Concepts of Democracy and Democratization in Africa Revisited

Paper presented at the Fourth Annual Kent State University Symposium on Democracy

Apollos O. Nwauwa



As Chandran Kukathas puts it: “We live in an age of democracy fetishism” and “global political phenomenon of ‘democratization.’”1 During the Cold War, the United States and its Western allies paraded democracy globally as a means to contain communism, even if quite frequently they embraced autocratic (undemocratic) regimes in Africa. Western governments and media also turned a blind eye to human rights violations by regimes such as Zaire, Kenya, and Sudan, which supported or claimed to support the West.2 With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the concomitant demise of communism in 1990, however, a spirit of triumphalism swept through the West. The euphoric impression was as if “history had finally ended with the universal victory of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”3 The post–Cold War era, therefore, offered the West, especially the United States, a unique historical opportunity to impose its political and economic values across the globe with Africa as a prime target. Western democracy and democratization became the precondition for African countries that sought foreign aid and loans, especially from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, in order to redress their dire politico-economic crises.4 This “marriage of economic ‘perestroika’ and political ‘glasnost,’” as Paul Zeleza describes it, “seemed so radical, so new” in the emergent world order.5

The critical dynamic for democratization, as Richard Joseph points out, involves the “domination of the world economy by the market-oriented economies, the geostrategic hegemony of western industrialized nations, and direct or indirect external pressures for democratization.”6 On the other hand, the end of the Cold War “opened up domestic spaces for democratic politics in many African countries” and the implementation of the “iron fisted structural adjustment” of the donor agencies provoked popular resistance and democratic movements.7 Realizing that regimes they had previously backed were standing on shaky ground, the West and its donor agencies had to make sharp turns in their policies to curry favor with the new democratic movements. Thus, the role of Africans in pushing for democratization based on their local conditions, a phenomenon they referred to as the “second independence,” should not be overlooked in any analysis.

After a brief appraisal of the definitions and practice of liberal democracy, this paper focuses on the conceptual and contextual notions of democracy and democratization in reference to Africa. First, it demonstrates that the principles of democracy and democratic values are neither novel nor alien but rather indigenous to the African continent. It exposes the politics behind the deliberate elision of the African indigenous concepts and practices by Western thinkers and policy makers since the colonial era. Second, this study attempts to show that efforts by the United States and other Western countries to “export” democracy (or dictatorship) to Africa and to promote (or undermine) democratization are contingent on their interests as dictated by epochal phenomena such as colonialism, Cold War, neocolonialism, and globalization. The focus on these two major questions should not be seen as unmindful of the sustained pressures by African pro-democracy and human rights movements, a momentum hijacked by the West and its agencies in furthering their own interests. Although critical of democratization as a process, this study should be construed neither as a critique of democracy nor as a defense of it; it is also not a balance sheet on the success or failure of the democratization process in Africa.


The “White Man’s Burden”?

Discourses on democracy and democratization in Africa are usually presented in the West as though they are entirely new notions and practices to Africans. The idea of democracy itself is viewed almost exclusively as a Western concept of which African societies now stand desperately in need. Similarly, the presumption has been that democratic values and practices are alien to the African continent, with the West posturing as their cultural bearers and defenders. This mindset considers Africans as incapable of democratic thoughts and hence they should be infused with the “civilized” notion of Western democracy. What has been consistently ignored is that democratic values and processes have been as indigenous to Africans as they were to the ancient Greeks. African traditional political cultures and organizations would give credence to this conclusion. While the term democracy, now a Western buzzword for representative government, might have been borrowed from the Greeks, democratic thought and values have never been exclusively Greek or Euro-American preserve. Indeed, the desire for representation, inclusion, and participation in public affairs—essential elements of democracy—are universal to all humans; the difference rests in the methods of attaining these goals. To what extent a society “democratizes” is incontestably dependent on its sociocultural milieu, whether it is African, European, American, Asian, or even Islamic societies.

Efforts by the West to “introduce” democracy to Africa bear close semblance to the concept of the “civilizing mission” trumpeted by Europeans during the era of colonialism in the nineteenth century. In his now infamous poem “The White Man’s Burden,” Rudyard Kipling considers European colonization of Africa as a blessing to Africans but a huge burden for Europeans. Europeans sought to bring civilization to Africans, whom Kipling saw as a degenerate race, incapable of development and civilized behavior.8 And, European cultural benchmarks were used in determining what civilization entailed, and who was or was not civilized. Since Europeans were themselves the judges, a civilized culture (whether social, political, or economic) was that which approximated the European model. Furthermore, since colonialism justified and legitimized itself on the assumption of the superiority of the white race (Europeans) over blacks (Africans), it became quite logical for European colonizers to discredit the existing culture of the colonized Africans no matter how comparable they both were.

Consequently, African societies (including their indigenous democratic values) that were not necessarily “civilized” to the European mindset were portrayed as barbarous and, therefore, stood in need of “civilization.” It was a unique union between cultural arrogance and dubious altruism. Thus, in reality, the supposed burden was an effort to replicate or reproduce European models and values in Africa—another form of neocolonialism so to speak. It was all about Western hegemony. The current obsession for Western democracy, democratization and globalization in Africa is, then, déjà vu. Reminiscent of European motives or justifications for colonialism, the current push for democratization has little to do with the selfless notion of the “civilizing mission.” Instead, the interests and well-being of the African peoples have been subordinated to those of the industrialized countries of the West.

Since the classical times, democracy has been neither a linear nor a monolithic concept. As the meaning of democracy shifted in time and space, so has its actual practice. In her response to the U.S. House Sub-Committee on Africa over charges of tardiness in the democratization process in Africa in 1999, Vivian Lowery Derryck, an assistant administrator for Africa, USAID, noted: “we have learned that there is really no uniform model of democracy. To function effectively, a democratic system should reflect the unique needs and culture of a given country.”9 The subcommittee was not amused, especially when the official position favored the wholesale transplantation of the American style of democracy to Africa. Yet pervasive in all democracies is the basic concept of popular participation in government by the citizenry.

