REFORM AND DEMOCRATIC CHANGE IN AFRICA
His Excellency, FLT. LT. Jerry John Rawlings, Republic Of Ghana.
Being a Speech delivered on the occasion of the public presentation of IBB: a Heritage of Reforms at the International Conference Centre, Kaduna on the 17th of December, 2002.
Your Excellencies, Most Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen!
It is indeed a privilege to have been invited to this beautiful city of Kaduna and to have had this opportunity to share some thoughts with you on this very significant occasion. The public presentation of IBB: A Heritage of Reform emphasizes the need for a fresh look at the political developments of our nations and our continent.
Africa’s political history since independence as far as I know, has been characterized 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 short 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.
On the other hand, there is an abundance of archival material often categorized as security material, but almost always improperly stored for subsequent retrieval. It is also equally important that those who seek access to this material have a shared belief and certain standard of integrity.
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 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. This material should be readily available at all times.
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 to misinform them. I can do no less on this auspicious occasion, therefore, than to congratulate the Open Press Ltd for its efforts to chronicle and publicize source material for the period in office of my brother and colleague, General Ibrahim Babangida.
I applaud the efforts of the Open Press Ltd, and hope that more of such efforts will be made elsewhere in Africa to address the myriad of problems plaguing our very dear continent. Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, this forum offers us an opportunity to review the history of our continent, which for the better part of the 20th century, was engrossed in the struggle to shed off 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 single 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, re-invent itself and learn new ways of doing business with a changing world. That challenge lingers and is the defining characteristic 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.
Most importantly, some of the interminable civil wars that have ravaged Africa for the better part of four decades have either ended or are on the verge of resolution. Angola, for example, is grappling with the challenges of a new peace, so is Sierra Leone in West Africa. In Sudan, appreciable progress is being made towards a lasting peace. The Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda have recently signed a historic peace agreement, which should hopefully bring lasting peace to the strategic central African region.
Madagascar has managed to stave off what would have been yet another conflict spot on the continent. Every effort should be made by ECOWAS to discourage Liberia and Ivory Coast from relapsing into another round of bloody conflict, but not without the ingredient of justice. I will say this with emphasis, ladies and gentlemen, because too often we gloss over justice, and yet without justice we can neither have peace nor stability. We must not be deceived by these 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 industrialized economies. Our most important resource, our human capital, either remains largely untapped at home while others abandon the continent or relocate out of frustration for greener pastures in the developed economies.
Our politics remains less than transparent while 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. Hunger and poverty ravage the countryside while disease and ignorance hold many hostage and our urban areas remain unsafe and unclean.
The developed world still regards Africa as a captive client for dubious aid and hard loans. Ladies and gentlemen, never in the history of mankind have so many poor people been so heavily indebted to so few rich countries. The debt burden remains a blight on the enlightenment and humanity of the industrialize world. There must be something curiously wrong with any group that insists on lending money to a set of borrowers whom they know only too well cannot repay even the interest in several life times.
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. Little wonder, therefore, that nearly every gathering of the G8 or World Trade Organization is now greeted by protests against the injustices of a lopsided world order.
But the world has become increasingly interdependent, perhaps to Africa’s long–term advantage. Problems in one hemisphere now have way of making people in other hemispheres 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 that were once thought to have been eradicated 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 the structures and institutions that were bequeathed to us in their undiluted forms. We need to understand how we got to this situation by first locating the imperative of reform and the real meaning of democracy in the economic quagmire that our countries have found themselves in at the end of the cold war and the 20th century. 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 perception. We must question all received assumptions, literally 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 is today begging for an answer as African countries are made to fall over each other in the scramble to impress creditors by embracing formal democracy.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I have been asked to speak on ‘’Reform and Democratic Change in Africa’’. At the risk of sounding pedantic, let me clarify that 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 polices to better perform their functions in furtherance of the sustainable well-being of the people, and where necessary creating new institutions to ensure its survival.
Too often on our continent, “reform” means however sadly, 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, reshaping it only 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. Next, what do we mean by “Democratic 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 reorganization 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, which 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 or 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.
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. Change brought about by democratic processes, or at least the forms of democratic processes which bear the seal of approval of the present world order, can therefore be either good or bad, depending to a large extent on how well informed the electorate is and the ability of the average voter to make reasoned choices. These conditions do not frequently apply in Africa
I would, in this circumstance, prefer to define ‘’Democratic Change’’ 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 influence events.
Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I have known from very personal experience both when I was at the bottom and when I climbed up to the top that if we could decentralize some of the burdens and the responsibilities that we carry at the central government and local government areas, and share these responsibilities with the people, which naturally means that empowering them with some of the economic and political authority that we exercise as they begin to grow and to know the complications involved in governance, tomorrow when thing are going wrong, they will not be putting the blames on our door steps, because they would have now matured and gotten to know and understand what they did not know when they were outside of it. Their involvement makes them participants. Now they know and they understand so that they will not only share with the success but they will share in the trials and tribulations of the central government.
This means encouraging an active sense of ownership and pride rather than a passive feeling of helpless acceptance of whatever is decided by the government of the day. It means nurturing a spirit of positive defiance, a readiness to confront that which is clearly wrong and which undermines the building of a just society.
Before what I am saying is misinterpreted, as it often is, let me point out that 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 prospect of the next election than it does to tong-term interest of the people, and to make politics too dependent upon which group has more money.
Let me use this opportunity to say that quite frankly if somebody was to ask me if I were a politician, I would probably say No. I ‘m a patriot and what do I mean by that? Please, forgive me, but I think we can begin to make our people understand and to appreciate that being patriotic in effect sometimes can be costly, because I ‘m thinking of the short, medium and the long-term effects of whatever we are doing for the benefit of the people. But a little too often, we are pressurized. We come under so much intense pressure that politicians of today have to wait towards the next election and therefore, sometimes it is to the detriment of the long-term benefit of whatever you have to do for the people.
Sometimes it is as if we don’t have the patience to wait but I think the time has come for us to be honest and sincere enough either when we were in government or when we are outside of government, when we truly disagree with those in power. I think let our criticism prevail in a very constructive manner but at the same time, if we know or long-term interest of the people, I think it is in our interest to praise the government. It sustains the integrity of those in government if we admit that there is a bottom line to this issue of politics in the sense that we cannot do political opportunism or political expediency with this economic formula. So, I think it is important that we know when we must praise or at least agree with the position of those in government and to truly also disagree with them. Let us not just out of political expediency be disagreeing with government or those in government at all times. Let us face it.
It means nurturing a spirit of positive defiance. When I talked about positive defiance the last time, it was like I was stoking flames of civil disobedience. No. that is a readiness to confront that which is clearly wrong and which undermines the building of just society. I’m saying that as a responsible citizen of a country, if we were to support and to nurture the spirit of positive defiance in the citizenry and were to bring Satan or Lucifer to come and govern Ghana or Nigeria, he will not be able to get away with his evil deeds because he will be defied, if he gives the wrongful order or makes the wrong request. But if we were going to sit down and obey the wrong order, I’m afraid, and then we become indirect collaborators or direct collaborations. I think we must be bold enough to say I am sorry Sir, but I do not think this is what it is. And if we don’t and he doesn’t, then we resign. I don’t think that it is right to support what we know or believe to be wrong and then accept it and when things go wrong, we want to wash our hands off it. It is not going to work. So, I think in this respect, we can now blame the outside forces but we must also take some of the blame because our integrity is what is at stake.
Let me reiterate quite clearly that I am a passionate believer in democracy. This is why I am more concerned about the essence of democracy than about the outward forms of democracy I am more concerned with the spirit of our own 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 multiparty system must be abandoned. I am not saying so.
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 who seem to lack adequate patriotism and integrity. This is not good enough.
Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, I would like to use a brief account of the reform of Ghana’s local government system to illustrate some of the points that I have made. In Ghana, as in many other African countries, the modern local government system had its roots in the colonial administration. City, town or district councils were established in the period shortly before independence to give at least a semblance of local participation. After independence, these local authorities continued to raise meagre revenues from issuing of permits, licences, market tolls and the like, and to carrying out functions such as disposal of garbage with steadily declining effectiveness.
The District-level Heads of Departments of Health, Education, Agriculture, Roads and Highways, etc were not responsible to the district council but through their Regional Heads to the relevant Ministries in Accra. It was at the central level that decisions were taken to make funds available for a feeder road here or a health post there. The people of the district waited patiently for manna to fall from Accra. It was at the central level that decisions were taken to make funds available for a feeder road here or a health post there. The people of the district waited patiently for manna to fall from Accra.
