The Prospects For Democracy In Africa

by Kofi Abrefa Busia

Delivered at the Eighteenth Christmas Holiday Lectures and Discussions for Tomorrow's Citizens. Organized by The Council for Education in World Citizenship. London. 4th January 1961

I would like to begin by referring to an interesting paragraph which appeared in the notes on the programme prepared for the lectures and discussions of this conference. It read:

"There is always something new out of Africa." A famous man of the Ancient World wrote this a very long time ago. Perhaps the "something new" in this 20th century may be a fresh hope for humanity. This, at any rate, must be the thought with which we enter upon the 18th Christmas holiday lectures.

I think a realist who, against the background of the political situation in Africa today, contemplates the prospects for democracy, would not find very much that would raise fresh hope for humanity. Such hope would need to be firmly founded on faith: faith is the strength, the appeal and the universality of the values of democracy.

To me a disturbing feature of the contemporary world situation is the apparent lack of faith and conviction in democracy, even amongst those who live in the long established democracies of what is generally referred to as the West. I shall return to this point later.

The realization that the tender plant of parliamentary democracy planted on the African soil by Colonial powers is by no means robust, has caused apologists to offer easy explanations in defence of undemocratic actions.

Is it alien?

It has been suggested that parliamentary democracy is unsuitable for Africa, because it is alien to African thought and way of life. This has been repeated so often recently that it seems to be gaining wide support, for, after all, it is those who are supposed to have expert knowledge of Africa, and who regard themselves to be friends of Africa, who avow it; and those who are not experts can only accept their judgment.

Others argue that the tasks which face the new States of Africa make parliamentary democracy an unnecessary impediment to rapid progress. Such aspects of parliamentary democracy as the right to criticize, or the formation of parties opposed to those in power are undesirable hindrances, mere spokes in the wheel of progress. They should therefore be dispensed with, at least until more important tasks have been accomplished. What are these tasks?

National Unity

Two principal ones have been indicated. The first is the need to achieve national unity. The new States in Africa are the creation of Colonial Powers. At Independence, narrow tribal and regional loyalties re-assert themselves, and the new State has to be welded into a nation. For this task, it is argued, a strong leader, a strong centralized government, and firm measures are required; therefore, according to the apologists, what in the old democracies may seem undemocratic measures are justifiable in the peculiar circumstances of Africa.

From this, the apologists slide into the assertion that it is not right to judge the African situation by the standards of Europe. This is, I think, dangerous for international relations. It would seem to set up different standards of democracy for different countries, and this could lead to a chaotic state of affairs for democracy.

Economic Development

A second danger is that of racialism. Behind this apparently generous gesture works a subtle but smug idea: "They cannot be as good as we are, so do not let us judge them by our standards." Racial arrogance has already done so much harm to international relations that new forms of racialism, however mild they may appear, need to be carefully watched.

As some of the new African States have shown, for example, the Congo in a negative but very noteworthy and forceful way, or Nigeria in a positive and equally noteworthy way, modern nation building can be on the basis of the federation of tribes and regions. The apologists for authoritarian centralized regimes seem to forget that democratic nations were, once upon a time, built on the basis of the federation of tribes. I may cite the Scandinavian countries where my friends who are experts in Constitutional Law, have told us that the State laws still reflect the tribal laws on which the States were based.

The second principal task pointed to in defence of authoritarianism is some of the new African States is the need for rapid economic development. Standards of living have to be raised considerably, and in as short a time as possible, and this, it is again argued, can only be done under a strong leader and a strong centralized regime that can adopt a planned economic and social development, and impose the necessary social discipline.

I may point out that this is not a problem peculiar to Africa. Accelerated economic growth anywhere tends to increase the role of government in economic life; this can be a real threat to democracy and needs watching. In the African situation, the threat is great and serious because African States just emerged from Colonialism offer easy opportunities for near-absolute authoritarianism and dictatorship.