Before European contact and subsequent colonialism, Africans practiced some variants of democracy alongside authoritarian rule. However, European colonialism undermined the traditional participatory democratic system for almost one hundred years, only to revive it on the eve of decolonization in the form of a parliamentary system.10 Similarly, the West undermined both the indigenous and postcolonial democratic efforts in order to contain Soviet influence during the Cold War. Since the end of the Cold War, the emergence of a unipolar world and the beginning of the era of globalization, there is a renewed emphasis on democracy and democratization. It is quite auspicious to ask: what does the West desire for Africa? Democracy! What type of democracy and for whose benefit? As with Kipling’s justification for European colonialism, would it be out of place to assume that democratization would be another “burden” for the West?


Concepts and Practices

Before dealing with the issue of whether, in theory and practice, democracy existed in precolonial Africa, it is quite appropriate here to attempt to correlate the origins and meanings of the Western notion of democracy. Ancient Greece (Athens in particular) is widely regarded as the birthplace of Western democracy and political thought, and the word democracy was coined from the Greek words demos, “the people,” and kratia, “to rule.” In theory, this was rule by the people for the people as opposed to rule by one (autocracy) or a few (oligarchy), a form of direct democracy in which all citizens could speak and vote in assembly. In practice, Athenian democracy did not extend equality and franchise to all persons and therefore allowed direct participation only by male citizens, a small political elite, to the exclusion of the majority of the populace consisting of women, slaves, and foreign residents. Greek democracy did not really encompass most of the key elements of modern democracy—equality of all persons before the law and franchise for all. Thus, in reality, direct participation in government by the privileged few constituted the thrust of Athenian democracy. Limited as Athenian democracy was, the West still draws inspirations from it.

Since Roman times, the meaning of democracy has continually shifted, producing many variants. Democracy is now a relative concept; it no longer means the same thing to all peoples and cultures at all times. The ancient Romans took a practical approach to everything, including the principle of democracy. The social conditions and divisions that existed within their community determined the political institutions the Romans adopted and, therefore, they “did not concern themselves with the construction of an ideal government, but instead fashioned political institutions in response to problems as they arose.”11 Thus, the democracy of the Roman republic differed from that of the empire with the role of the senators in government constantly changing from one era to another. In England, the principle and practice of democracy also took on a different form.

The British Parliament evolved in the late thirteenth century as representative government with a hereditary monarchy, though the former was answerable to the latter. With the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the resultant Bill of Rights, constitutional monarchy coexisted with representative authority of Parliament.12 Yet as capricious as these models appear, ancient Rome provided the West with a fine model just as England is still considered as an ideal variant of democracy in the Western conception of the term.

While it is incontestable that Athenian democracy remains a fundamental inspiration for modern Western political thought, it seems rather naïve to continue to ascribe all notions of participatory democracy to that single source. After all, recent historical and archaeological research suggests that some of the key elements of democracy are traceable to older civilizations such as Mesopotamia, where city-states predated those of the Greeks.13 In precolonial Africa, variants of the concepts of participatory or representative government (democracy?) evolved independent of the Athenian tradition and survived until the European invasion of Africa in the nineteenth century.

In modern times, however, there is no acceptable clinical or scientific definition of liberal democracy although “the main features are free competition among political parties, periodic elections, and respect for the fundamental freedom of thought, expression, and assembly.”14 Tony Smith defines democracy as “free elections contested by freely organized parties under universal suffrage for control of the effective centers of governmental power.”15 However, the above definitions are based on the Western concept of liberal democracy and they reflect an Anglo-American cultural bias. They reduce the concept of democracy to elections, multiparty system, and universal suffrage such that any deviation becomes an aberration. In the West, political parties form along different class interests or organized groups, whereas in Africa there was the near-absence of established classes before European colonial intrusion. Thus, contemporary Western insistence on multiparty politics does not consider indigenous cultural values and consequently multiparty electoral politics degenerates into ethnic or communal conflicts.16 Democracy would then simply become an instrument of political dissension and chaos. Although more research is needed, however, it would not be surprising if the wholesale adoption of multiparty democracy turns out to be one of the major causes of the current political crises in Africa.

This “dominant way of characterizing democracy according to a set of electoralist, institutionalist, and proceduralist criteria, Richard Joseph argues, must be expanded into a broader conceptualization.”17 On this point Makinda proposes that democracy should be conceived “as a way of government firmly rooted in the belief that people in any society should be free to determine their political, economic, social, and cultural systems. But the form it takes can vary according to the particular circumstances of any society.”18 A broader concept of democracy should include what David Maillu refers to as “cultural definition of democracy” in which African democracy, “like philosophy, had to be lived, theories left aside.” For him, African societies were socially and politically structured so that “everybody participated according to his ability, ages-status, and wishes . . . everybody was invited to offer the cooking of his mind.”19 African democracy, therefore, transcended the realm of politics; it constituted an integral part of the peoples’ culture, which allowed everyone a sense of belonging. It was a “practical democracy as opposed to theoretical democracy,” which required people to be more sensitive and responsible for their neighbors’ well-being.20 This is not to say that there was a total absence of social stratification based on wealth and age. Certainly there were commoners as well and offenders were stigmatized because they violated or trampled on others’ rights or well-being.

