THE United States elections held last week must have got Africa wondering: Are Western democracies working? Are they still the model worth emulating?
Editor’s Memo: nevanji madanhire firstname.lastname@example.org
These are not those facetious questions usually asked by anti-Western pan-Africanists or by pushers of strongman dictatorships typical of Africa.
Ever since decolonisation, former colonial powers have taken it upon themselves to push for the adoption of their systems of government in the former colonies.
Western democracy sounds simple enough: countries should have more than one political party vying for power, they should hold elections regularly and the people voted in by the majority should rule for the period specified in their constitutions.
The American constitution is deemed the world exemplar of such a system. The president of the republic is elected every four years and can only rule for a maximum two terms. The system varies marginally in Europe, where most systems do not fix the number of terms a leader can serve as long as the people still desire the individual’s leadership. To mention just two outstanding examples, in Britain Margaret Thatcher was allowed to rule for 11 years and Angela Merkel has been Chancellor of Germany since 2005.
But the bedrock of the western systems is the same: elections.
Africa has adopted this system with varying degrees of success. The success or failure of such adoptations has been attributed by the West to inherent weaknesses in the African psyche driven by base instincts such as greed, nepotism and ethnicity.
In the past few months the US system has been on display. It turned out to be not the Utopian system that American diplomacy would have the world believe. It has been dubbed, tongue-in-cheek, the most African of all elections.
This assessment is due not only to the depravity of the incumbent American president — who is now being compared to former Zimbabwe strongman Robert Mugabe — but also by the length to which majority Americans are ready to go to support an individual who is so obviously flawed that his rule is good neither for the Americans themselves nor the world at large, but all due to a jingoist catchphrase of “Make America Great Again” which, in fact, is just a euphemism for “Leave America to White Supremacists”.
All the depravities that had up to now been attributed to African leaders were on display hundredfold in the American elections.
African elections are mostly marred by violence, intimidation and vote-buying. The American elections went beyond this; Trump’s populism, authoritarianism, racism, vulgarity and misogyny were aberrations from what was expected of the US.
But it is not in the US alone that democracy is increasingly being shown as not a one-size-fits-all. In France the weakness of the system has been exposed recently as its dogmatic belief in unlimited freedoms even when those freedoms infringe on minority beliefs came to the fore. This is what has led to its fallout with the Islamic world.
The Covid-19 pandemic has also exposed the West’s weakness in confronting national crises.
But what model should Africa adopt?
The opposite of Western democracy is the Chinese system, but it comes with huge problems as far as people’s civil liberties are concerned. But for all its warts, the system has worked perfectly to uplift the people from abject poverty to a high-income society all in the space of about half a century (By 2015, only 0,7% of the Chinese population were at or below the poverty level). The world’s biggest democracy, India, has failed to achieve this; neither has the US touted as the world’s richest country.
But can Africa figure out a hybrid system where central power is strong without being dictatorial; and forward looking without being exclusivist?