Democracy: A Compelling Necessity

As Africa is well into the second decade of the new millennium of what is euphorically called “Africa’s century”, there is still a profound sense of hope being frustrated, of stereotypes being reaffirmed — once again, of particular countries embarrassing the African continent. The most common perception about Africa remains that of democratic government under siege, of constitutional governance being undermined, and of the rule of law being flagrantly disregarded. This situation presents itself not because of biased media coverage, racial prejudice, the arrogance of Western powers, or an un-African response to a particular problem, but because there is no binding commitment by African leaders to democratic governance, and the consequences that flow from such a commitment. Clearly, in many African countries the fundamental principles of democratic governance are consistently, deliberately, and openly being violated.
Democracy in Africa should be focused on two critical elements: the political will to uphold the basic principles of democracy, and concerted efforts to create an economically enabling environment for democracy to thrive (Hutchful, 1991, p. 55). Efforts to build institutional, administrative and other capacities will be wasted if the political context is not favourable (Herbst, 1990, p. 957). Indeed, democracy has to be carefully nurtured, because democratic values (especially, political tolerance) cannot be inculcated in, and internalised by, African societies overnight. In addition, relatively sound economies (to provide basic human needs) are essential ingredients for the ultimate success of a democratic order. Economic growth and Fighting Corruption: The Imperatives of Democracy, Governance and Leadership 4 sustained development are of the essence in supporting Africa’s fledgling democracies and preventing further tragic relapse into despotism and authoritarianism (see Venter, 1995, pp. 184- 185). The dismal record of democracy on the continent raises the question of whether there is anything about Africa that makes it inherently difficult to sustain reasonably fair and enduring multiparty democracies. The popular argument against democracy suggests that, in what are essentially artificial African states, democracy must inevitably lead to the mobilisation of ethnic identities, which will then, in turn, split the state into its constituent ethnic communities and render impossible any form of government based on popular consent. Evidence, however, strongly indicates that multiparty democracy is much more likely to promote national unity than destroy it. By contrast, those regimes that have nearly destroyed the unity, or even the very existence, of their states have all been autocratic (see Clapham, 1995, pp. 1 & 2).

How democracy is visualised and defined varies from situation to situation, and nowhere is this more of a truism than in Africa. However, in almost all circumstances, democracy involves social justice, governmental accountability, and human freedoms. Certainly, democracy involves the procedural minimum of contestation for political office and policy choices, of popular participation in elections and other elements of political decision-making, and of the accountability of elected public officials under the rule of law. All this must take place within a culture in which fundamental human rights and political freedoms are guaranteed (Keller, 1995, p. 225). However, democracy should be made, and should be seen to work — particularly where there is, as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Parliamentary Forum acknowledged in 2000, “inadequate commitment to multiparty democracy and politics among … Fighting Corruption: The Imperatives of Democracy, Governance and Leadership 5 leaders and politicians … [who] talk democracy, but use undemocratic means to remain in power” (see Summary of World Broadcasts, 2000, p. AL/3973 A/4). The contention by some African leaders that there is an “African variant of democracy” is quite disconcerting, especially in a context where, throughout the 1990s and into the twenty-first century, there has been a disturbing phenomenon in international life: the rise of illiberal democracy. As Fareed Zakaria contends in his seminal article in Foreign Affairs, beyond any doubt the values inherent in democracy are universal. Democracy is liberal because it emphasises individual liberty; it is constitutional because it rests on the rule of law (see Zakaria, 1997, pp. 22 & 26). Clearly, the time has come to acknowledge that the values of liberal democracy have spread universally, especially among the growing ranks of the educated middle classes. Prominent African intellectuals such as Claude Ake (1990) and Peter Anyang’Nyong’o (1987) vigorously espouse the advantages of core democratic principles over the indeterminate, and possibly second-best, forms of governance based on so-called “authentic culture” (Bratton & Rothchild, 1992, p. 269; Hyden, 1997, p. 238). As a political system, democracy is marked not only by “free and fair”, multiparty elections (which is a rather mechanistic conception, so prevalent in the pseudo-democracies in Africa, and fuelled by the fad of event-focused election monitoring and observation) but, extremely important, also by what might be called constitutional liberalism: by the rule of law, by a separation of powers (between the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary), and by protection of the basic civil liberties of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion, as well as the right to property (see Zakaria, 1997, pp. 22 & 26). Indeed, there is far more to a free society than multiparty elections (Hawkins, 1990, p. 207). But, more often than not, the arduous task of inculcating and internalising democratic values in society is widely being Fighting Corruption: The Imperatives of Democracy, Governance and Leadership 6 neglected. And today, the two strands of liberal democracy are coming apart: democracy, seen in the context of multiparty elections and rule by the majority (what might be called “brute majoritarianism”), is flourishing, while constitutional liberalism is not. It is, perhaps, salutary to note that constitutional liberalism is about the limitation of power — democracy, in its oversimplified form, about the accumulation and use, or misuse (even abuse) of power. One should be mindful of the Actonian dictum that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.


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