“Democracy” or Progress: What do Africans want? 0

There is a deadly bug spreading across Africa like wildfire. And this time, it is not the coronavirus. It is military coup d’états which have been designed to take down monarchies or incompetent African leaders.

This contagion has moved from Sudan to Mali, spreading to Chad, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Niger, and recently to Gabon.

The question now is who is going to be the virus’ next victim; the bug which is causing ineffective African leaders to tremble in their pants?

The bug is relentless in its attack and giving its mutatinality, it has struck fear in many. It is a matter of when it next gets a victim, not if it will attack those who have made themselves unpopular due to their economic and political reasons.

With flu and other contagious infections, people take vaccines to protect themselves, but this new infection in Africa has prompted the leaders of Rwanda, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and Congo Brazzaville to take proactive measures to keep themselves safe by restructuring their security and defense teams.

Following the recent military coup in Gabon, where the reign of the Bongo family was ended after 56 years, President Bola Tinubu of Nigeria declared that this is “a contagion of autocracy.”

President Tinubu is only half right. The men in military fatigues who now occupy some presidential palaces in Africa through coups are not democratically elected, have seized power through arms, and are autocrats. But for President Tinubu to consider Omar al-Bashir, Ali Bongo, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta and some deposed leaders as representatives of democracy is outright incorrect.

Democracy is more than just elections. Most of the elections held on the continent of Africa are sham elections designed to keep the international community and donors off the backs of African leaders.

In a democratic polity, the government must be created and maintained with the people’s consent, with a clearly defined system of conducting free and fair elections with the citizens encouraged to participate in the political process.

Genuine democracies have a separation of power where authority is not concentrated in the hands of a single individual.

A genuine democracy must have a mechanism for protecting Human Rights and guaranteeing freedom of speech.

Finally, a proper democratic system embodies the rule of law or due process of law where all citizens are accountable to laws publicly passed and equitably enforced by an independent judicial system.

John Stuart Mill argued that democracy gives each person a share of political power, forcing leaders to consider the rights and interests of the wider population.

But this cannot be true of the people in Niger, Gabon, Mali, Burkina Faso and most African countries. In politics, we learn that coups will likely happen in unconsolidated democracies where leaders abuse the state apparatus for personal gain. 

One doesn’t have to be a genius to identify the problems facing the countries that have recently had military coups and most of Africa– poverty, inequality, lack of basic infrastructure, non-existent healthcare systems, corruption, poor educational set-up, hopelessness, sky-high youth and adult unemployment, unaffordable food prices, illiteracy, high fertility rate, food insecurity, insecurity, bad governance, frequent power cuts and much more.

 If democracy is a government of the people and for the people, as Lincoln stated, its purpose must be to provide economic benefits, development, and human dignity to its citizens.

Despite the obvious failure of the recently deposed leaders and the political class in Africa to live up to what democracy stands for, some are calling for ECOWAS to intervene in Niger to restore a version of democracy that doesn’t consider the best interests of citizens.

The people clamouring for ECOWAS to intervene militarily in Niger to restore “democracy” are not doing that for Niger or Africa’s interests. A war to restore what ECOWAS and France call democracy in Niger will be a monumental error of judgment and a failure of diplomacy by Nigeria, the regional powerhouse.

President Bola Tinubu has more than enough on his plate in Nigeria and should not fall into the trap of playing to the gallery of the world stage. He has access to a sea of gifted IR scholars and historians in Nigeria; he should listen to their wise counsel.

The imminent challenge for President Tinubu and a few other decent African leaders is to design an immediate and binding architecture for good government in Africa.

Civilian coups through sham elections and presidencies for life through constitutional amendments must be frowned upon and discontinued.

This move will restore confidence in the state governing structure. Until the AU gets member states to sign up to a binding architecture on government for the people, coups will be more frequent in the foreseeable future.

According to Schmitter and Karl, modern political democracy is a system of governance in which citizens hold rulers accountable for their actions in the public realm.

But most African presidents are civilian coup leaders who have never won genuine elections and treat the state as their private property.

Most of them are accomplished kleptocrats who are not responsible to anyone. The celebration of coup leaders in many countries is a massive indictment of the quality of democracy in Africa.

President J F Kennedy observed “that those who possess wealth and power in poor nations must accept their own responsibilities. They must lead the fight for those basic reforms which alone can preserve the fabric of their societies. Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

The tyranny of the minority at the top of governments in Africa is irresponsible and a catalyst for coups. Africans want good infrastructure, education, sound healthcare systems, food and energy security and a responsible state.

Democracy is a fantastic and non-negotiable political concept when appropriately practiced. But Africans must look at the infrastructure miracle, economic development and progress in China over the last 30 years and contemplate that despite the absence of democracy in that country, anyone who can deliver such improvement for Africa would be welcome.

Until democracy is defined and practiced to benefit the people of Africa, military coups are here to stay.

By Isong Asu

London Bureau Chief, Cameroon Concord News Group

Asu is a researcher and columnist with interests in Public Policy, Economic Development, and Institutions of Democracy in the Developing World. He is a Department of Government, University of Essex graduate, earning a BA in Politics and International Relations, and is pursuing an MA in Public Policy. He is researching and writing his maiden book on Politics in Sub-Saharan Africa and lives in London, UK. Talk back at asu.ashu@yahoo.co.uk