Africa Day celebrates the foundation of the Organization of African Unity in 1963. It’s all about recognizing, as the First Congress of Independent African States held in 1958 in Ghana put it, “the determination of the people of Africa to free themselves from foreign domination and exploitation”. Indeed, it was previously called African Liberation Day.
The continent is now formally free of colonial rule. Nevertheless, the aim of remembering and furthering the fight for self determination remains relevant as ever. This year has seen Africa – once again – characterized as a set of helpless states that face devastation by the coronavirus pandemic.
Such lifeless and homogenizing depictions fail to recognize the ability of African communities and governments to overcome major health challenges such as Ebola. They also ignore the remarkably varied and dynamic – and in many cases effective – response of different groups and individuals to the COVID-19 pandemic. As Kenyan writer and political analyst Nanjala Nyabola recently put it:
Africa is not waiting to be saved from the coronavirus.
A new major publication – the Oxford Encyclopedia of African Politics – contains many important chapters that make the same point on a wide variety of topics. With 122 authors, 109 articles and more than a million words, it is one of the largest volumes on African politics ever published.
Chapter after chapter shows the ability of leaders, intellectuals and activists to find their own solutions to national and global problems.
Recognizing African agency
All too often, the achievements of African countries are overlooked. Conflict and controversy make for more attention-grabbing headlines than peace and democracy. Yet, while the continent features more than its fair share of authoritarian repression, in some respects African countries are leading the way.
As political scientist Mamoudou Gazibo points out, countries like Ghana and Senegal became democracies despite the fact that they faced a particularly challenging context. They lacked the kind of national wealth, strong state and large middle class that many theories suggest are necessary for a smooth transition out of authoritarian rule. Yet they have proved that democracy is feasible in Africa.
Similarly, Liberia and Sierra Leone should also be seen as remarkable – but not, as is usually the case, because they had horrific civil wars. Instead they should be recognized for overcoming extreme and prolonged violence to forge a pathway back to democracy. In addition to maintaining political stability, both countries have experienced peaceful transfers of power via the ballot box.
In all these cases a combination of good leadership, institution building, and the support of ordinary people for democratic values has enabled African states to change their futures for the better.
Yet this story is rarely told.
One reason is that stories like this don’t fit with the popular narrative that democracy is somehow “unAfrican”. In other words, that modern governance was introduced to the continent by the West.
This is not only untrue. It also turns history on its head.
As political scientist Kidane Mengisteab shows in one of the chapters of the book, in many countries “traditional institutions of governance” featured important checks and balances on how power could be exercised. These measures were typically destroyed, eroded, or radically transformed by colonial rule. This paved the way for the emergence of authoritarian regimes after independence.
Similarly, multiparty elections were not reintroduced in Africa in the early 1990s simply because the UK and the US decided this was a good idea. These freedoms and rights were fought for by activists, opposition leaders, trade unionists, religious leaders and ordinary citizens who risked their personal safety to bring down authoritarian governments. Some paid with their lives.
Recognizing African Genius
A major casualty of the tendency to overlook the creativity and contributions of African leaders and intellectuals is the neglect of African political thought. Africa has produced some of the most thoughtful and articulate leaders in the world on how political systems can best be designed. These have included Kwame Nkrumah, Tom Mboya and Leopold Senghor. Yet the continent is often treated as if it is devoid of interesting political ideas and ideologies.
This is one reason why many African intellectuals have been attracted to the idea of the African renaissance. In his chapter Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni describes this as:
a ‘remembering’ of a continent and a people who have suffered from ‘dismembering’ effects of colonialism and ‘coloniality’.
This concept continues to inspire both ideas and action, and fed into the #rhodesmustfall and “decolonize the university” campaigns that began in South Africa and had ripple effects across the world.
Yet despite this, African contributions continue to be downplayed – even within intellectual movements that are supposed to be all about breaking down racist assumptions and hierarchies. Take post-colonial theory, which analyses the enduring legacies of colonialism and disavows Eurocentric master-narratives. It is often said that African intellectuals have played a minor role in developing post-colonial critiques. Yet Grace Adeniyi Ogunyankin, an expert in gender studies and critical race theory identifies
African thinkers and activists who are intellectual antecedents to the post-colonial thought that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s.
This is often overlooked, she points out, because some – though by no means all – of those working in these frameworks have been “dismissive of African theorizing”.
Recognizing African leadership
The path-breaking leadership shown by many African countries has also been criminally overlooked. When asked to name two of the most advanced and progressive constitutions in the world, how many people would say Kenya and South Africa? Outside of the continent, my guess would be almost no one. Yet as legal and constitutional expert Muno Ndulo argues, the constitutions introduced in these countries over the last years 30 years enshrine democratic norms and values. They also go well beyond their European and North American counterparts by institutionalizing socio-economic rights (South Africa) and the principle of citizen participation in the budget making process (Kenya).
While including a clause in a constitution doesn’t mean that it is automatically respected, historically marginalized groups have mobilized creatively to demand the rights they are supposed to enjoy under the law. African women, for example, are not waiting for others to save them from patriarchy. They are mobilizing across the continent to claim their rights. According to Robtel Pailey, an activist, academic and author,
African women have simultaneously embraced and challenged cultural and socio-economic norms to claim and secure citizenship rights, resources and representation.