It is still debated whether democracy connotes a form of popular power (politics) in which citizens engage in self-government and self-regulation or is simply an aid to decision making in the form of conferment of authority on select individuals. David Held isolated three basic variants of democracy, namely, direct or participatory democracy, liberal or representative democracy, and one-party democracy.21 While participatory democracy, the “original” type of democracy as used by ancient Athens and others, involved all citizens in decision making about public affairs, representative democracy involved elected officials who undertook to represent the interests of citizens within specific territories. One-party democracy, however, although framed as representative democracy, shunned multiparty competition. Held further shows how Marxist critics attacked liberal democracy and its capitalist economy that “inevitably produces systematic inequality and massive restrictions on real freedom.”22

Although it is widely believed to be the ideal system government, Schweller has cautioned, “Democracy is not always or even necessarily a recipe for “‘good’ societal decisions or the creation of ideal communities. The extension of democracy is not, therefore, an automatic gain for humankind.”23 Not surprisingly, the most “perfect” popular democracies in the West, including those of the United States and Britain, have some serious flaws. For Robert Dahl, “in practice democratic systems have always fallen considerably short of the criteria and values that justify democracy”24; and as Danilo Zolo pointed out, there is no genuine competition between points of view; most political negotiations are done behind the scenes, not visible to the average voters; and the rise of mass media has diminished debate among citizens.25 Thus, it is no longer in doubt that representative democracy does not work as well as the concept would have one believe. This, according to Kate Nash, is exemplified in the “declining numbers of voters who participate in national elections in countries where voting is not obligatory, the increase in the volatility of party political allegiances, and the rapidity with which media-led issues come to prominence and are just as quickly forgotten.” Furthermore, the Western public “is generally seen to be apathetic, cynical and unstable.”26

In the United States and other Western countries, the nagging question continues to revolve around the extent of participation in government by the citizenry. Voter turnout is usually low, representatives pursue their personal agenda, and government has become more interested in protecting big business interests than those of the ordinary citizens. Thus, on the one hand, “democracy is celebrated; on the other hand, there is growing concern about how it works in practice.”27 Clearly, a better notion of democracy would have to follow Adam Przeworski’s definition, which sees democracy as “a system of ruled open-endedness, or organized uncertainty.”28


Indigenous African Democracies

Keeping in mind the Athenian style, let us consider the concepts and practice of indigenous democracies in many African societies. “Three heads are better than one” is a well-known maxim in Africa. Implicit in this adage are notions of democratic values and tradition predicated on people’s participation. Several researchers have shown that in the period preceding colonial rule, Africans experimented with a variety of political organizations ranging from direct and representative democracy to various forms of monarchical and decentralized systems.29 Many African indigenous governments were open and inclusive. Fortes and Evans-Pritchard pointed out that “the structure of an African state implies that kings and chiefs rule by consent” and that “ruler’s subjects are as fully aware of the duties he owes to them, as they are of the duties they owe to him, and are able to exert pressure to make him discharge these duties.”30 Similarly, Ayittey has observed that in traditional African political arrangement, “No one was locked out of the decision-making process. One did not have to belong to one political party or family to participate in the process; even foreigners were allowed to participate.”31 Recalling with nostalgia the virtues of the African indigenous political organization in the face of current leadership crisis, Ayittey has called for a return to that system.32 Although Ayittey’s position is somewhat extreme (since political cultures are never static), he demonstrates clearly that traditional African societies were not devoid of democratic ideals.

The indigenous political system of the Igbo of southeastern Nigeria presents one of the most elaborate examples of direct and participatory democracy in traditional Africa. Apart from a few centralized polities such as Nri, Onitsha, Oguta, and Osomari that were monarchical systems, the Igbo operated as decentralized political organization. Although most Igbo political groups possessed no sole authority (paramount ruler), they “lacked no essential norms of government.”33 For our present purpose, Victor Uchendu isolated two layers of political structure among the Igbo: the village and the village-group. The villages varied in size and population, and “Government at the village level is an exercise in direct democracy.”34 During general assembly, at this level, every male adult directly participated in the legislative and decision-making process pertaining to public affairs.

Uchendu presents a detailed account of how Igbo village democracy operated. This general assembly consisting of adult males is known as the Ama-ala or Oha, and the assembly ground may be in an open square as was the case in the earlier (precolonial and colonial era) or a permanent village hall as in the modern time. During this gathering, public matters are brought up and every male attendee who wants to contribute to the debate (discussion) is entitled to a hearing. After thoroughly discussing the matter, the leaders from each lineage within the village retire for izuzu (consultation). Participation in izuzu is highly imperative and treasured; it is restricted to men of substance, wit, and prestige who possess the wisdom to analyze all strands of thought and suggest a compromise that the Ama-ala would accept. After the izuzu, a spokesman is selected, based on his “power of oratory, persuasive talents, and his ability to put the verdict in perspective,” to announce the verdict. This decision is either accepted by the Ama-ala by general acclamation or rejected outright, and in the event of the latter, the view of the assembly prevails by popular assent.35

Women have their own assemblies, which follow the male pattern. This is because African social and political structure has never been a matter of men alone. The very powerful political roles of African queens and queen mothers in the precolonial era remain very instructive. European colonial officials and contemporary Western writers usually portrayed African women as having no role in political affairs. For Maillu, this erroneous notion about African women exhibited European “cultural male chauvinism” that was carried over to Africa.36 Nevertheless, like ancient Greeks, the village system was analogous to the city-states as each village was “autonomous and ‘sovereign’ in most matters affecting it” and tolerated no interference or dictation from any other group.37 At the village-group level, consisting of several villages, a representative system (more in the nature of modern representative democracy) evolved whereby each village elected or appointed its own delegate to the village-group assembly. At all levels, the common denominators were consultation, participation, and consensus as evidenced in Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart.38

In the Igbo village of Umuofia depicted in this novel, Achebe demonstrates the consultative and consensual nature of village politics and decision-making process. A neighboring village, Mbaino, murdered a daughter of Umuofia, and a village assembly urgently convened to decide on an appropriate line of action. After some deliberation, they decided to give Mbaino an ultimatum, “to choose between war on the one hand, and on the other the offer of a young man and a virgin as compensation.” In another scenario in Things Fall Apart, the Umuofia assembly decided to collect the sum of fifty bags of cowries to appease “the white man” who arrested six of their elders as part of an European effort to complete the colonial enclosure.39 Clearly, the Igbo system was a democracy that evolved independently and indigenously, a clear indication that democratic principle, whether ancient or modern, are not alien to Africans; they are rooted in the people’s indigenous tradition and values.

