The argument that democracy is unsuitable for Africa or that Africans are unsuitable for democracy has gone on for years. An article by Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat titled ‘ Democracy in Africa: An Experiment in Progress’ explained that recent crises of military coups in parts of Africa, the fraudulent presidential elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the unconstitutional third term candidacy of Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, post-electoral violence in Kenya and Nigeria, seeming life terms of Heads of States such as Paul Biya in Cameroon, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Eduardo dos Santos in Angola, Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo in Equatorial Guinea, are disturbing developments that posit a profound institutional crisis of democracy. The article went on to describe the democratic experience in Africa in the last 20 years as ‘chaotic’, ‘sloppy’ and ‘haphazard’.
But is all of Africa made of failed democracies? Is democracy the most suitable form of government for Africa? If it is, what is the future of democracy in Africa?
Abdul Tejan Cole, the Executive Director of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa is a strong human rights advocate who believes in democracy and the protection of the inalienable rights of citizens. He rejects the argument that democracy is unsuitable for Africa or that Africans are unsuited for democracy. He also strongly believes that the future of democracy is very bright.
Discussing ‘Democratic Governance and Accountability in West Africa’ on #YLAPWeekly, a legislative accountability program that airs weekly on www.amplifiedradio.net, Mr. Cole said that Africa doesn’t need a ‘special kind of democracy’. Rather, Africa needs to implement democracy in its entirety.
“Consistently, surveys by Afrobarometer show that Africans are in favor of democracy. Resistance to democratic governance often comes from those in power. Ordinary citizens want their voices to be heard’, he said.
Continuing, he said that the problem wasn’t with democracy. The challenge, he said, is for the implementation of democracy in Africa to be critically examined.
“Africans have consistently shown that they are in favor of democracy, freedom of speech and accountability. Democracy is the way to go. There is no better alternative to democracy. We need to practice it to the fullest. The problem is that after elections, communication ends and this brings about distrust for the electoral process. Elections alone do not constitute democracy. After elections, what next”?
Mr. Cole, a 2011 Human Rights Watch award recipient and former Deputy Director at the International Center for Transitional Justice’s Cape Town Office disagreed that poverty and illiteracy prevent people from exercising their civic rights. He, however, said that socio-economic empowerment helps citizens make better civic choices.
“Democracy isn’t alien to Africans and it is indeed possible to have a functional democracy in Africa. We make the mistake of thinking that poverty limits people from exercising their civic rights. However, it will be easier for citizens to make better choices if they are empowered socio-economically”.
Asked if authoritarianism can deliver dividends of democracy in some cases, Mr. Cole replied that he would rather “be poor and free than be rich and oppressed”.
“I don’t think that authoritarianism is the way to go. I am a strong human rights advocate and I believe in the protection of the inalienable rights of citizens. I think that governments should be able to deliver in democratic settings”.
Mr. Cole also warned that if institutions are not strengthened to work independently, democracy in Africa could crumble. He urged citizens to continue to engage government at all levels and to be able to change governments that do not deliver desired change.
“If we continue as active citizens, the future of democracy in Africa is bright. We must not leave the future of democracy to politicians alone. We must all get involved”, he admonished.