Recognizing African diversity
These are, of course, just a small number of the stories that deserve to be told. The encyclopedia includes articles on everything from political parties and elections to the role of China and migration, oil and religion. But despite featuring a chapter on every sub-region, political institution, and major trend, there is still so much more that needs to be said about a continent that is remarkably diverse.
That is one reason why we should celebrate the showcasing of the voices of African journalists and researchers, and share them far and wide.
When I first said that I was going to write a book about the history of democracy in Africa, quite a few people responded with a joke. That will be one of the world’s shortest books, up there with the compendium of great English cooking, they would say.
But, it turned out that there was a lot to talk about: Africa’s past reveals more fragments of democracy than you would think. And, its present has a number of important things to teach the world about the conditions under which democracy can be built.
The poor quality of elections in many sub-Saharan African countries, combined with a tendency for the media to focus on controversy, means that Africa is often depicted as a bastion of authoritarianism. But, it actually has some of the most remarkable and important stories of democratic struggle.
Countries such as Benin, Botswana, Ghana, Namibia, Mauritius, Senegal, and South Africa have not only become beacons of political rights and civil liberties, they have done so against the greatest of obstacles. These experiences teach us important lessons about where democracy can work, and why.
Pre-conditions for a strong democracy
Political scientists like to talk about the conditions necessary for countries to build a strong and stable democracy. These lists are fiercely fought over, but there are a number of factors that most researchers would agree are probably important.
A cohesive national identity is likely to make it easier to maintain national unity, while wealth and economic success have been found to promote political stability. A strong national infrastructure, underpinned by respect for the rule of law, means that the government is likely to be effective without being abusive. And, a vibrant middle class and powerful civil society are usually seen as important to promote accountability and responsive government.
What is remarkable about the democratization of African states is that most did not enjoy a single one of these “pre-conditions”.
With the exception of South Africa, all of Africa’s democracies entered multiparty politics with low GDP per capita and high levels of unemployment. This was compounded by weak and underdeveloped states that had been designed – both in the colonial era and during the authoritarian rule of the 1980s – to exploit resources rather than empower citizens. In states like Ghana, this was compounded by a history of military rule, which heightened the risk of further coups.
Almost all of these states also featured civil societies that were fragile and fragmented, despite the strength of religious organizations. At the same time, in the early 1990s, the middle class was small. More often than not, it was also economically dependent on the government. It was thus poorly placed to fight against corruption or democratic backsliding.
These were not the only challenges that African states faced. With the exception of Botswana, they are all diverse multi-ethnic societies in which the question of national identity has been problematic. In Ghana and Mauritius for instance, ethnic identities have historically played a role in structuring political networks. This increased the tension around elections.
Against this backdrop, all of these states might have been expected to collapse into some form of authoritarian regime by now. Given this context, their success should be celebrated and studied for what it tells us about how democracy can be built even in the most challenging of contexts.
Bucking the trend
It is striking that, with the exception of Benin and possibly Senegal, these democracies have grown stronger during a period in which the world is supposed to be backsliding on democracy.
While Europe is convulsed by Brexit and the rise of right-wing populists, and Donald Trump is doing his best to undermine America’s reputation for political checks and balances, Africa’s most democratic states have proved to be remarkably resilient.
Ghana has experienced numerous transfers of power and, in 2016, the first ever defeat of a sitting president. Namibia has consolidated its position as a “free” political system with robust respect for civil liberties, according to Freedom House.
For their part, Botswana and Mauritius – the continent’s oldest democracies – continue to combine respect for political rights with prudent economic policies.
Praising Africa’s democratic success stories do not, of course, mean that we should overlook its failures. A number of countries have taken steps backward in recent years, including Tanzania and Uganda. Authoritarian leaders also remain entrenched in Cameroon, Chad, Eritrea, and many more. But it is important to recognize that there is much more to Africa than authoritarianism.
In the absence of the conventional building blocks of democracy, we need to look elsewhere to explain these success stories. Some might be tempted to think that the role of the global community has been critical in keeping governments on the straight and narrow. But in reality, democracy is built from within, as the fact that aid-dependent countries such as Uganda and Rwanda have remained firmly authoritarian shows only too well.
We should, therefore, give greater credit to the politicians and people of Africa’s democratic states. African presidents are often lambasted for being corrupt and self-serving. But, in a number of countries, they have shown considerable restraint, establishing institutions capable of checking their power.
In Ghana, cohesive relationships among the political elite have underpinned a growing consensus on the value of democracy. In South Africa, inclusive leadership played a critical role in overcoming racial divisions and building trust in the new post-apartheid political system since 1994. In Namibia, successive presidents have refused to use the electoral dominance of the governing party to remove the opposition.
The role played by African citizens also deserves greater recognition. It was their willingness to take to the streets that forced democratic openings in the late 1980s. The same has been true in recent years, with mass action challenging authoritarian regimes in Burkina Faso and Sudan.
Despite economic challenges and democratic difficulties, high levels of public support for democracy in Africa mean that leaders understand the costs of backsliding.
At a time when people are questioning the value of democracy in many Western states, many African populations who have lived under one-party, one-man, or military rule are prepared to fight to prevent their return. This should serve both as an important lesson and a source of inspiration.