Back to Basics: Decolonizing Democracy in Africa


Not dissimilar to the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ protests that spread across the Middle East and North Africa in early2011, at the beginning of the 1990s, sub-Saharan Africans came to the streets to protest against hardship. People had been facing the structural adjustment programmes promoted by the international financial institutions (IFIs) in the 1980s, the fall of commodity prices, as well as the 1973 oil crisis. The conventional wisdom was that democracy would redress all of these problems, with the assumption that government reflecting or servicing the preferences of the people, and not those of the local and international élites, could not but be the answer. Thus, in the course of those same 1990s, many sub-Saharan African countries embraced the formal rules of liberal democracy: a multi-party system; regular elections; (discursive) adherence to human rights, freedoms and good governance; as well as varying degrees of trade and market liberalization.
Some 25 years later, the question arises as to what extent the advent of procedural democracy has delivered on its material and political promises for the African masses and their descendants. Three trends seem to come to the fore. On the one hand we have the growing ‘Africa on the Rise’ narrative in today’s journalistic and academic reporting on the continent. A rising middle class and annual economic growth rates that European countries can only dream of account for a renewed interest from foreign investors in the booming real-estate, infrastructure,information technology and consumer goods markets. Yet at the same time, the majority of Africans continue to be plagued by arguably increasing income inequality, extreme poverty, political instability and low-intensity or full-scale conflict. Third, more recently, the Western world’s attention has been drawn to previously existing (transnational)insurgencies against the liberal democratic state ideals and their Western and local promoters—invariably framed as (Islamist) terrorism, extremism or fundamentalism.
This essay therefore seeks to revisit some of the fundamental issues regarding democracy and democracy promotion in Africa. A distinction is made between people’s political and material expectations—a capacity to influence government to improve their material conditions—on the one hand, and the Western-led and -defined ideal of the procedural liberal democracy agenda on the other. Rather than giving an empirical account of the state of democracy in Africa by focusing on failed or failing states frameworks, corruption, rent-seeking and neo-patrimonialism or institutional incapacity, this text focuses on the problematics of democratization in Africa that might arise from the externally imported nature of its agenda.
The essay does this by proposing a decolonial approach to our understanding of what democracy should look like in Africa. The contention is that the idea of democracy in Africa, like many other elements of state- and nation-building on the continent (in education and the judiciary to name but a few), has to a large extent failed to be truly decolonized, in spite of the formal end of colonialism in the 1960s.
Building on interviews from fieldwork in several sub-Saharan African countries in the last five years, the text aims at treating some of the insights from post-colonial, decolonial and African political theorists, including Claude Ake, in our Western thinking about democracy in Africa.Decolonization is understood in both its mental, political and material sense as actions and thinking related to freeing oneself from forms of undue and/or extreme power inequality and external control. Applied to democracyand external democracy promotion, decolonization focuses on the following questions: to what extent does or can this philosophy of government reflect the interests and preferences of the people concerned? Has it rather turned into an instrument of continued domination and mimicry in the colonial civilizing mission, comparable to the initial setup of the Western state system in Africa, which was devised to the benefit of the colonizers and their local political allies rather than that of the citizens of said nations? The answer to these questions is not clear cut.
Citation: Rutazibwa, Olivia U.. Back to Basics: Decolonizing Democracy in Africa, in Europa World online.London, Routledge. University of Portsmouth. Retrieved 01 November 2014 from

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