One reason for this is to be found in the historical situation of Colonial rule. It should be borne in mind that in the Colonies, prior to Independence, Colonial powers exercise an authority that is at best paternalistic and often near-absolute. Colonial rule does not offer shining examples of tolerance of criticism or opposition. Those who first take over from Colonial rulers thus inherit a paternalistic or near-absolute power, and some of them do not hesitate to exploit this tradition for their own purposes. Sponsoring rapid economic growth just comes in handy as an additional and convenient reason for the governments of some of the new States of Africa to suppress criticism of their decisions and activities; or to explain away inefficiency or corruption, or to justify dictatorship. It has been used to underline democracy or to smother its growth.

The question which we cannot avoid asking is whether economic development and nation building must mean authoritarianism and denial of freedom. Is it true that roads, railways, houses, harbours, factories and the like can only be quickly built under dictatorial forms of government?

A Choice of Values

I find that experts are not agreed as to whether in fact dictatorships achieve higher levels of output and consumption, and more quickly and efficiently than democracies. There are disputes about published statistics and the claims based on them. But even if this were so, and there are those who stoutly maintain that dictatorships achieve faster economic growth, there would be a fundamental question to answer. It raises a question of values. Which should have priority: material output or democracy? The choice made will determine the methods considered suitable to use.

Here I must admit my bias. I am in the camp of those who place a higher value on democracy than on material value. I therefore do not think that countries should develop more rapidly, even if they could, than is feasible within a democratic framework. This is based on the belief that human beings are what matter most in the world.

I must add that I am convinced that adequate economic growth, as much as the available resources and personnel make possible in any of the new States in Africa, can be achieved within a democratic framework, should those in power choose to do so. It is neither necessary nor essential to resort to dictatorial methods in order to raise agricultural productivity or stimulate industrialisation, or secure adequate savings. According to experts, an annual rate of growth of 4% per annum would represent a rapid rate of growth in any of the new States of Africa, and this could be achieved without resort to authoritarianism or dictatorship or communism. Indeed, I think this rate of growth could be achieved whilst cherishing and encouraging the development of parliamentary institutions and forms.

Public Opinion

Let me elaborate a little on some of the things I have in mind. A democratic society needs a well informed and effective public opinion. This is often lacking in African States. It should not be impossible along with rapid economic development to encourage a free and honest Press, or voluntary associations, or free trade unions, professional bodies, or farmers' associations which represent a variety of interests and protect a variety of liberties. Yet when some new African States have failed to resist the temptation to bring all such organisations under centralized control, they have sought to justify their action by saying that such controls are demanded by the need for rapid economic growth.

I am thinking also of organised opposition parties. I do not find economic development inherently incompatible with the institution of a political opposition. Every government, if it is to remain democratic, needs to be under constant observation and scrutiny. Criticism and the free expression of opinion should help a government to discover truth. Yet when some of the new States in Africa have severely limited or denied opportunities for an opposition to exist, or to criticise the government, or to offer the electorate an alternative government; when they have stifled freedom by arbitrary arrests and imprisonment, without even the opportunity of a trial, they have sought to justify those actions by stating that democratic institutions, such as an organized opposition, are alien to Africa, and some have gone further to evoke something called the African Personality in justification. The meaning of this concept is not clear, since Africa is a land not of one culture, but of many cultures.

The truth is that the problem is really one of values and choice. It is a problem of choosing measures which combine effectiveness with freedom, rather than those which menace freedom.

If all the new African States were uniformly authoritarian or dictatorial, it would lend some truth to the claim that parliamentary democracy was unsuited to Africa. When we look carefully at the nations of Africa, however, we see different political forms emerging or being maintained - by respective choices and not by any inherent Africanism or so-called African Personality. Some of the new African States are developing rigid one-party rule, reminiscent of fascism others are trying to maintain democratic forms based on federated regions, whilst in some others, hereditary monarchies are striving to direct the change from traditional chiefdoms to modern democratic States presided over by constitutional monarchs. The wind of change is not blowing everyone to the same haven. Whilst there are African leaders who are busy destroying democratic institutions, there are others who are determined to secure and maintain them for their countries.

