Is Liberal democracy appropriate for the African continent?

2011-12-30 17:44

Democracy, as a mode of self-rule, is influenced by cultural and traditional particularities. There, however, has been the  universalisation of liberal democracy and its supposed triumph as the only vision for humanity. At its core, democracy is a desire for self-rule underpinned by freedom and should be respected as such irrespective of what it may entail. Though some factors of democracy may have universal appeal, the Western practises of democracy are regarded as universal truths as to the ‘correct’ way human beings are to be organised in society thereby nullifying or ignoring the democratic practices and conceptions of Africans in conversations which define democracy. Any form of imposed or imported political organization may render itself undemocratic should it not cater for a polity’s cultural disposition.

Since independence, African states have been unable to thrive under the imposed and sometimes voluntarily chosen model of liberal democracy. It must be said, however, that some of these liberal institutions may not be at fault in themselves but their resultant tainted democracy may, in part, reflect the continent's leadership crisis. The African conception of the good life is based on a strong sense of community at odds with the Western emphasis on individuation. African cultural gems have been vulnerable to erosion due to modern socialisation and the creation of new norms, new societal and economic structures and relationships. The models of democracy trans-populated from a Western perspective may at times be the antithesis of African culture and values and these values were further omitted in these imported variations of democracy. Because culture is an evolutionary phenomenon and we live in a much altered world, these old traditions and some imported thoughts need to be reconciled according to the needs of that specific state for a practical democratic model, fit for the modern world.

Ultimately, liberal democracy cannot be proclaimed as a universal model but neither can the other extreme of relativism be plausible when there are important universal features with which a democracy can not do without. This does not mean that borrowed elements from the liberal model of democracy can not be fused with African traditions and culture. The composition and workings of a state’s democracy requires the agency and approval of the people. This can not be decided by others and can certainly not be the purview of the ‘knowledgeable few’ who are to rule over a polity.

To give democracy any tangible and substantive meaning today, it needs to be a home-grown project with some valuable lessons and concepts imported from liberal democracy. As tradition and culture are not stagnant victims of time, these customs must evolve practically and meaningfully to address the challenges of this century. These values can be incorporated into various elements of the liberal democratic model. These forms of government need to, however, be compatible with certain universal indicators of good governance which will not allow democracy to fall prey to relativism which can altogether eschew the essence of what democracy is. Universal values key to any democratic project are respect for life, dignity, equality before the law and the protection of minorities, among others. African states need to learn to balance the jewels of tradition with the modern form of liberal democracy. The need to allude to the principles of the past, must, however not be used to legitimate undemocratic tendencies but must instead be used to enrich society for its own betterment.

Disparate conceptions of the good life grounded in different cultural outlooks will give rise to different sets of political institutions erected in fulfillment of the good life. The Western emphasis on the protection of the individual is guarded by liberal democracy through a separation of powers, civil liberties and the free market. The African promotion of the community has defined democracy through communalism and chieftancy. Further, the Western pronouncement of democracy is articulated by majority rule whereas African notions of democracy are established through consensus and negotiation. Any form of democratic organization is essentially an extension of cultural practices. The ineptitude Western democratic models have displayed in Africa may be due to the dissonance between the African cultural and traditional reality and a Western conception based on Western culture. In the words of Claude Ake, 'like development, democratization is not something that one person does for another. People must do it themselves, or it does not happen', equally, democracy in Africa can not be  a solely imported project, but to work in Africa it must be tailored by Africans for diverse African contexts.

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