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Western Democracy vs. African Democracy: Myths or Realities!

For a while now I have been observing an increasing number of Africans espousing a certain discourse, particularly in Africa, which is dominated and exploited by the French colonial empire and its local agents. This discourse suggests that Western democracy would be dangerous for us, the African people, and that if we want to break free from domination and underdevelopment, we should adopt a new model of democracy that is African. Although I am one of the fiercest opponents of France, believing that not even its shadow should loom over any African country, I, as a champion of people's freedom, feel compelled to clarify certain things because this position greatly concerns me.


We must recognize that the proponents of an African-style democracy initially were the leaders of Western nations who, during the early 1990s were in a desperate quest to destroy communism. In doing so, they co-opted resistance movements against the dictatorships they themselves had imposed in most African nations which in their vast majority were not even communist regimes in the first place. But it pleased the narrative to single out communists as the only ditatorial ones while the like of Mobutu Sesse Seko in the DRC, Jean Bedel Bokassa in the Central African Reoublic, the  Eyadema Gnassingbe in Togo were very close allies of the west but among the worse dictators the continent has witnessed.  Their aim was to introduce a governance model that would enable them to maintain their proxies in power while convincing the masses that they were experiencing genuine democracy. The underlying racism in their policies towards Africa has led them to propagate the notion that Africans should embrace this problematic approach, which involves introducing multiparty systems and elections into a dictatorship and labeling it as "democracy." There exists no such thing as Western democracy, just as there is no western freedom, justice, or equality. These principles are social constructs, and each people can agree on how they define them through a social contract (which is an agreement among the members of a society) on how they wish to be governed.


When you take 10 Western countries, for example, and individually study their governance, justice, and civil rihtjs systems, it is impossible to find two countries that have and fully implement the same model. Look at how the President of the United States is elected: by an electoral college because, at the formation of their state, when they gained independence from the British, the political elite at the time often called the "Founding Fathers" of the United States and authors of their Constitution, unilaterally decided that the masses were too poorly educated, predominantly illiterate, to choose the president directly. Therefore, they only allow the masses to choose the congressmen who elect the president. This means that the masses may have voted overwhelmingly for one party and yet see the candidate of another party become president.


Many Americans find this model unjust and have been fighting for decades to change it. Perhaps it will change one day, just as it took more than a hundred years after their independence for African Americans and women to gain the right to vote. Compare this model to that of France, which is entirely different: the French elect their president by universal suffrage, and the candidate who obtains an absolute majority in the first round becomes the head of state, or else a second round must be organized. To avoid going into too much details, I won't dwell on other examples, but I invite you to study the Belgian, British, Norwegian, and other models and spot the differences. 


Furthermore, democracy is not limited to the choice of leaders; it is characterized by the mode of governance, the system of  accountability, power balance and the fundamental respect for civil rights  liberties, such as freedom of expression, opinion, assembly, religion, and the press. Democracy also defines the limits of the state and regulates its power in order to protect populations from absolute power. Under the democratic model, an ordinary citizen can take the state to court if they find its decision arbitrary and unconstitutional, and the supreme court ultimately rules. It is these rulings that have allowed marginalized groups in the United States, such as African Americans, women, and Native Americans, to overturn certain laws that were unjust and abuse to them. 


Democracy is not a single act (the election of a president); it is a set of measures aimed at reducing inequalities, abuses of power, political oppression, economic exploitation, and the marginalization of the weakest in society, while imposing respect for civil rights and individual liberties. Therefore, it is not and has never been uniform for Western countries or the rest of the world because its realization is based on several factors that are generally rooted in the history of these nations. I would like to encourage us, the African youth, to take a much more scientific approach than an emotional one in our resistance. We are in  great danger of accepting reductive and often erroneous discourses that claim democracy does not work in Africa. The countries we point to as failures of democracy in Africa are not and have never been democracies in the first place. In Africa, we mostly have aristocratic, ethnocentric, and absolutist regimes. The grave mistake made by our elders was to think that the introduction of multiparty systems in the late 1980s and early 90s and the organization of elections meant that we had achieved democracy.


I have visited African countries that were once applauded internationally as models of democracy (Ghana, Senegal, Tanzania, to name a few). I have seen unimaginable inequalities, abuses of power, and, in some cases, unprecedented corruption. But the most shocking thing is that the citizens of these countries are also afraid to criticize and protest against their leaders, just as is the case in our countries, which are officially recognized as dictatorships since antiquity. I asked Ghanaians, for example, what they were afraid of?  I was told that criticizing the government could cost you your job, get you arrested, or even killed. So, what is the difference between a Ghanaian and a Togolese, apart from the fact that Ghana holds "violence-free" elections every four years that sometimes bring a new president to power? Certainly, Togo has a bloodthirsty and extremely violent military regime, but Ghana, despite having a civilian government, is not a true democracy either. Lawyer Oliver Barker-Vormawor, the founder of the #FixTheCountry movement, which denounces extreme corruption in the government of Akuffo-Addo, was abducted at the Accra airport by the military, held captive for more than a month, and then charged with high treason against the state. If he is found guilty, he faces life imprisonment. Reading the deposition of his lawyers about the torture he endured at the hands of the Ghanaian military made me realize how wrong we were to believe that Ghana is a free state. Therefore, it is not democracy that is the problem, as we are not truly democratic in the true sense of the term.


