been made, albeit modest, they have not been sustained.

This article explores why liberal democracy may not be a one-size-fits-all solution for Africa, and suggests that a homegrown democratic model could be a preferable alternative or model. We explore below, some of the main reasons why Western “transplanted “democracies are not working in Africa and why “home grown” democratic dispensations may lead to better and sustainable development outcomes:

Cultural and Historical Differences

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One of the primary reasons Western democracy may not work seamlessly in Africa lies in the profound cultural and historical differences between the two regions. Africa boasts an astonishing diversity of languages, religions, and traditions, which can lead to challenges in the understanding and implementation of a standardized Western democratic models. Western liberal democracy assumes a certain level of Western political and civic culture that may not align with the context, values, customs and beliefs in African societies.

Colonial Legacy and Fragmentation: Centrifugal Complexity

Africa is characterized by a mosaic of ethnicities and nations, often with distinct languages, customs, and identities. These cleavages were further exacerbated by the irrational fragmentation of African countries and societies at the Berlin Conference of 1884/5. The arbitrary borders imposed by colonial powers, which were unfortunately legitimized by African leaders at Independence often cut across linguistic and ethnic lines which have led to long-standing conflicts and state fragility in many cases.

Africa’s experience with colonization has left a lasting impact on its indigenous political and social structures. The multifarious nature of these indigenous structures and diversities have posed challenges for Western-style democracy, as they have advertently or inadvertently exacerbated ethnic tensions and conflicts. In most cases the quest for nation statehood remains elusive. Multi-ethnic societies with mutually reinforcing divides may require more decentralized and culturally sensitive governance structures to maintain stability and inclusiveness. Western-style democracy may inadvertently perpetuate these divisions and fail to account for historical injustices. A homegrown democracy may be better placed to manage and address these historical legacies more effectively through deliberate and targeted policies may be at variance with Western democracy.

Economic and Social Realities

Many African nations face daunting economic and social challenges, including high levels of poverty, illiteracy, inequality, and unemployment. The focus on individual rights and liberties inherent in Western democracy may not be as relevant to citizens grappling with basic survival needs. Homegrown democratic models may be better placed to address these pressing socio-economic issues by striking the right balance between communal and individual rights, between transplanted (and in many cases imposed) and endogenous values/ precepts, while at the same time recognizing universal shared values.

Corruption and Weak Institutions

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Corruption and weak institutions are major challenges faced by most African states in their quest for growth and socioeconomic development. Addressing these requires strong emphasis on checks and balances, the rule of law, transparency and accountability. They may not be addressed effectively without taking cognizance of the underlying cultural and historical context in African States. The Achilles heel of Western democracy in Africa is its disconnect with African values/context!

Homegrown models can incorporate indigenous cultural values and mechanisms to combat corruption and strengthen institutions. It makes it easier for the citizenry to imbibe tenets when the raison d’etre of rules, laws and policies are not alien to their own values and world views. We recognize that we live in a dynamic global world where certain values have become universally acceptable, but we also understand the imperative of contextualizing policies for effective ownership and buy-in. The African Charter on Preventing and Combating Corruption recognizes this cultural imperative and traditional mechanisms.  But it must also be stated that there are numerous critics who see the African Charter as too culturally relative and hence too permissive to be an effective instrument for dealing with bad governance in a globalized world in which African states are signatories to global instruments and conventions. Perhaps a hybrid model may be the desired option. What could that be?

Women and Youth Engagement and Technology

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Two important and demographic groups in Africa- Women and the Youth have been substantially marginalized in Africa’s development, either as key players or beneficiaries of development. This is indeed a situation that must be redressed. Participation of women and the youth in politics must transcend the focus on numbers as well as on substantive participation in decision making. Many students of socioeconomic and political development in Africa agree that regardless of which governance model Africa chooses, inclusiveness of women must be a central tenet.

With regards to the youth, Africa has one of the world’s youngest populations, with a significant portion of its citizens being tech-savvy and globally connected. This presents an opportunity to harness technology and youth engagement to create innovative and adaptive homegrown democratic systems that reflect the aspirations of the younger generation and hence better positioned to create African homegrown democracies. They are already imbued, through technology, with global values while at the same time aware of some of the shortcomings of those Western values that do not resonate well in Africa.

Conclusion

While Western democracy has been, substantially, successful in the West and some other parts of the world, it may not always be fit for purpose for African nations for the reasons and challenges already stated above. Acknowledging the continent’s rich cultural diversity, historical context, and unique challenges is crucial in devising democratic systems that genuinely serve African societies.

Rather than simply transplanting Western models, African nations should explore homegrown democratic dispensations and solutions that align with their cultural values, accommodate ethnic diversity, address socio-economic realities, and tackle historical legacies. By incorporating indigenous wisdom and utilizing the youthful energy of its population, Africa can craft democratic systems that are both authentic and effective, paving the way for a brighter and more inclusive future.

The question now is, what will an African “Homegrown Democracy” look like?

By
Professor Okey Onyejekwe
Executive Secretary
ACGEM

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