The precolonial political structure of Gikuyu (Kikuyu) of modern Kenya represents another example of direct and participatory democracy. Among the Gikuyu (Kikuyu people), as among the Igbo, there was no sole (paramount) ruler; eligible adults constituted the legislative assembly. “In the eyes of the Gikuyu people,” Jomo Kenyatta asserted, “the submission to a despotic rule of any particular man or group, white or black, is the greatest humiliation to mankind.”40 The origins of Gikuyu democracy are embodied in their historical-political legend. According to this legend, a despotic monarch who was ultimately overthrown by the people initially ruled Gikuyuland. After his overthrow, “the government of the country was at once changed from despotism to a democracy which was in keeping with the wishes of the majority of the people.” This popular revolution is known as itwika, derived from the twika, which “signified the breaking away from autocracy to democracy.”41 Although Kenyatta’s conclusion appears to coincide with the nationalist spirit and slogan of his time, there is little doubt that the Gikuyu loathed the notion of one-man dictatorship. Undoubtedly, “[t]he Gikuyu government prior to the advent of the Europeans was based on true democratic principles.”42

“Government among the Kikuyu units (villages) was “vested in the elders of one generation” or age-set known as riika (plural, mariika).43 Usually, the accession to power of a new generation takes place at recurring intervals, inaugurated by the handing over ceremony known as ituiko. The determination of the period of a generation was contingent on the composition of society at the time. However, generally, once most of the firstborn grandsons of the ruling generation are circumcised, the generation prepares to relinquish power to the next generation. Normally the gap between two official generations is much the same as the gap between the average ages of a man and his firstborn son.44 Essentially, circumcision was the only qualification, and it conferred recognition of manhood and the full right of citizenship. Legislative duties were reposed in the senior rank of the elders’ lodge representing the various constituent villages. The body empowered to legislate for a village group is, in theory, the elders of the ruling set, but in practice only in liaison with members of the other age-set.45 Consultation, representation, and consensus, as in the Igbo system, were the main features of Kikuyu indigenous political system; “it was the voice of the people or public opinion that ruled the country.”46

In some African societies, democratic systems took the form of representative (“constitutional”) monarchies almost approximating the English style, with well-crafted mechanisms of checks and balances. In these systems, society and government were more centralized and the power of the monarch limited by representative bodies or agencies. The Oyo Empire, which flourished in southwestern Nigeria from 1600 to1860, provides a classic example of this system. At the head of the Oyo Empire was the Alafin (emperor) who was the most important figure in the political system. Although, in theory, the Alafin’s power was absolute, in practice, another organ, the Oyomesi, limited his power. Furthermore, the need to retain public confidence and loyalty delimited the king’s exercise of absolute power.47 The Oyomesi served as a representative council of state consisting of seven members from each of the seven wards that made up the empire. Collectively, they were the kingmakers, and they commanded the imperial army with Bashorun, one of its members, as the commander-in-chief. Under a rigid system of checks and balances, the power of the Alafin was held in constant check by the Oyomesi. Another body, the Ogboni, made up of freemen of integrity, age, and experience and appointed by the Alafin with Oyomesi’s approval, in turn, regulated the authority of Oyomesi. Although the Oyo system differed from the Igbo structure of direct democracy, it would be na´ve to assume that there was absence of democratic values in the Oyo Empire. The Oyomesi blunted the powers of what could have otherwise degenerated into a one-man dictatorship.

The Buganda Kingdom of Uganda presents another good example of an “absolute king” whose powers were checked by parliament. While the Kabaka (the king) was, in principle, supreme, he ruled the kingdom in conjunction with a prime minister (katikkiro) and a parliament (lukiiko). Members of parliament were made up of the chiefs of outlying districts that comprised the kingdom. Although in theory the kabaka was not bound to take the advice of the katikkiro and the lukiiko, in practice he could not afford to ignore them. Kiwanuka pointed out how Kabaka Mutesa “learned to consult his chiefs on questions of great national importance such as war and peace and which religion to adopt.”48 The katikkiro could condone or even instigate plots against the king through other ambitious princes. After all, the kabaka did not become king through an automatic succession arrangement, as one would expect in a monarchy. Instead, he was elected from among a number of competing princes who equally had legitimate claims to the throne. Even when a reigning kabaka picked a possible successor, it was not binding because the prince so preferred had to meet the necessary criteria for enthronement as adjudged by the kingmakers.49

Although the political system of Buganda was based on kingship, it was apparently a representative monarchy in which parliament and the prime minister not only ensured representation according to the concept of modern democracy but also limited the powers of the king to avoid tyranny. Commentators on African indigenous systems usually ignore these in-built democratic values of representation and checks and balances that forestalled tyranny as well as ensured the participation of the people in government. While the Buganda system might easily be dismissed as undemocratic by Western political theorists, they would have no qualms in applauding the British monarchical structure as an ideal form of democracy. The reasons for this premeditated contradiction and hypocrisy can be placed squarely on the concept of the civilizing mission, the white man’s burden, and the argumentation put forward in the subsequent session.


Colonial Dictatorship

With the foregoing case studies, it is clear that before European invasion and colonization, variants of indigenous democracy—direct and participatory democracies and representative monarchies—existed in Africa. European colonial occupation and the resultant colonial rule disrupted these political systems. Since colonialism was justified by scientific racism, the superiority of whites over blacks, Europeans mystified themselves in the eyes of Africans through force and outright condemnation. African culture and innovation were systematically debased whether or not they approximated European ways. As Franz Fanon affirmed, “[t]he native is declared insensible to ethics; he represents not only the absence of values, but also the negation of values. . . . He is the corrosive element destroying all that comes near him . . . ; he is the depository of maleficent powers, the unconscious and irretrievable instrument of blind forces.”50

The establishment of colonial rule witnessed the appointment of governors from the metropolitan European capitals sent to rule over Africans. These governors were either military officers or career public servants, who had little or no regard for African tradition and values, political or cultural. The officials brought with them their agents of oppression and subordination, the colonial army and police who, according to Fanon, “speak the language of pure force.”51 Colonial governors and administrators were allowed wide powers to administer colonial subjects on behalf of their home governments. They were empowered to use all necessary means to “tame” and bring the “savages” under control. This meant issuing arbitrary ordinances without consultation. Since the colonial administrators “owed their loyalty to those who appointed them, they became very dictatorial, ruling by decree and incarcerating Africans without due process of the law.”52

