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Deconstructing Liberal Democracy in Africa


- By Mwalimu George Ngwane

( Wednesday, January 25, 2006 )

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"On December 27, 2002, the Kenya Africa National Union's, KANU, 40-year supremacy came to a halt thanks to a coalition of 16 opposition parties under the National Rainbow Coalition, NARC, umbrella."


Liberal democracy is the system that relies on the dynamics of certain established stages in articulating its values and producing its actions.Some aspects of these stages, which are part of the process, include the production of a national constitution, the selection of candidates by political parties, the monitoring of the electoral process and freedom of assembly.

Author, Mwalimu Ngwane [ Photo Left: Mwalimu Ngwane ]
(Lumumba-Kasongo 2005: 197). Last year marked the fifteenth anniversary of the institution of liberal democracy in more than 30 countries in Africa.While few countries have thrived through liberal democracy, several have ended up either as failed states, rogue states or even a "bunker praetorian state". External desiderata on Africa's economic leap still rely on pro-capitalist models of development that focus on market forces that subsume society's interest. These models have further centralised power in the hands of the technocratic elites (Kohli: 1997: 73).

The African technocratic elites have been evasive of a democratic substance (economic development, social security, etc) in favour of a democratic form that emphasises mainly party formation, elections and constitutional engineering. No doubt that the last fifteen years have been characterised by procedural elections where financial weight is in billions of FCFA and outcome predictable. For many political leaders, the holding of multiparty election is nothing but an alibi aimed at qualifying them for the benefits of benevolent globalisation (Cassen 2001). In fact, the concept of party formation under multiparty has not been a conduit to articulating the interest of the masses, but a source of primitive wealth accumulation (utility outcome) for politicians.

National constitutions that are supposed to be the glue of national cohesion have been personalised to perpetrate the tenacity syndrome of "occult" powercrats. This partly explains why within the last fifteen years alternative modes of deconstructing liberal democracy in Africa have been varied and complex, each with different results. The underlying aim of this deconstruction process is to disempower the predatory elites, which use elections as instruments of control and the constitution as an object of manipulation. The goal has been to reconstruct a social tool for articulating a progressive functioning society for all, to reconnect the leaders with the led and to chart a veritable social contract beyond elections.

Some of these deconstructive modes include coalition building, constitutional amendments, popular mobilisation and benign militocracy. Coalition building occurs when parties (especially opposition) create alliances or partnership to dislodge the power of incumbency. The parties tentatively overcome their ideological differences and personality bickering in order to capture the reins of state power. The demise of the "Parti Socialiste" in Senegal, which had been in power for close to 40 years was possible in 2000 when political weights like Abdoulaye Wade (Parti Democratique Senegalais), Idrissa Seck and Moustapha Niasse (Alliance des Forces du Progres) rallied under the "Sopi" (change) banner.

On December 27, 2002, the Kenya Africa National Union's, KANU, 40-year supremacy came to a halt thanks to a coalition of 16 opposition parties under the National Rainbow Coalition, NARC, umbrella. That same NARC is being threatened today by yet another coalition building splinter groups called the Orange Democratic Movement. Constitutional amendments continue to be carried out either to limit presidential tenure of office, devolve power to the regions, share power among the political class or separate power among the various institutions (executive, legislature, judiciary, civil society). Limiting the mandate of the president has become a popular means to check "the unique political culture of absolutism" that characterised the reigns of Jean Bedel Bokassa, Hastings Banda and Mobutu Sese Seko of the former Central African Empire, Malawi and former Zaire, respectively. While this has succeeded in Mozambique, Namibia and Tanzania, it is taking a frustrating volte-face in Uganda, Gabon, Chad, Burkina Faso and Niger.

Popular Mobilisation

Political racketeers in Nigeria and Cameroon are scheming for this third term madness or the elastic elongation of Presidential mandates for Obasanjo of Nigeria and Biya of Cameroon presently serving their last Presidential terms. Popular mobilisation or people power that was the basis of independence struggles in the late 50s, and liberal democratic movements in the 90s came to the zenith in 1994 when Nelson Mandela became President of South Africa. Since then, either as organised expansionary pressure groups (trade unions) or groundswell of grassroots movement (strikes), people power has become a permanent feature in the African political landscape.

Trade unions like the Congress of South African Trade Unions, COSATU, in South Africa, Nigeria Labour Congress and Ghana Trade Union Congress continue to force their governments to the negotiating tables on bread and butter issues. A clear manifestation of popular mobilisation took place in October 2000 when Ivorians pushed out Robert Guei, who fraudulently proclaimed himself winner of the presidential elections in favour of Laurent Gbabgo. Ultimately, the success of people power lies largely on civil society actors like the media, church, traditional rulers and organic intellectuals.

Benign Militocracy

A militocracy or military intervention was thought, with the institution of liberal democracy, to be a thing of the past. In fact, Article 30 of the African Union treaty condemns it. Yet a resurgent phenomenon (after Sankara, Rawlings, Murtala Mohamed, Ahladji Toumani Toure) called benign militocracy seems to be making its appearance once more. On March 15, 2003, General Francois Bozize of Central African Republic ousted the democratically elected regime of Ange Felix Patasse before "civilianising" himself as President in 2005. Faure Gnassingbe of Togo benefited from a military apparatchik to foist himself President only 24 hours after his father's (Gnassingbe Eyadema) death in February 2005 before "legitimising himself as president a few months later (May 2005). The African Union was stunned by the jubilation that greeted the military junta in Mauritania when it took over power from the 20-year misrule of Ould Ahmed Taya on August 3, 2005. Liberal democracy gave us the feeling that opposition parties provided the alternative voices, but instead warlords or rebel movements (the case of Ivory Coast) and benign militocracy seem to be walking where opposition parties fear to tread. The sine qua non condition for a better functioning multipartyism and democracy is that the state has to provide social security, improve the standards of living and provide advancement of all. (Lumumba-Kasongo 2002:2). As Julius Nyerere put it 'to advocate a strong state is to advocate a state, which among other things, has power to act on behalf of the people in accordance with their wishes '(Nyerere 1993.3). What all of these show is that liberal democracy is clearly not thriving and it is by no means clear whether we should be celebrating the triumph of democracy or lamenting its demise (Ake: 1997:3). The survival mentality of the political class (both incumbent and opposition) and the traumatic effects of multinational interest are so entrenched in Africa's body politic that it will need a revolutionary legitimacy of democracy to reallocate ownership and resources to the African masses. In this vein, the rise of expansionary pressures and emancipatory movements as well as the nurturing of a young visionary leadership may as well be the antidote to Africa's fifteen years of truncated Hobbesian democracy. Beyond the discourse of Afrocentrism and the "scar on the conscience of the world" metaphor, Africans need an inward-looking critique to invent a real democracy that strikes a chord with the upliftment of the masses strapped in penury and despair.

The African Union would need to be inspired by the faith of a continental government and a common citizenship instead of being frightened by the fears of regional destabilisation and annexationist appetite.

George Ngwane is a writer and Chairman of National Book Development Council - Cameroon, Box 364, Buea, South West Province, Cameroon.

Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) supporters give the party's open hand salute.
Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) supporters give the party's open hand salute during an election rally in Harare, Zimbabwe, Sunday, March 27, 2005.
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