Which prince charming will revive democracy in Africa?

By: Ali A. Mazrui

Who killed democracy in Africa? This is a question I ask myself often. A string of suspects have merged from history. Let me personify four forces at work.

The first is the magician who came in from the North. This suspect symbolises the first phase of democratisation brought to Africa from the northern hemisphere ‘magic’ models of governance.

In former British Africa, this meant the adoption in Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya and elsewhere the Westminster ‘magic’ model of parliamentary government.

The ‘magic’ that came from the North was the fascination, the spell cast by Western ways. We were mesmerised into uncritical importation of an alien paradigm. This was the phase of high political imitativeness as Africans copied Western democratic forms but not their substance. There was a crucial missing link between the imported institutions and the cultural realities of Africa.

While former British Africa tried to imitate the Westminster model, French Africa actually voted in 1958 for continuing colonisation. The referendum gave birth to the Fifth Republic of France, which attracted some imitation from the former colonies.

The imported paradigm did not work and the drift started towards either anarchy or tyranny. Anarchy was too little control. Tyranny was too much. Did the magician who came from the North turn out to be not an instructor of democracy for Africa, but perhaps a suspect in the murder of African democracy?

The second is the soldier who came in from the barracks. On the eve of independence, African soldiers had been grossly underestimated as a political force. Even after military mutinies in 1960 in former Belgian Congo, African elites were slow to recognise the short distance from a mutiny to a coup.

By 1963, Togo had not only a coup but also Africa’s first assassination of a president. Sylvanus Olympio died on January 13, 1963, in Lome, Togo.

It was the year of the birth of the Organisation of African Unity and its charter condemned "political assassination in all its forms." By January 1966 Nigeria, Africa’s giant, had its first coup. A month later, Kwame Nkrumah, the icon of Pan-Africanism, was overthrown in Ghana. Other coups followed.

The third is the spy who came in from the cold. This was the period when Western powers and business permitted their African favourites to be corrupt and repressive provided they were anti-communist. The litmus test of legitimacy was taking the right side in the Cold War between the Atlantic Alliance and the Warsaw Pact. Dictators like Mobutu Sese Seko lasted from the 1960s to the 1990s. He was defended by the West even against internal civil disobedience.

The Soviet side also played its part in the ideological spying and subversion that helped to kill democracy in countries that ranged from Ethiopia, Mozambique and Somalia to Angola. There were echoes from John le Carre’s novel, "The Spy Who Came From The Cold".

The fourth is the cultural half-caste who came in from Western Schools and did not adequately respect African ancestors.

Institutions were inaugurated without reference to cultural compatibilities, and new processes were introduced without respect for continuities. Ancestral standards of property, propriety and legitimacy were ignored.

When writing up a new constitution for African countries, the elites would ask themselves: "How does the US House of Representatives structure its agenda?"; "How do the Swiss cantons handle their referendum?"; Or even wonder how the Canadian federation would handle such an issue.

On the other hand, these elites almost never asked, "How did the Banyoro, the Wolof, the Igbo or the Kikuyu govern themselves before colonisation?" In the words of Irish philosopher, Edmund Burke’s words: "People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors."

The third is perhaps the angry spirits of the ancestors themselves. Have the ancestors cursed the first two or three generations of post-colonial Africans because of our apparent contempt for their legacy?Many Africans are ashamed of indigenous religions. For example, they have no public space in school curricula and there is no celebration of special indigenous sacred days. Africa celebrates festivals like Christmas and Eid el Fitr every year, but almost no African country has set aside a special holiday to celebrate indigenous religions.

Have the ancestors responded with an all-powering curse upon our generations? "Your roads will decay, your railways will rust, your factories will grind to a standstill, your schools will stink with overcrowding and crumble with incompetence, your soil will fight so-called desertification and your economies suffocate under your new globalisation. Your democracy will smoulder like a dying bush fire, after a drizzle of hate."

In this murder story who is truly guilty of the assassination of African democracy? As in the case of Agatha Christie’s famous novel, "Murder on the Orient Express", there was not just one murderer. Every suspect on the Orient Express did have a hand in the murder after all.Similarly, all the suspects in Africa’s democracies — as in genocide or homicide — did indeed contribute to the death of democracy.

But democracy can have a kiss of life, a kind of Prince Charming who brings it back to life. Democracy needs miracle workers of resuscitation. There are signs of life already in evidence. Is African democracy capable of resuscitation? If so, who is the miracle worker who is to do it? Who is Prince Charming with the kiss of life? Is this South Africa’s bigger challenge?