Kigali, Rwanda: In an exclusive interview with Xinhua, on April 29, 2018, Abdalla Hamdok, the Deputy Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and Chair of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation Advisory Council said that, “The western style of democracy is not suitable for Africa…. Africa should build its own model and style of democracy because western and African countries differ in social behaviors, cultural norms and tradition.”
Why am I perturbed by this seemingly wise and benign statement? Shouldn’t I take it for granted? Or is there something pernicious about this?
I’m generally leery of people who use a lamp in daylight. Are they burning unnecessary fuel or trying to fool somebody? Do they have an ax to grind?
Let’s go to the basics.
Democracy is an idea; it is part of human knowledge. And like all knowledge, it has to be learned, adopted and internalized. Societies, like individuals, learn at their own pace and the depth of their understanding gets deeper over time. Africa is no different: It will adopt democracy in its own pace like other countries in Asia and Latin America. The United States is the oldest democracy in the world and arguably the most democratic, but it is yet not fully democratic. If it were, there wouldn’t be a Donald Trump in the White House. There is plenty of room for growth in a democracy.
Whether it is in Africa, Asia or Latin America, people praise democracy because it has proven to work better than the rest. Pope Gregory I once said, “For customs are not to be revered for their place of origin; rather those places are to be respected for the good customs they produce.”
Modern democracy is not to be respected because its place of origin is the West; rather the West is to be respected for the good democracy it has produced. Saying “The western style of democracy is not suitable for Africa,” shows either lack of understanding of the idea, or even worse commitment to it. It is what dictators have said all over the world, and the last thing Africans need is someone like the Deputy Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and Chair of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation Advisory Council regurgitating the same trite excuses. His words neither encourage nor support the nascent civil societies in Africa that are, at great odds, championing the cause of democracy.
Let’s get a few things straight.
The West is not monolithic. The style of democracy within the West varies from one country to another reflecting their diverse history, culture, attitude, and aspirations. None of them are a carbon-copy of the other. However, all democracies throughout the world have a family resemblance and they share the same DNA: Their governments are of the people, by the people and for the people. Just as all people are similar in their humanity and dissimilar in their individualities, so are democracies.
In this respect all democracies, all over the world, exhibit some core characteristics such as individual liberties and freedom of choice, majority rule with minority rights, participation of adult citizens and periodic elections.
Democracies cover a broader spectrum. Some are procedurally oriented while others are substantively. Some operate on direct participation, others on indirect representation. Some have proportional representation, others have winner take all.
Both the U.S. and India—among the oldest and largest democracies in the world—are democracies, but the two cannot be more different.
The diffusion of cultures and ideas is as old as humanity. There is no single civilization in the history of mankind that has not benefited or was not influenced by other civilizations. Modern American governmental system is largely a hybrid of ancient Rome and Athens, but, at the same time, it is uniquely American.
Democracy in Africa would follow the same and yet different pattern. The same has happened in Asia and Latin America. No African democracy will be similar to another African democracy, let alone to an Asian, American or European democracy. Freedom and diversity go hand in hand. Democracy is an experiment that never stops. People will keep on tweaking till they get it right, and righter and more right. Liberty is the key and the best way to protect and preserve it is through democracy.
The problem with Africa, as President Kennedy would say, is that “liberty without learning is always in peril and learning without liberty is always in vain.” There was something fundamentally flawed with the earlier democratic experimentation in Africa. It had nothing to do with Western, Asian or Latin American style of democracy. The seeds of democracy were not properly planted and none of them were homegrown. It was the miscarriage of implementation and had nothing to do with democracy, be it Western, Asian or Latin American style.
Democracy is an idea; it is knowledge. Learning implies adaptation and internalization and there was none of that in Africa. Imitation is the first step towards learning. Children do it all the time, but over time, they mature and find their own authentic voice. They became authors of their own personality. So do nations. So do democracies.
Africa must become the architect of its own learning. Liberty requires an informed and educated citizenry. An educated citizen is easy to govern and hard to enslave. No wonder that tyrants are invariably anti-education and are often ill-educated themselves. Africa has about 10 presidents with no more than high-school education. Studies after studies have shown that better educated people make better leaders. No small wonder that the very people who tell us ad nauseum that “democracy is not about elections,” and “the western style of democracy is not suitable for Africa,” or “democracy can’t buy you bread,” are the same ill-educated tyrants who know nothing about Africa, democracy or economics.
The fact is that the modern nation-state is a Western invention. All modern nation-states are created in the image of the West, just like all humanity is created in the image of God. People all over the world should expect as much diversity in democracies as in their humanity.
Western or not, democracy is the way to go. There is a lot of bad stuff in the West that Africans need to shun but the western style democracy is not one of them.
Semere T Habtemariam is the CEO of the Forum for National Dialogue, an Eritrean civil society organization, established to advocate for democracy in Eritrea. For more on FND visit: www.medrekh.org