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.
In this Juneteenth edition of Pop & Circumstance, we consider the U.S. Senate’s late-but-official apology for slavery and Jim Crow, Tweets from a revolution, Jazz at the White House, ‘Speidi’ and the problem with reality TV religion, and what will Mary Mary sing at the BET Awards?
Senate Apologizes for Slavery — and Spartacus Wins
This week in “Current Events You Thought Shoulda Happened 40 Years Ago,” the United States has officially given its “my bad” on slavery. On Thursday, led by Iowa lawmaker Tom Harkin, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution apologizing for the “enslavement and segregation of African-Americans” and recognizing the “fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow laws.” Though the apology is official, there was concern among some senators that the language in the resolution would leave the door open for lawsuits or a demand for reparations.
While African Americans are certainly delighted with the apology, presumably 92-year-old Spartacus film icon Kirk Douglas is also happy. The actor had been petitioning Congress for an apology for slavery for years. Just this past April, Douglas wrote on his MySpace page: “As I told you quite some time ago, in my last book Let’s Face It, I wrote about the importance of our country showing the world that we are capable of humility by making an apology for our behavior towards African Americans before and after the Civil War.” The veteran actor also collected signatures in support of the apology on MySpace. Isn’t it interesting that a resolution like this hadn’t happened already? Well, better late than never.
The Revolution in 140 Characters or Less
Lest we think Twitter is just another useless digital platform to share a constant stream of the minutiae of our lives, the social networking site that asks members to share what they’re doing in 140-characters or less just got more interesting. Following the controversial election in Iran, protesters who were blocked from using other forms of online communication by government officials took to the Twitterverse to share their discontent. Sympathetic Twitter users from all across the world joined in the protest, spreading word about the election and even encouraging greater mainstream news media coverage of the events. Some even helped protect Iranian protesters from being tracked by changing their Twitter location and time zone to act as “proxy or ghost Iranians.”
The viral nature of Twitter allowed those of us who may not be politically savvy or aware to instantly participate on the front lines of a massive international protest against a Middle Eastern government from the convenience of our laptops or mobile phones. I had no idea about the Iranian election, but found out about the protest from my friend Kyle Westaway who is an attorney in New York City. He sent out the following Twitter update to all of his followers: “Twitter Friends: Change your location and time zone to Tehran and +3.30 to help the protesting Iranians from being tracked. #iranelection”. Since his Twitter account links to his Facebook profile, he alone spread word of the event to hundreds of people with just one click.
The implications of this kind of mass mobilization are great, particularly for people of faith who are called to bring the needs and concerns of society’s marginalized people to the forefront of our culture.
Jazz at the White House
As much as I’m trying not to be all Obama all the time, I can’t help it. The First Family just keeps getting cooler. On June 15th, the White House hosted a Jazz Studio, featuring musicians from the Marsalis family, the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival and the Thelonius Monk Jazz Institute. In her remarks to the 150 high school students who attended the event, First Lady Michelle Obama referred to jazz as “America’s indigenous art form” and the best example of American democracy with its emphasis on “individual freedom, but with responsibility to the group.” UrbanFaith’s resident Jazz Theologian, Robert Gelinas, calls jazz more than music. He says, “[Jazz] is a way of thinking and a way of viewing the world. It is about freedom within community. It is a culture, that is, a set of values and norms by which we can experience life in general and faith in particular.” We couldn’t agree more, and it’s a pleasure to see the Obama White House encouraging creativity and re-imparting value on artistic expression.
Reality TV Piety
When Stephen Baldwin baptized Spencer Pratt a couple of weeks ago on television’s I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here, we let it slide. It didn’t seem right to comment on such a clearly misguided publicity stunt, despite the Christian relevance. Besides, the rest of the media was already making a mockery of the incident. NBC, the network that produces the show, titled video clips of the baptism as “Stephen Baldwin shoves the devil out of Spencer” or “Saved by Stephen.” The whole thing was ridiculous, but this kind of behavior is par for the course when it comes to the former MTV Hills reality show star Spencer Pratt and his wife Heidi Montag. The couple has been injecting itself into tabloid headlines for months with self-generated drama. For a while they bought a few extra minutes of reality star fame by selling the story of a feud between Montag and Hills co-star Lauren Conrad. Then it was plastic surgery and a botched music career for Heidi that culminated in a Pratt-directed beach video. Most recently the couple invited paparazzi to their rushed wedding in Mexico.
But now things have gone too far. Montag, a self-proclaimed Christian who often “tweets” about her faith, is posing for Playboy, and she’s justifying the decision by calling herself a “modern day Mother Teresa.” As my mother would say, if she thinks she’s Mother Theresa, then she’s got another think coming. And though we’re not in the business of judging anyone’s faith here at UrbanFaith, we can express our disappointment over how “Speidi” is portraying Christianity in popular culture. We wish they would keep quiet about their faith until they figure out what they really believe. In the meantime, they’re probably doing more damage to the Church’s reputation. What do you think?
The Word on BET
A couple of weeks ago we shared with you the gospel nominees for the upcoming 2009 BET Awards. Now we have more information on the performers. Set your DVRs for 8pm ET/PT on June 28th because Mary Mary will take the stage. We hope the gospel gals sing something deep from their recent album, and perhaps bypass the secular-friendly “God In Me” single. It’s a toe-tapper, but with this kind of platform, they might want to deliver a message with a little more gospel truth. Also scheduled to perform are Beyoncé, Kanye West, Maxwell, Ne-Yo, Fabolous, Young Jeezy, and Soulja Boy.
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