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Why democracy is fragile in Africa

BEFORE the military coup in Mali last month, there was a near consensus that classical military take-over in Africa are completely faded out. Elected regimes, in spite of their many flaws, are generally preferred to a takeover by military adventurers. But the view was as self-serving of the ruling elites as it was mere wishful thinking that obscures realities.

The desirability of an end to military coups does not necessarily end it. In fact, in some cases, military coups come very handy and even useful in ending a recalcitrant regime bent on undermining its own constitutional foundation.

The coup that ended the rule of former President Mamoudo Tandja in Niger Republic in 2010 provided a huge relief to the sub-regional organisation ECOWAS exasperated in dealing with a regime desperate to cling on to power by manipulation of the constitution.

The military coup in Mali on the eve of an election in which the then incumbent is not eligible and has accepted so, was the most inauspicious and undesirable but actually underscores the mortal threat of democracy in Africa. Even if the coup is successfully reversed as the ECOWAS and AU are pushing hard to accomplish, the fact that the military still considers itself a veritable political alternative underscores the fragility of democracy in Africa.

However, apart from the extreme case of Mali when the junta return was specifically unnecessary, the content of Africa’s civil rule and the impunity, vehemence and recalcitrance of the governing elite calls for no better challenge than at best a popular mass insurrection, armed struggle and at worst a military coup d’état. Elections in most of Africa have become a complete charade, a hollow ritual to merely confirm a rite of passage.

Former Nigeria President, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo in a press conference to explain his resignation as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of his ruling party, the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, boasted that he has successfully installed two regimes after himself and overseen two conventions of its party with his desired results successfully accomplished and therefore entitled to retire from formal party activities.

The free choice that democracy offers is heavily circumscribed in Africa by the heavy handed activities of the ruling elites to achieve a premeditated result which in most cases reinforces the narrow interests of its elite authors. The boasts of the Nigerian former President to have installed two successive regimes after himself underscores the travails of democracy and reveals in graphic details the social deficit that existentially threatens its sustainability.

If as former President Obasanjo claims to have successfully manipulated the election process and installed his cronies, then the democratic space is effectively constrained with ostensibly more votes easily arranged but without popular mandate.

However, democracy
in Africa appears to be complete with all its forms: multiparty competition, elected parliament, constitutions, periodic elections, term limits and others.

In reality, the colourful form is severely constrained by the crucible of social deficit. In his classic, well accomplished work, Barrington Moore clearly outlined the vulnerability of democracy without the enabling social and even economic condition. Such dangers are even more evident and clearly threaten the sustainability of democracy in Africa.

Even before the mid-ranking military officers in Mali struck to end the nearly two decades of civil rule in the country, Mali’s neighbour with a more established tradition of civil rule, Senegal, was under intense political pressure. The then incumbent President, Mr. Abdolaye Wade, have earlier demolished the constitutional provision for term limit, offering himself for a contest he was otherwise constitutionally barred.

Mr. Wade’s scoff at his constitution was not surprising as he earlier backed former Nigeria’s President Obasanjo in his effort to thwart the constitutional term limit and offer himself for a third term.

The former Nigerian President has always exposed himself to ridicule by consistently denying such effort, even when the former American Secretary of State, Condellezza Rice, has in her memoirs revealed how Obasanjo solicited her government’s support and they flatly retorted that he must respect the constitution. To add to the ridicule of his denials, former President Obasanjo has always claimed that he gets from God whatever he wanted and would have gotten it from God if he has seriously wanted a third term.

Even medieval kings before renaissance would never so desperately invoked God’s name in vain. How a democratic authority issuing from civil mandate could have been Obasanjo’s divine gift from above actually exposes the vulnerable trajectories of democracy in Africa and those who endanger it.

The less that intelligent political sophistry spawned by the Nigerian ex-president clearly marks the perennial pitfalls of democracy in Africa.  Former President Wade’s manipulation of the constitution to enter the ballot was, however, successful, but stopping short of his ambition for re-election, he suffered a shocking defeat. Many have suggested that Mr. Wade’s defeat means democracy is alive and kicking in Senegal.

The fact that even  basic values of democracy is yet to be fully internalized in spite of a long tradition of civil rule actually means that democracy is as much under threat in Senegal as it is everywhere in Africa.

Following the sudden death of former President Bingu Mutharika in Malawi, tension and anxiety filled the country if a smooth handover to the Vice President as the constitution clearly states would have happened. The anxiety was understandable. The late leader has earlier fallen out with his deputy, Mrs. Joyce Banda and forced her out of the ruling party, while grooming his brother to take over when his term ends.

The same scenario of tension and anxiety gripped Nigeria when the former President Yar’Adua was ill and his subsequent death. While on sick bed, the Vice-President, Mr. Jonathan Goodluck was shut out by a so-called cabal, headed by the former President’s wife.

In both cases, the Vice Presidents were duly sworn-in but not after the anxiety and uncertainties that gripped the respective countries. If such routines as defined by constitutions as to who takes over in the case of incapacitation of a substantive leader could generate tension and anxiety, then surely democracy is still at cross roads in most of Africa.

Running around Africa with water cannons to put out the incessant threats to civil rule might look a good job of protecting democracy on the continent, but says much about the absence of supporting values and enabling social condition in which democratic governance blooms and flourishes.

The democratic option is not always the liberal Western democracy. The effort to extrapolate the Western liberal democracy to Africa has largely succeeded in transplanting its forms but with conspicuous absence of its values and social contents.

Mr. CHARLES ONUNAIJU, a journalist, wrote from Abuja

While the West praise the extrapolation of their democratic forms to Africa, they are silent or unable to explain social deficit and the attendant crises in the continent.

The social and economic deficit of democracy in Africa means that political choices would always issue from considerations less than rational; leadership would always be recruited through sources other than popular mandate.

However, for all its fragility, the prospects of democracy in Africa is still bright, but would have to retrace its steps and proceed from the aspirations of the popular forces of the mass of the people best expressed in socialist democracy.



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