This is a heavily edited version of a lecture by Jerry Rawlings, former president of Ghana, delivered at Witswatersrand University, South Africa last September on democratic reform in Africa. Culled from Uganda Monitor
Africa’s political history since independence has largely been characterised by a scarcity of verifiable documentation and a dearth of information on the activities of the key players in the struggle for liberation and democratic evolution. Leaders such as Patrice Lumumba never had the opportunity to contribute to our knowledge of Africa’s political development because their lives were cut out prematurely by the anti-liberation forces of their time.
The few who committed their thoughts to writing, such as President Kwame Nkrumah, and a few others from Nigeria, did so in exile, and could therefore hardly avoid some sense of bitterness and self-justification. It is only in very recent years that some African leaders have been able to collect their thoughts after leaving office, without fear of reprisal.
The chequered political history of many of our countries has led to the loss of a great deal of archival material, which could have influenced subsequent political developments in our countries.
This in turn has made it easy for successor-regimes to distort the immediate past to their advantage, because the people had little or no access to the facts of history.
Now that a growing number of African countries are moving towards some sense of continuity in governance, with relatively peaceful and democratic transfer of power from one government to the next it is imperative that this process be strengthened by the building of collective sources of material.
It is only when our electorates are armed with true, factual and objective information about our political past that they can make informed decisions and see through attempts at misinformation.
The history of our continent, for the better part of the 20th century, was engrossed by the struggle to move beyond colonialism and the last vestiges of racist control and arrogance. In spite of the traumatic experiences of post colonial Africa, political independence and relative self-determination remain the struggle’s most important achievements of Africa in the same period.
African countries, which had hitherto been clients of a bipolar world, have had to face a new challenge: that of adopting a new set of responses to impulses coming from the West. Autocracies have had to be quickly dismantled; frozen centralized economies are opening up, while relationships with multilateral institutions are similarly being realigned and redefined. In short, Africa has had to, as it were, reinvent itself and learn new ways of doing business with a changing world.
That challenge lingers and is one of the defining characteristics of the present. African countries will make progress, depending on the degree to which their national leadership can come to terms with and re-direct their national affairs in line with these imperatives. It is also gratifying that in so short a time the indications of positive change in Africa have been encouraging.
New democracies are taking hold in different parts of the continent. Concurrently, existing ‘democratic’ governments that had been virtually one-party states have opened up the political space and have embraced reforms, albeit often reluctantly. This brings us to another defining challenge, that of moving beyond mere forms and institutions of democracy as defined by Washington and Westminster to make it meaningful to the ordinary people of Africa.
Meaningful participatory democracy must involve our people in day-to-day decision-making. Voting once every few years is just a part of what true democracy should be. If we settle for meeting the basic criteria of democracy as prescribed by the West, we will find ourselves dealing with a façade behind which very undemocratic power is wielded to the benefit of a political elite.
Yet another defining challenge concerns how we deal with negative internal issues such as corruption and civil strife. Some progress has however been made, but it is by no means enough.
Whilst there has been appreciable progress towards lasting peace in Angola, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, La Cote d’Ivoire, etc., many issues still remain to be resolved, whilst in other countries seemingly at peace, including Ghana, there are unresolved areas of tension.
Whilst we are rid of Bokassas, the Mobutu Sese Sekus, the Idi Amins and their gross corruption propped up by the West during the Cold War era, and whilst many of the newer generation of African leaders believe in service to the people rather than personal gain, there is still an insidious smell of corruption at many levels.
Nobody can solve these problems for us. It is the responsibility of Africans to hold their leaders to account, and the responsibility of African governments to demonstrate that their hands are clean. Ladies and Gentlemen.
We must not be deceived by the modest signs of progress into thinking that the African rebirth is well on its way. Our economies are still overly dependent on resources and direction from the G8 and other industrialised economies.
Our most important resource, our human capital, either remains ineffectively tapped at home whilst others abandon the continent or relocate out of frustration for greener pastures in the developed economies.
Our politics remains less than transparent while some of our governments are largely inefficient and regrettably, sometimes and still, very corrupt.
Human rights are held in abeyance in a number of African countries in spite of the proclamation of democracy throughout the continent.
Rural hunger and poverty, disease and ignorance hold many hostage and our urban areas remain unsafe and unclean. Happily, there is increasing awareness of the injustice in the blind pursuit of profit at the expense of humanity among the younger generations of people in the industrialized countries.
The world has become increasingly interdependent, perhaps to Africa’s long-term advantage. Problems in one continent now have a way of making people in other continents uncomfortable. Africa’s relative poverty and low socio-economic status is not only a blight on the conscience of the developed world but it is a source of problems that threaten the whole of humanity.