With this system of imported governors with absolute powers, the existing indigenous democratic values, such as those reviewed in this study, were undermined and replaced with the dictatorship of the colonial governors. As Basil Davidson observed, European colonial officers ruled by decrees “administered by an authoritarian bureaucracy to which any thought of people’s participation was damnable subversion.”53 Whenever it suited them, the governors would create and impose chiefs with new, even if insignificant, powers over societies that never experienced chiefly autocracy. This sort of arbitrary action by colonial officials disrupted the political traditions of Africans, resulting in protests and riots among many groups as the Aba Women’s Riot of 1929 in Igboland demonstrated.54 The common denominator was the nonrepresentation of Africans in the decision-making process. African chiefs who were co-opted into the colonial administration became “errand boys” for European officials. Later, when colonial governments began to employ the concept of legislative council, individual persons, mostly chiefs, were appointed as representatives for their various peoples while African educated elites were shunned. This practice was a violation of the ideals of representative democracy as practiced in Europe, America, and Africa.

As the movements for independence mounted in the years immediately following the end of World War II, European colonizers began to place more emphasis on democracy, multiparty politics, and free market or capitalist economies. Participatory and representative politics (democracy) were no longer an anathema. The reasons for this shift in attitude and policy remain unclear; however, there is little doubt that the communist challenge and neocolonialism were crucial. As a bulwark against communist inroads, Western powers began to promote multiparty politics, elections, rule of law, and market economy in their African territories; and the impending independence created the need for a “new deal” to retain Africans as allies in the event of decolonization. Too little, too late!

Unfortunately, the dictatorship and wanton brutality of the colonial governors was adopted by African nationalists and later imitated by African postindependence leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Sekou Toure of Guinea, Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, and Arap Moi of Kenya. Like colonial governors, these leaders became very high-handed and viewed almost all forms of criticism and opposition against their policies as treason. They curtailed freedom of expression and imprisoned political rivals on flimsy grounds. Richard Sklar describes Moi’s predecessor, Jomo Kenyatta, as “one of a number of African presidents who have ruled beyond the reach of accountability.”55 This tradition of personal rule or what Ayittey describes as “sultanism” became prevalent among African postindependence leaders. Thus, the fundamental principle of African traditional government, “that is, rule by consent of the ruled was all but destroyed by the imposition of colonial rule and was cynically distorted and mangled when the one-party state allowed the emergence of ambitious, corrupt, and dictatorial African leaders, many in military uniform, after independence.”56 For Basil Davidson, therefore, African states “inherited the dictatorship and not the democracy, and anyone who thought it wasn’t so had better have his head examined.”57


Impulses for Democracy

The industrialized countries of the West have not faced the democratization project in Africa with any sense of consistency. While European colonial rule wrought the stifling of the indigenous democracies in Africa, the decolonization process and the attendant neocolonialism called for democratization despite the complicity of the West in supporting African dictators during the Cold War conflict. Similarly, the tensions of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the new era of globalization—all gave new impetus to democracy and democratization. Yet the problem with this new push is that the type of democracy proposed and, sometimes, foisted on Africans is the rigid, Western hegemonic version of it. In addition, the underlying assumption in this new drive is that Africans had never possessed or experienced democratic ideas and governments.

As postwar nationalist pressures in Africa and the aftermath of the war in Europe made European powers more aware of the need to prepare for the decolonization of their African colonies, they began to forge a new type of relationship that would help them maintain their influence in Africa, indirectly, in the event of actual independence. This was what became known as neocolonialism, “a many-sided attempt by outside powers to tie the new nations closely to the interests and needs of those outside powers.”58 In any case, this new relationship of indirect influence or control called for the radical socioeconomic and political transformation of the institutions of the colonial peoples in accordance with those of the departing colonizers. On this core Western-style democracy, capitalism, and democratization became a sine qua non on the eve of independence.

Although the United States was never an active colonial power in Africa—except for its informal influence in Liberia59—it became increasingly active in the post–World War II era. In the first place, it was the desire of the American multinational or transnational companies to operate in a decolonized Africa, free of colonial monopolies replete with tariffs and custom restrictions. Dominant business interests led by American transnational corporations and capitalism, as Davidson observed, “saw that political control of a direct kind, colonial control, was no longer useful to, but could often be an obstruction to, the continued extraction of wealth from Africa.”60 However, it had become clear to the Unites States that for Western capitalism to thrive in Africa, decolonization and democracy must be the necessary corollary. Secondly, the exigencies of the Cold War dictated that Africa would soon be a battleground for the ideological conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Although Africa is hardly a major actor in world politics, “the continent has been largely affected by the interests and ambitions of external powers.”61 For the United States, impending African independence posed the challenge of how to retain the former European colonies within the Western sphere of influence. Consequently, it acted promptly to contain Soviet incursions by urging European powers to make political concessions to African nationalists and promote constitutional developments that would install Western democracy in Africa. This was the beginning of the United States’ involvement in political transformation in Africa that led to independence. However, the West, especially the United States, paid only lip service to its democratic ideas by supporting sycophants and psychopaths against democratically elected leaders, as the case of Mobutu against Patrice Lumumba in the Congo and Jonas Savimbi against Eduardo dos Santos in Angola demonstrated. As Ayittey puts it, “The West stood by and watched as wily autocrats honed their skills to beat back the democratic challenge.”62 Clearly, the ideological interests of the West, both during the era of decolonization and thereafter, dictated its efforts in “promoting” democracy in Africa between 1945 and 1990. The former U.S. Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, succinctly observed that “during the long Cold War period, policies towards Africa were often determined not by how they affected Africa, but by whether they brought advantage to Washington or Moscow.”63

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War created a unipolar world under which the value of Africa was greatly diminished. According to Samuel Decalo, “What literally transpired was a massive devaluation in the ‘worth’ of Africa. African states were transformed from Cold War pawns, into irrelevant international clutter.”64 African states that depended on Soviet financial and military assistance began to collapse as their patron (USSR) withdrew its support. Worse still, a drastic fall in commodity prices further reduced the viability of most African states as they turned to the IMF and World Bank for funds. As a result, “simultaneous with the increased domestic pressures for change, and the new global balance of power, came powerful international demands for ‘better governance’ (an end to corruption), more democratization (civic and human rights), and ultimately, a free economy.”65 International donor fatigue set in. In conjunction with the United States and France, the World Bank and IMF began to demand political change (democratization) as a condition for further loans to Africa.

