It is always interesting to observe our African political elites getting together in various regional economic clubs. The Southern African Development Community, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, Community of Sahel-Saharan States, East African Community, Economic Community of West African State, Intergovernmental Authority on Development, and Economic Community of Central African States and the continental African Union have discussions and make decisions that impact people's lives, with little attempt to invite active citizen participation.
They then travel to meet investors and political leaders in places like Europe, North America, Asia, and elsewhere to give undertakings on behalf of an Africa whose citizens are, by and large, mere observers of decisions taken on their behalf, often without being consulted, only learning about such decisions when they get reported in the media.
The truth is that post-colonial African leaders have, by and large, simply taken over from former colonial powers and continued treating Africans as little people who have no opinion to give in matters that affect their lives and future. They will continue to take short cuts for as long as ordinary Africans allow them to. The era of decisions being made at the top and handed down as fait accompli has to come to an end, at some point.
Empowered civil society is an asset
But for this to happen, African civil society groups across the continent must wake up, get organised, and demand their space in decisions that involve them. Empowered African citizens would be assets to democracies; not liabilities.
It is only when citizen participation is rendered mandatory across the continent – in the same way that we have mandatory ‘public consultation processes’ in South Africa, that those who attend multilateral forums on behalf of Africa can claim any legitimacy.
Almost all of their counterparts from other parts of the world, probably apart from China, act on citizen mandate. Even the European Union, which the AU sought to emulate, came to be following extensive citizen consultation in various constituent countries. It is because of such consultation – through a referendum – that the UK is now standing just inside the exit door to the EU.
The Brexit factor
The fact that the UK finds itself in its current position should not offer argument for the status quo of almost zero citizen consultation to continue in Africa. A different discussion can be had, of course, as to the nature of the proposed citizen participation, the structures/vehicles to be used at local level, and the extent to which information made available to citizens has to enable them to make good, empowering decisions about their own lives and future.
Structures must be created, at local level, that would offer space for African citizens to understand their world, to make sense of what is at stake, and to consider the rationale for proposed political and economic strategic directions.
Africa is not homogenous
We should also not be fooled. We must get over the going assumption that this continent is homogenous in terms of political and democratic traditions, cultures and practices, values, levels of academic and civic education, media penetration, internet access and connectivity to the outside world, the impact of rural versus urban divides on national political, social, and economic life, etc.
Taking the matter of human rights as an example, especially the rights of LGBTIQ+ communities; freedom of expression and freedom of the press; the influence of traditional leadership; or the importance given to an array of ancient practices, e.g. witchcraft and the influence of dead people on current and future life, etc.; different African countries tend to be worlds apart on many of these issues.
Few will disagree that some of the decisions that get taken by political elites might have merit, but that is not the point. The point is that if Africa is to advance into the future with an informed citizenry – informed, active, and participative – it would stand a better chance of having more accountable leaders who know that they are being watched, and that they’re not in their positions to fulfil personal ambitions only, but that they have the backing of the people who sent them there; people whose aspirations they carry.
African economic integration is no doubt the right vision to aim for; and dreaming of a continent in which the movement of goods and persons is rendered a lot more facile, is also a lovely ideal. But what would that entail, in terms of national regional legislative frameworks on some of the most basic democratic rights? Can African professionals easily move from one country to another to do what they do best, when African countries cannot agree on basics such as the rights mentioned above, and in a climate where people can be arrested for being LGBTIQ+ or for expressing views that are critical of those held by politicians, or for making fun of politicians?
And given that only a few African countries are a lot more attractive for migration than others, with the bulk of them having citizens who will leave as soon as they can (for all the known reasons), what measures would be put in place to ensure that potential destinations for economic migrants are shielded from possible overruns?
The potential that lies in Africa to lead and even put Europe and others to shame - as implied by South African president Cyril Ramaphosa in his recent address in London - cannot be realised while the gulf that separates ordinary Africans from the political elites that lord it over their affairs, often without consequence, remains so large. And ordinary Africans cannot be the self-driven and positive contributors to the future of Africa – urged on by a shared desire to positively change its reputational fortunes to make it increasingly attractive – while they have very little say in the affairs of their continent.
* Solly Moeng is brand reputation management adviser and CEO of strategic corporate communications consultancy DonValley Reputation Managers. Views expressed are his own.