The claim that parliamentary democracy is alien to Africa is sometimes advanced by putting questions which look back to the past. Did African communities possess Western parliamentary institutions? Did they have the ballot box? Did they have opposition parties? Are not these alien institutions? The implication being that since these did not form part of African political systems in the past, their rejection in present circumstances is justified.

Yet this line of reasoning is not applied to all the borrowed political institutions, for some of those who profess it do so when speaking as a President, or Prime Minister, or Cabinet Minister, or Party Official. These are statuses and roles which they owe to borrowed political institutions.

Nor is the same argument applied to other cultural borrowings, such as economic institutions. What provides the setting to the contemporary social and political problems of Africa is the fact of rapid social change. African culture is not static. New ideas, new inventions, and new institutions are constantly being borrowed, adapted, and fitted into existing cultural patterns. The background to the problems of Africa is the speed of cultural change due principally to the impact of European science, technology, ideas and institutions.

Faint-hearted democrats

I said at the beginning that what I find to be a disturbing feature of the contemporary world situation is the apparent lack of faith in democracy, even among those who belong to the long-established democracies of the West. Permit me to digress a little to return to this point. I believe it is not irrelevant to my subject.

The emphasis which the Western world has placed on the need for raising standards of living in Africa, and the increasing aid being given for this purpose, seem to me to be eloquent testimony of the attitude of the West. The West seems to be saying to Africa "We see that there is much poverty in Africa. We are convinced that our technology, our skills, and our capital will help you overcome your poverty. We have faith in our science and technology, and we are convinced that the economic development which they can bring you is good for you. We are aware that you cannot have economic development without social change; there may be some quite drastic changes in your accepted beliefs, habits sad institutions; but we believe the price is worth paying, for we have the vision of an Africa enriched by higher output and consumption. So we press economic development upon you: we offer you technical aid, skills, and capital."

There is much evidence to show that, on the other side, Africa responds favourably to this ardent persuasion. African leaders do not say "Your motor cars, trains, aeroplanes, radio and television; your dams and mines and factories; your science and technology are alien to our way of life." On the contrary, they welcome the promise of higher standards of living, and want it quickly fulfilled, and everyone of us shares that wish.

But when it comes to questions concerning the practice of democracy, the West does not show the same faith and conviction. The West seems to say haltingly: "We are not so sure; economic development is a universal need, and we have no qualms about transplanting our economic institution: they should function in Africa; but democracy as we know it has taken generations to take root and grow in our soil; in your alien soil it may not, probably cannot even grow; our radio, our television, our mechanical plants may also be alien to your soil, but we have faith that they can and must grow in your soil; as for our democracy. our faith in human dignity and freedom, our cherished traditions of civil liberties, our practise of seeking truth and good government through the free expression and juxtaposition of opposing views, our system of parties - these may not have the same validity; at any rate, we cannot press them upon you with the same conviction that we can press economic development upon you."

In presenting the case in this way, I am aware that I lay myself open to the charge that I have over-simplified the position, and that there is much more to it than I have implied; or that I am being grossly unfair. I have stuck my neck out in this way, because I do wish to say that a study of many apologetic statements made by Westerners in defence of undemocratic practices in Africa, has left on my mind the impression that there is a lack of faith or conviction or vision in the Tree World for the triumph of democracy in Africa.

By contrast, those who propagate communism in Africa do so with such fervour and conviction that it should cause no surprise that they are winning converts. The West should take note of this. If those to whom democracy is a precious inheritance manifest such languid fervour, and lukewarm enthusiasm for it, how can enthusiastic or fervent converts be won in Africa? Lukewarm loyalty and sometimes even flagrant disloyalty to democracy by citizens of the Free World has not only constituted a sad betrayal of those Africans who believe in the democratic way of life for Africa, but of democracy itself.

It may be this has been partly due to the fear that criticism, or the stand that accepted standards of democracy in the West, should be applicable to the actions of African governments, will lose the friendship and confidence of these governments. But is the cause of democracy served by accepting different standards of tolerance, or freedom, or veracity, or human rights?