Discernible in all this is the dialectic between African autonomy and external interventionism. Since the successful European exploration of Africa in the fifteenth century, which inaugurated the ignoble slave trade and ultimately foisted colonialism on the continent, and even after, Africans have rarely exercised any real freedom of action. Most efforts in the direction of independence of thought and action have been frustrated by the frequent intervention of the Western powers in pursuit of their own agendas. Africa’s vital interests are usually subordinated to those of the West, as is now the case in this new era of globalization. Democracy and democratization now constitute an important part of the spread of Western values and hence Western dominance throughout the world. Since the demise of the Cold War in 1989, there is the feeling in the Western mind that “the formal political institutions of the new (dis)order are yet to be realized” and global capitalism “requires closer management if crisis is to be avoided.”66 To manage global capitalism, therefore, democracy and democratization became essential agents pursued in total disregard for African indigenous political culture and tradition.

Globalization has become a new feature in Africa’s relations with the West, defined in economic terms as the various processes that are promoting increased integration of the world economy.67 The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as well as most mainstream economists believe that the integration of international economy “represents opportunities for Africa that have to be aggressively pursued.” Jeffrey Sachs and Andrew Warner argued that “the current round of ‘globalization promises to lead to economic convergence for the [developing] countries that join the system.’”68 As the industrialized countries of the West view it, democratization and integration into the world economy are mutually reinforcing.

Nevertheless, this optimism is lopsided because it is mostly in vogue among Western commentators. In reality, pursuing economic and political liberalization concurrently makes both almost unachievable. For most Africanist scholars, the implication of globalization “is that low-income African economies are too vulnerable to benefit from generalized exposure to international market forces.”69 Globalization must be seen as a new wave of imperialism imposed on the developing countries by the more industrialized countries. In this push toward globalization, it is appreciated that the new global world would benefit the industrialized world more than the developing countries of Africa, especially in harnessing and exploiting global human and material resources. Firms from the industrialized countries would easily locate or relocate where wages are low and unions weak. Claude Ake has argued that the emerging global economic forces would undermine the sovereignty of African governments over economic matters, which would in turn make democracy irrelevant.70 However, globalization is not a recent phenomenon as such because much of the international economy has been integrated since the nineteenth century. Yet, there exists the paradox of Africa’s integration into the world economy even as the continent was becoming increasingly marginal to the outside world. It is still open to conceptual and empirical debate how much Africa has as yet been integrated into the global economy. After all, the last two decades witnessed the disengagement of global capital from much of Africa in spite of the democratization efforts by African leaders. Thus Michel-Rolph Trouillot was right in affirming that “while global flows increase in speed and velocity, most human beings continue to think and act locally.”71



Undoubtedly democracy is a vague and confusing concept misused and abused in relation to Africa. What is usually considered in the West as the democratization of Africa may well be a “redemocratization” process in which Africans should evoke or draw from their indigenous political traditions replete with democratic ideals. Inherent in precolonial African traditional political systems were democratic values and mechanisms for checks and balances that were disrupted, however, by the consequent European colonization. The main problem with Western-sponsored democracy and democratization is that they tend to be culturally biased and insensitive to indigenous political initiatives. Western writers and observers on this subject often assume that Africans were helpless bystanders in the face of the external impetus for democratization. Indeed, Africans themselves initiated much of the political demands and reforms in the 1990s in response both to local and global phenomena. Yet neither Africa’s indigenous democratic values nor pressures exerted by Africans for democratic reforms receive any recognition.

Western efforts in African democratization seem to be all about hegemony and the spread of Western culture as part of globalization. It is sustained by a brand of cultural arrogance that in the nineteenth century also supported scientific racism and European imperialism. After all, in principle and practice, since the time of the ancient Greeks, democracy has never meant the same thing to all peoples at all times. Europe and America have had variants of democracy, and they have usually tolerated or celebrated those political differences. Is it possible for Africa to forge ahead with its own brand of democracy devoid of outside prescription and intervention? Granted that Africans do not live in complete isolation, would it not yield better dividends if African countries were allowed to “redemocratize” based on their cultural norms and political traditions? Is it possible, in the face of the realities of the new world (dis)order anchored on globalization, pressures from the donors’ agencies (the international financial institutions), and the reawakening of the stereotypic view of African cultures and societies? Not surprisingly, Zeleza argues, “the future does not belong to democratic models imported from outside, but to those rooted in African traditions . . . traditions of struggle, not false harmonies, traditions that celebrate Africa’s diversities, rather than its imaginary uniformities.”72 Since Africa is not isolated from global phenomena, perhaps, a more viable and sustainable solution to the problem of democracy and democratization in the continent, as Basil Davidson contends, would lie in forging a new workable synthesis that derives “firmly from the African past, yet fully accepts the challenges of the African present.”73



1. Chandran Kukathas, “Friedrich Hayek: Elitism and Democracy,” in Liberal Democracy and Its Critics: Perspectives in Contemporary Political Thought, ed., April Carter and Geoffrey Stokes (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 1998), 21.

2. See Samuel M. Makinda, “Democracy and Multi-Party Politics in Africa,” Journal of Modern African Studies 34, no. 4 (1996): 562 and George B. N. Ayittey, “Prepared Statement,” Democracy in Africa: The New Generation of African Leaders, U.S. House Sub-Committee on African Affairs of the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, March 12, 1998, (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office), 20–21.

3. Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?” National Interest, 16 (1989): 3–18, as cited in Randall Schweller, “Democracy and the Post–Cold War Era,” in The New World Order: Contrasting Theories, ed. Birthe Hansen and Bertel Heurlin (London: Macmillan, 2000), 46.