"Why am I making this statement? I am actually concerned about the positions taken by an increasing number of young Africans, often due to a lack of political awareness and understanding of governance. What surprises me is that EVERYTHING our youth demands: EVERYTHING and absolutely EVERYTHING is the same as what democracy promotes. We say we want the rule of law: where the strong no longer abuse the weak. We say we want leaders who are accountable to the people. We say we want the freedom to denounce the abuses of our leaders and demand their departure if they do not uphold their commitments or pillage their people. We say we want an  equitable distribution of wealth. We say we no longer want nepotism, and that positions should be given based on merit rather than favoritism. We say we want a free Africa where our natural resources are no longer plundered and squandered. Almost all our demands are consistent with democracy. I don't think there are African activists against the vampiric regimes that govern us who would say they want to live in a country where citizens have no civil liberties: cannot criticize, cannot protest, cannot denounce their government. No one wants to live in absolutism.


Furthermore, I want to draw attention to another manipulation that young Africans often fall victim to. We must distinguish between international politics characterized by international relations and the domestic politics of a state. Often, supporters and defenders of Françafrique make a heinous mix by trying to make it seem like supporting relations between Russia and Africa means advocating Russian-style dictatorship in Africa. What these people pretend not to understand is that military, political, and economic relations between states have absolutely nothing to do with the domestic politics of those states. Just because Saudi Arabia is one of the United States' greatest allies, does not make American leaders who maintain these relations advocates of absolute monarchy in  the United States. The United States' largest economic partner is China: does that mean Americans want to live like the Chinese?


It's time to stop the reductionist discourse aimed at conditioning  young people in Africa. It's time to stop these limiting discourses that are not based on ignorance but on manipulation. The French government funds media outlets to portray anyone who denounces its exploitative policies towards Africa and encourages relations with Russia as people who promote the Russian dictatorial governance model. This is a plot, just as France has always been accustomed to doing since colonial times, to demobilize, divide, and destroy resistance movements. Let's not fall into this trap.


When you listen to Thomas Sankara, even though he was a military man and came to power through a coup, he held the most humanistic and supportive speeches towards the masses. For Thomas Sankara, the people were at the heart of everything: in truth, he was the most democratic leader that Burkina Faso, and even Africa, has ever known. But let's not forget that other military leaders also came to power through coups, promising to be the Sankaras of their countries, only to end up as the Yahya Jammehs, Sani Abachas, Musevenis, and Idriss Débys we know. Similarly, we have seen tricksters who were brought to power through elections and turned into real villains against their own people. Some are acclaimed as democratically elected presidents after garnering the votes of only 9% of the electorate: Tinubu in Nigeria is a recent example. And others simply seized power as an inheritance because they view the nation as private property: Faure Gnassingbé and his colleague Mahamat Déby are proof of this."


Basing the argument that democracy does not work for Africa on these  cases is a serious mistake: it's like comparing eggplants to lemons. Democracy is the power of the people, by the people, for the people, and in the vast majority of cases in Africa, those who have captured the electoral machinery self-proclaim themselves as winners and take on the pseudonym of democrats, but they are not a power of the people and do not govern for the people.Falling into the trap of these individuals and saying that Africa does not need democracy is conceding them a victory. Perhaps it is the word "democracy" that we have an aversion to, but one thing is certain: we do not want leaders who muzzle, exploit, and plunder their people. The people first, the people always!


When you look at African countries that lead in almost every sector (education, health, civil liberties, transparency, economy), they are truly democratic. So, it is not democracy that we need to fight or change; it is the usurpers of democracy—those criminals who capture the state apparatus, plunder their countries, and perpetuate the exploitation of their people. These leeches, whom imperialist nations disguise as democrats to make us believe that we are free while we continue to be colonized, should not lead us to think that there is one democracy for Africans and another for Westerners. History shows us that true democracy in Africa was ruined and destroyed by colonization.


Throughout history, many African societies adopted forms of democratic governance. The Ashanti Confederation in present-day Ghana and the Kingdom of Kongo in Central Africa often elected their leaders, who had deliberative councils. Ancient Carthage in present-day Tunisia had a constitution and elected officials. Somali city-states, Igbo communities in present-day Nigeria, and the Zulu Kingdom in present-day South Africa had, at some point, established democratic governance systems, including general assemblies and participatory decision-making systems. The Buganda Kingdom in present-day Uganda, some Ethiopian kingdoms, the Mthethwa Confederation in Southern Africa, and the Oyo Empire in present-day Nigeria, are other examples with parliamentary systems, elected councils, and principles of checks and balances, demonstrating the diversity and richness of democratic practices in African history.

I am saddened that this deliberate choice to erase our history from our collective memories by imposing colonial education programs that make us believe that African peoples learned everything from the West, created nothing, and were barbarians without any civilization, intellectuals, or skills leads our youth to think that democracy is Western. While we in Africa already had councils, parliaments, and elections for thousands of years, Europeans, for the most part, engaged in incestuous marriages to maintain absolute power within the same royal families. This tradition continues among them to this day: Queen Elizabeth II of England, who passed away a few months ago, also married her cousin Philip. The desire to monopolize power for a single family is rooted more in Western political culture, and it was only from the 18th century onwards, with capitalism added to their absolutism and accentuated by the industrial revolution, that their masses rose up, beheaded a few, as was the case in France, and eventually adopted more democratic governance systems.


Let's learn our history and remember that it was not Westerners who introduced democracy to Africa. What we must strive for is to have free, sovereign, and equitable states that work for the well-being of the people, are accountable to the people, and are driven by the people. Call it what you want, but one thing is certain: we must reject all forms of domination, whether local or foreign.


Farida Bemba Nabourema


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