At the 26th Organization of African Unity’s summit in 1990, Mr. Salim Ahmed Salim, then Secretary General of the OAU said that “Africa could not ignore the global consensus on the value of democracy; but democracy must be home-grown”. He followed up the statement by emphasizing the need for endogenously generated democracy. These were timely statements considering that most African countries were about to join the third wave of democratization in the early 90s. Today, 26 years on, it is not uncommon to hear people stress the need for Africa to “define democracy in its own way”, despite the common discourse amongst some African leaders who question the “africanity” of democracy and its compatibility with “African culture”.
In addition to Salim’s declaration expressing the desire of a democratic ideal on the one hand and the necessary means to achieve it on the other, it has been well established for several decades now, as stated by the executive director of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa Abdul Tejan-Cole, that “factors such as culture, values and beliefs contribute to the design and functioning of democratic institutions” (http://bit.ly/2a3kPHx). Therefore, we as Africans have an obligation to deepen our understanding of the major specificities that make up our environments and design democratic institutions accordingly, particularly if we really want democracy to work for the people on the continent.
Today, 26 years on, it is not uncommon to hear people stress the need for Africa to “define democracy in its own way”, despite the common discourse amongst some African leaders who question the “africanity” of democracy and its compatibility with “African culture”.
There is growing consensus today that most of the existing democratic institutions that we look up to are no longer serving our democracies, therefore forcing us to rethink their fundamental structures. While saying that “any politician who fails to recognize that we are in post-party era … will not be around long” can come off as an overstatement, some scholars found it important to discuss the extent to which “parties have ceased to perform the functions traditionally assigned to them both in democratic theory and in traditional democratic practice”.
Tony Blair, the former Prime Minister of Great Britain, had long come to the conclusion that “the party system; though necessary; was at one level irrational and counterproductive”, while Professor Pierre Rosanvallon, a renowned researcher on democratic systems around the world, observes the “decline and redefinition of political parties” in contemporary democracies. In Africa, the general perception is that political parties are not delivering on “the kinds of contributions that it is expected or hoped they can make to democratic consolidation” ( . This is mostly because they are plagued by “weak organization, low levels of institutionalization and weak links to the society that they are supposed to represent”.
Therefore, we as Africans have an obligation to deepen our understanding of the major specificities that make up our environments and design democratic institutions accordingly, particularly if we really want democracy to work for the people on the continent.
In addition, only very few party systems in Africa “appear to be consolidating” (http://bit.ly/2ccaG8V), whilst the majority of them are not fully institutionalized and do not perform well. The main point here however is not so much that parties are weak and/or are not performing as they are expected to, but that we have to redirect our objectives from recreating and copying party systems and the common paradigm as they are used to exist in current consolidated democracies and instead search for new and innovative solutions. The same can be attributed to legislative powers (i.e. Parliaments).
There are limits to how much use we can make of existing tools for democracy. It is well stated by P.C Schmitter that “there seems to be an overwhelming consensus among scholars and politicians that democracy as a practice is in decline”. The Inter-Parliamentary Union’s 2012 Global Parliamentary Report (http://bit.ly/2cZF9gx ) clearly underscores how, for instance, the role that parliaments play in democracies are changing and the need for adaptation.
Much like political parties, parliaments in Africa, whether by design or through historical tradition, remain for the most part weak institutions that are unable to contribute to democratic consolidation. In the same vein as Professor Rosanvallon, Professor Gyimah Boadi stated clearly, “African parliaments tend to be weak institutions, ‘negative coalitions’ cobbled together to dislodge – or to entrench – incumbents and conditioned by ‘a persistent culture of authoritarianism”. Here too, as is mentioned above about political parties, it is important while thinking about reforms to make legislatures work for democracy, to keep in mind that the nature and functions of such representative bodies require adaptation.
Similar questions can be raised about other aspects of democracy that we are familiar with. For instance, are citizens able to perform the role that democracy requires of them?
While the democratic ideal remains attractive to many, we as Africans will be required to not only deepen our understanding of our societies but also of existing democratic tools so that we can adapt and/or invent mechanisms likely to make democracies work for the benefit of African peoples.
Despites the above, the situation at hand is not dire for two reasons. First because the democratic ideal still remains attractive to many African citizens in new democracies. For instance, according to Afrobarometer (http://bit.ly/2d1Wl1L) , at least 70% of citizens from West Africa prefer democracy to any other form of government.
Secondly, we are also seeing a lot of innovations in the area of democracy on the continent. Indeed, across Africa, citizens and organizations supporting democratic initiatives are designing tools to cope with the existing weaknesses of democracies. For instance by exploring more ways to increase participation, transparency and accountability.
While the democratic ideal remains attractive to many, we as Africans will be required to not only deepen our understanding of our societies but also of existing democratic tools so that we can adapt and/or invent mechanisms likely to make democracies work for the benefit of African peoples. The fact that the culture of democracy and democratic institutions themselves are relatively young, gives us an opportunity to reshape how we conceive and apply democracy in our own context on the continent.
A Benin citizen, Mathias Hounkpè is currently the political governance program manager for OSIWA (Open Society Initiative for West Africa)
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