4. See Jean-François Bayart, et al., The Criminalization of the State in Africa (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1999), 2–3; Bessie House-Soremekun, “Democratization Movements in Africa,” in Africa, vol. 5, Contemporary Africa, ed. Toyin Falola (Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 2003), 320; and Yohannes Woldermariam, “Democracy in Africa: Does It Have a Chance?” in Comparative Democracy and Democratization, ed. Howard J. Wiarda (Fort Worth, Tex.: Harcourt, 2002), 144.

5. Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, “The Democratic Transition in Africa and the Anglophone Writer,” Canadian Journal of African Studies 28, no. 3 (1994): 476.

6. Richard Joseph, “Democratization in Africa after 1989: Comparative and Theoretical Perspectives,” Comparative Politics 29, no. 3 (1997): 373.

7. Zeleza, “The Democratic Transition in Africa and the Anglophone Writer,” 476–77.

8. See Rudyard Kipling, “The White Man’s Burden,” McClure’s 12, no. 4 (1899): 290–91, as reprinted in Dennis Sherman, Western Civilization: Sources, Images, and Interpretations (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995), 271–72. See also Richard Fredland, Understanding Africa: A Political Economy Perspective(Chicago: Burnham, 2001), 141–42.

9. Vivian Lowery Derryck, “Testimony on Democracy in Africa, 1989–1999: Progress, Problems, and Prospects,” in U.S. House of Representatives, Hearing before the Sub-Committee on Africa of the Committee on International Relations, (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1999), 3; see also 38–47.

10. See George B. N. Ayittey, Africa in Chaos (New York: St. Martin’s, 1998), 90–92. Apart from undermining the existing democracy, Boahen argues that colonialism completely “isolated and insulated Africa” from global affairs and monumental changes. The loss of sovereignty and the consequent isolation of Africa from the outside world constitutes “one of the most pernicious impacts of colonialism on Africa and one of the fundamental causes of its underdevelopment and technological backwardness.” See Adu Boahen, African Perspectives on Colonialism (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1987), 99–100.

11. Jackson Spielvogel, Western Civilization: A Brief History (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1999), 87. See also Albert M. Craig, et al., The Heritage of World Civilizations, combined 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2000), 136–39.

12. Craig, et al., The Heritage of World Civilizations, 590–91. See also Howard Spodek, The World’s History, 2nd ed., vol. 11, Since 1100 Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2001), 480–82.

13. See David Held, Democracy and the Global Order: From the Modern State to Cosmopolitan Governance (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Univ. Press), 5; Martin Bernal, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, vol. 1 (London: Free Association, 1987); and Patricia Springborg, Western Republicanism and the Oriental Prince (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 1992).

14. Makinda, “Democracy and Multi-Party Politics in Africa,” 556.

15. Tony Smith, America’s Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy in the Twentieth Century (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1994), 13.

16. See Richard Sandbrook, “Liberal Democracy in Africa: A Socialist-Revisionist Perspective,” Canadian Journal of African Studies 22, no. 2 (1988): 244.

17. Joseph, “Democratization in Africa after 1989,” 365.

18. Makinda, “Democracy and Multi-Party Politics in Africa,” 557.

19. David G. Maillu, African Indigenous Political Ideology: African Cultural Interpretation of Democracy (Nairobi, Kenya: Maillu, 1997), 255.

20. Ibid., 238–39.

21. Held, Democracy and the Global Order, 5.

22. Ibid., 12.

23. Randall L. Schweller, “Democracy and the Post–Cold War Era,” in The New World Order: Contrasting Theories, ed. Birthe Hansen and Bertel Heurlin (London: Macmillan, 2000), 49.

24. Robert Dahl, “Justifying Democracy,” Transaction Social Science and Modern Society 32, no. 3 (1995): 46.

25. Danilo Zolo, Complexity and Democracy: A Realist Approach, trans. D. McKie (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 1992), as cited in Kate Nash, Contemporary Political Sociology: Globalization, Politics, and Power (Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell, 2000), 225. See also Jeffrey M. Berry, et al., The Rebirth of Urban Democracy (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1993), 203–6.

26. Zolo in Nash, Contemporary Political Sociology, 225. See also Berry et al., The Rebirth of Urban Democracy, 1–17.

27. Nash, Contemporary Political Sociology, 216.

28. Adam Przeworski, Democracy and the Market: Political and Economic Reforms in Eastern Europe and Latin America (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991), 13. See also Robert Fatton Jr., “Africa in the Age of Democratization: The Civic Limitations of Civil Society,” African Studies Review 38, no. 2 (1995): 81.

29. For a survey of precolonial African political systems and organization, see George P. Murdock, Africa: Its Peoples and Their Culture History (New York: McGraw Hill, 1959); M. Fortes and E. E. Evans-Pritchard, eds., African Political Systems (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1940); and Lucy Mair, African Societies (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1974).

30. Fortes and Evans-Pritchard, African Political Systems, 12–13. Africans recognize as clearly as Europeans do that power corrupts and men are likely to abuse it and so they ensure that when this occurs, measures are calculated to check it. See Maxwell Owusu, “Domesticating Democracy: Culture, Civil Society, and Constitutionalism in Africa,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 19, no. 1 (1997): 135–36.

31. Ayittey, Africa in Chaos, 91. In the sixteenth century, Ayittey noted, King Alfonso of the Kingdom of Kongo had Portuguese advisers and had allowed them to become members of the kingdom’s electoral college who represented the interests of the Portuguese segment of the resident population.

32. Ayittey, Africa in Chaos, 85–95.

33. S. N. Nwabara, Iboland: A Century of Contact with Britain 1860–1960 (London: Hodder and Stroughton, 1977), 22.

34. Victor C. Uchendu, The Igbo of Southeast Nigeria (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1965), 39, 41; see also G. I. Jones, Intelligence Report on the Northern and Southern Groups of the Isu Clan, Orlu District, Owerri Province, Enugu National Archives, Nigeria, Milgov 13/1/27, ser. no. 108, 1935, 13.

35. Uchendu, The Igbo of Southeastern Nigeria, 41–42. See also Ebere Nwaubani, “Acephalous Societies,” in Africa, vol. 1, African History before 1885, ed. Toyin Falola (Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 2000), 275–94.