These include problems of illegal immigration into Europe, increasing cross border crimes, outbreaks and spread of diseases such as HIV-AIDS and other pandemics as well as the growth in financial crimes driven by poverty. The challenge on hand is squarely an African one.
We cannot begin the process of piloting our countries away from these difficulties by depending solely on externally induced solutions or assistance no matter how well intentioned. Nor can we rely on blindly copying structures and institutions that were bequeathed to us. As I see it, the basis of the African re-awakening must be a rigorous reform of our economies and governments.
Such reform, in order to be meaningful, must be informed by a radical change in our perceptions. We must critically question all received assumptions, overturn moribund institutions and jettison counter productive beliefs, be they alien or indigenous.
This brings us to a fundamental question: Between economic reform and political democracy, which should come first? That is one question that begs for an answer as African countries are made to fall over each other in the scramble to impress creditors by embracing westernised formal democracy.
My subject today is “Democratic Reform in Africa”. At the risk of sounding pedantic, I cannot begin any meaningful discussion of this topic without first defining my terms of reference. What do we mean by “reform”? I shall take it to mean amending and improving existing institutions and policies to better perform their functions in furtherance of the sustainable well-being of the people, and where necessary, thinking “outside the box” of external prescriptions.
Too often on our continent, “reform” means demolishing useful indigenous culture, jettisoning long term objectives, removing competent administrators technocrats, board members, etc. for no other reason than that they are perceived as being connected to a previous regime. This is the destructive face of reform, one which has cost us not only the loss of people whose skills could have contributed greatly to the advancement of our countries, but which has abruptly interrupted long-term programmes designed to benefit future generations.
To me, “reform” should mean building upon what exists, but with an open mind to reshaping it where it is necessary to refocus and to realign, in order to do a more effective job of delivering the basic needs of our people.
Reform means change. “Change” is simply replacing one set of conditions by another. It may be positive or it may be negative. It may be motivated by nothing more than boredom with the status quo or a genuine response to an intolerable situation. “Change” in itself is neither good nor bad, but any change carries a cost. Since change disrupts the status quo, it is necessary to weigh the cost of reorganisation after disruption, and the consequences of interrupted programmes and policies.
Obviously, it is only when change is for the better that these costs can be justified. Democratic change could also simply mean change brought about by democratic means. Such change is not necessarily good even if the process by which it is brought about is acceptable. For example, elections may be held, and be adjudged free and fair by the most objective of observers and yet bring about a change that is to the detriment of the generality of the people.
In countries such as ours, where so many people still exist on the edge of desperate poverty, and where there is still a large deficit in education, it is all too easy to promise the electorate the moon if only they will democratically endorse change. It is also easy to temporarily corrupt the electoral process.
Those countries which have appointed themselves our “tutors” in democracy (whilst undemocratically threatening us with withdrawal of aid if we do not swallow their forms of democracy whole) will say that such a “democratic mistake” does not matter because at the end of the term of office of that government, it can be democratically voted out.
Meanwhile, the crimes and human rights abuses, killings and tortures are shamefully treated with the case of the 3 monkeys – see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil! What those prosperous countries fail to acknowledge is that for people living at the edge of existence as we do, four years of misery is a long time. When people become desperate, social norms and order may be subjected to immense stress, leading to the destruction of the fabric of society – especially when the judiciary becomes subservient to the Executive.
I would, in the African context, prefer to define “Democratic Reform” as change which enhances democracy in the sense that it provides broader opportunities for more citizens to be involved in the process of governance. What I would call participatory democracy goes beyond the periodic right to vote. It goes beyond lining the electorate up behind political parties in order to determine winners and losers.
It means getting ordinary men and women involved in the day-to-day decision-making of grassroots governance in their communities and their local government areas to the extent that they feel that their actions can make a difference and that they can influence events.
I have sometimes been accused of being against democracy because I have said that the people’s involvement in governance must go beyond the ballot-box, and because I have expressed concern about the tendency of multi-party politics, especially on our continent, to become antagonistic and divisive, to foster a cynical kind of expediency which owes more to prospects of the next election than it does to the long-term interest of the people, and makes politics too dependent upon which group has more money.
I am more concerned about the essence of democracy than about the outward forms of democracy. We must infuse those forms with the spirit of the people. They must own democracy, they must feel a part of it. That is the only way democracy can thrive on our soil. Let me also say that I believe that my concerns about partisan politics are valid.
This does not mean, however that I am saying that the multi-party system must be abandoned. It means that all of us – the electorate and the political parties, – whether in power or in opposition – must endeavour with all sincerity and strength of will to avoid the latent negative tendencies which can so easily distort multi-party democracy, and turn it into a mere cloak of political respectability to hide the misuse of money, power and influence to benefit a political group to the detriment of the long-term interests of society as a whole and of the disadvantaged in particular.