Having digressed to get this off my chest, let me take up the argument that parliamentary democracy is alien to Africa. The ballot box, the mace, parliaments, cabinet ministers, presidents, and prime ministers are all indeed comparatively recent introductions and innovations. But before we conclude that democracy is alien to Africa (and we are presumably expected to agree that by that token it is therefore unworkable and unsuited to Africa), we need to probe deeper. Were we to ask whether in African communities there were checks on the powers of chiefs and rulers, whether there was scope for discussion or participation by the people in their civic affairs, or in the choice of their rulers, or their removal, we would find examples from widely separate communities in Africa to give affirmative answers to these questions.

The problem which the States of Africa must face is how to give expression to democratic values in the context of the new societies that have come into being, chiefly as the result of contacts with Europe through trade, through colonial rule, through education, through technology and science, and through Christianity.

The contention that democracy is alien and therefore unsuited to Africa is a mere red herring. Like any other aspect of culture, democracy can be learnt. Obviously, the history and culture of a people will determine and mould the institutional forms through which they pursue their democratic goals and values, and therefore different cultural patterns can be expected. But this cannot mean that democracy in one country can connote oppression, injustice, arbitrary arrests and imprisonment, and deprivation of elementary human rights, whilst in another country these very things will be regarded as unmistakable indices of the absence of democracy. Without common recognisable standards, without a common moral language for democracy, it would cease to be a meaningful term.

Admittedly, democracy is insecure in most of the States of Africa today. The prospect does not look very bright. In some States, this is because the preconditions necessary for success are not present, or are inadequate, for just as there are preconditions for successful economic growth, so there are necessary preconditions for successful democracy.

In other States, it is because the cult of personality, and the rituals of bare worship have encouraged the suppression of freedom and the establishment of authoritarian patterns which threaten to destroy democracy. And in every new State, there are difficulties to face, for example, there are problems of adjusting traditional political institutions to Western parliamentary ones, there are, in the context of rapid social change, problems of providing for the continuity of cherished traditional values, or of finding trained personnel for the tasks that need to be performed.

It is becoming increasingly clear, and many are learning or discovering it, that independence from foreign rule does not automatically give freedom to the individual.

I believe that personal freedom is the true test of democracy, for in the last resort, the purpose of politics is the freedom and uplift of the individual.

African countries are gaining independence from colonial rule but freedom has yet to be extended to the town, the village, and the individual.

It is my conviction that democracy can be achieved, and that the fundamental values of democracy are not alien to Africa or to any country. Man, whatever his colour, or wherever he lives, has a worth and importance greater than material things and I would add that it is in the democratic tradition that the individual has an importance higher than the State. This faith which has inspired democracy in the West can do so in Africa also.

Economic development need not destroy individual freedom. Although sponsoring economic growth may provide temptations to undermine democracy, it can also provide opportunities for the uplift of man. It could provide a common purpose in which all can join in the battle against hunger, disease and ignorance; and it could promote human dignity and democracy if man learnt to co-operate to serve first, not the richest or the most powerful, but those who are suffering the most. One would like to think that this U the reason why Africa nowadays gets so much attention, and not just because the cold war has been extended there.

If attention is fixed on the human resources and human potentiality of Africa, the Vision of the triumph of democracy in Africa will become clearer and more challenging; that is, if there is the faith and the conviction that democracy represents the best way yet devised by man for community life, and that it is a way of life which is open to any group of men who choose and aspire towards it. Therein lies the challenge of faith which illumines the compelling Vision not only of a democratic West or a democratic Africa, but of a democratic World.

If that sounds Utopian, I can only plead that it is the privilege and duty of Tomorrow's Citizens to see visions and dream dreams, if the people are not to perish.

This lecture series was organized by The Council for Education in World Citizenship. The Central Ball, Westminster, London, S.W.1. Dr Kofi Abrefa Busia was then leader of the opposition United Party, living in exile because of the then one-party government in Ghana. He was a Professor of Sociology at the Institute of Social Studies at The Hague.

Busia portrait