36. Maillu, African Indigenous Political Ideology, 257.

37. Uchendu, The Igbo of Southeast Nigeria, 39, 41.

38. See Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart 1958 New York: Anchor, 1994).

39. Achebe, Things Fall Apart, 10–11 and 192–97. Achebe recorded that “there must have been about ten thousand” Umuofia men who gathered to decide on the appropriate line of action against Mbaino, 10.

40. Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya: The Tribal Life of the Gikuyu (London: Secker and Warburg, 1938; repr., London: Hollen Street Press, 1959), 196.

41. Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya, 187. See also Vincent B. Khapoya, The African Experience: An Introduction 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1998), 62.

42. Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya, 186.

43. See H. E. Lambert, Kikuyu Social and Political Institutions (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1956), 40. Every generation inherits the name of that to which its grandfather belonged, though this is normally applied to it when it is politically immature, that is, before it had become the ruling generation designate. Once it begins to rule, the generation assumes its own name.

44. Lambert, Kikuyu Social and Political Institutions, 41–42.

45. Ibid., 131, 139.

46. Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya, 195.

47. Robin Law, The Oyo Empire, c. 1600–c. 1836: A West African Imperialism in the Era of the Atlantic Slave Trade (Oxford: Clarendon, 1977; repr. 1991), 65–82; see also A. A. B. Aderibigbe, “Peoples of Southern Nigeria,” in A Thousand Years of West African History: A Handbook for Teachers and Students, ed. J. F. Ade Ajayi and Ian Espie (Ibadan, Nigeria: Ibadan Univ. Press, 1965), 193–201.

48. M. S. M. Semakula Kiwanuka, A History of Buganda: From the Foundation of the Kingdom to 1900 (New York: Africana, 1972), 125, 189.

49. Khapoya, The African Experience, 63.

50. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Penguin, 1967), 32.

51. Ibid., 29.

52. Apollos O. Nwauwa, “The Legacies of Colonialism and the Politics of the Cold War” in Africa, vol. 5, Modern Africa, ed. Toyin Falola (Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 2003), 15. See also Robert Pinkney, Democracy in the Third World (Boulder, Col.: Lynne Rienner, 1994), 44. However, through exposure to Western culture and higher education, for good or evil, African elites acquired some knowledge of democratic institutions.

53. Basil Davidson, The Black Man’s Burden: Africa and the Curse of Nation-State (New York: Times Books, 1992), 208. See also Nwauwa, “Legacies of Colonialism,” 16.

54. See Report of the Commission of Inquiry on the Disturbances in the Calabar and Owerri Provinces, 1929 (Lagos, Nigeria: Government Printer, 1930); A. E. Afigbo, The Warrant Chiefs System: Indirect Rule in Southeastern Nigeria, 1891–1929 (London: Longman, 1972); Obaro Ikime, “Reconsidering Indirect Rule: The Nigerian Example,” Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria 4, no. 3 (1968); Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (London: Bogle-L’Ouverture, 1972).

55. Richard L. Sklar, “Democracy in Africa,” African Studies Review 26, no. 3–4 (1983): 14. See also Makinda, “Democracy and Multi-Party Politics in Africa,” 560.

56. Owusu, “Domesticating Democracy,” 136.

57. Davidson, The Black Man’s Burden, 208.

58. Basil Davidson, Modern Africa: A Social and Political History, 3d. ed. (London: Longman, 1994), 197. Under this sort of indirect colonization, “Weak African economies could continue to be milked by strong non–African economies without any of the costly and often hated apparatus of colonial government.” Ibid., 100.

59. The American Colonization Society “founded” Liberia in 1848 as a resettlement for American freed slaves. The present capital of Liberia, Monrovia, was named after President Monroe. Although European powers assumed that the United States had strong colonial influence in Liberia, the settlers preserved and defended their independence, resisting any American attempt to dictate for them.

60. Davidson, Modern Africa, 99–100. See also Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, 284–85. For Rodney, the changeover from colonialism to what is known as neocolonialism did have the element of conspiracy in it.

61. Naomi Chazan and others, Politics and Society in Contemporary Africa, 2d ed. (Boulder, Col.: Lynne Rienner, 1992), 377.

62. Ayittey, “Prepared Statement,” 20.

63. John W. Harbeson, “Externally Assisted Democratization: Theoretical Issues and African Realities,” in Africa in World Politics: The African State System in Flux, ed. John W. Harbeson and Donald Rothchild, 3d ed. (Boulder, Col.: Westview, 2000), 245.

64. Samuel Decalo, “The Process, Prospect, and Constraints of Democratization in Africa,” African Affairs 92 (1992): 17.

65. Ibid., 18.

66. Nash, Contemporary Political Sociology, 256.

67. Nicholas Van de Walle, “Globalization and African Democracy,” in State, Conflict, and Democracy in Africa, ed. Richard Joseph (Boulder, Col.: Lynne Rienner, 1999), 96.

68. See Jeffrey Sachs and Andrew Warner, “Economic Reform and the Process of Globalization,” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity 1 (1995): 1–198, as qtd. in Van de Walle, “Globalization and African Democracy,” 96.

69. Van de Walle, “Globalization and African Democracy,” 96.

70. Claude Ake, “Globalization, Multilateralism, and the Shrinking Democratic Space,” in Future Multilateralism: The Political and Social Framework, ed. Michael Schecter (New York: Macmillan, 1998), as cited in Van de Walle, “Globalization and Democracy,” 96.

71. Michel-Rolph Trouillot, “The Perspective of the World: Globalization Then and Now,” in Beyond Dichotomies: Histories, Identities, Cultures, and the Challenge of Globalization, ed. Elizabeth Mudimbe-Boyi (New York: State Univ. of New York, 2002), 14.

72. Zeleza, “The Democratic Transition in Africa and the Anglophone Writer,” 489.

73. Basil Davidson, “Questions about Nationalism,” African Affairs 76, no. 302 (1977): 44. See also Maxwell Owusu, “Democracy and Africa: A View from the Village,” Journal of Modern African Studies 30, no. 3 (1992): 378.


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