To the average man or woman, the local traditional authority was a much more real and practical agent of local development. Progressive chiefs mobilized their subjects for communal labour to clear pathways and waste ground, de-silt water sources, and provide labour and local materials for simple community projects. What they could achieve was limited, but it had an immediacy and engendered a communal spirit, which was absent in the formal local government system.
The Provisional National Defence Council, which I chaired from January 1982 to January 1992, recognized that we had to somehow translate the traditional communal spirit into a meaningful participatory democracy in which to use the jargon currently in fashion every stakeholder genuinely felt that he or she could make a difference.
Although, we were belaboured with external pressures to quickly concoct a new constitution, form political parties and hold national elections, we said ‘’No’’; even at the risk of being described as a military dictatorship. We wanted to begin at the grassroots in order to evolve a system in which our people felt a genuine ownership of governance. To do these, we had to take the considerable risk of initially calling on the people themselves, without any guidelines, to form community and workplace committees to rekindle the spirit of communal participation. It is hardly surprising that in such a situation there were some blunders and excesses, which we had to address effectively. But there were also many outstanding successes. We then provided structured guidelines for these localized groups to focus on practical development projects and to provide a two-way feedback between the people and the PNDC.
Once every month, the Regional Heads of these committees joined the meeting in Accra of the Committee of Secretaries, which was the equivalent of the Cabinet. They brought with them the concerns and aims of small communities throughout the country, giving Cabinet a unique insight into grassroots thinking which informed its decisions, and they too back to the people a clear picture of the reasoning behind the decisions taken.
As more and more people gained practical insight into the limitations and possibilities of governance, we were encouraged to take another step towards the formulation of a new local government system. In the mid-1980s the National Commission for Democracy organized a series of public seminars in all the Districts and Regions of the country. At these meetings, people from all walks of life had the opportunity to air their views on the restructuring of the local government system.
The ideas generated were collated, and from this mass of material a preliminary document, which became known as the Blue Book, was prepared. Some of the key points, which emerged from the people’s concerns, included the need to divide some of the very large Districts and to create many more electoral areas within the Districts. Hitherto, the elected members of Districts Councils had been a small number, drawn mainly from urban wards, with the outlying villages and rural areas having virtually no representation.
Another concern was to create District Assemblies, which would become real agents of decentralization, taking responsibility for planning, budgeting for, implementing and monitoring local developments within the Districts. These functions would require a programme to improve the skills and management capacity of local government officials, as well as improving local revenue generating capabilities.
Also, the consensus was that candidates for election to the District Assemblies should stand on their individual merits and proven commitment to the development of their communities, rather than their affiliation to partisan groups.
To minimize the advantage, which wealthy candidates would have over poorer ones, the Electoral Commission would bear the cost of mounting public platforms and of printing posters for the candidates.
It was proposed that whilst two thirds of the Assembly Members would be elected, some would be appointed in consultation with the chiefs and local opinion leaders in order to tap the experience and expertise of retired public servants, businessmen and professionals as well as ensure adequate representation of the traditional authorities and of women. These suggestions and many others set out in the Blue Book were referred back to the people in another round of District and Regional discussions before the necessary legislation was set in motion.
In 1988, the first District level elections were held and the District Assemblies came into being. The creation of the District Assemblies unleashed a wave of local enthusiasm, pride and initiative. The creation of the District Assemblies Common Fund, which transfers a portion of central government revenues to the Districts according to a complex formula, which attempts to balance the special needs of each District against available resources, has enabled the Assemblies to undertake much more substantial development projects and programmes according to their own priorities.
Inevitably, there have been problems as with any new system. In some rural or newly created Districts, there has been a shortage of the necessary skills and capabilities, but growing experience and training is’ gradually building stronger capabilities.
There have been some inactive Assembly Members and others who have tried to misuse their position. There have been power struggles as some District Chief Executives, Presiding Members and, since 1992, Members of Parliament, have openly rivaled one another. With time, however, the distinctive functions of these officials as members of a team have become clearer. The process of decentralization has been slower than anticipated, as civil servants at the regional and ministry levels have resisted giving up some of their powers to the Districts. Overall, however, the new local government system has been a very significant success in practical democratic reform and in equitable development.
It is something, which the people of Ghana will not lightly relinquish. Let me add that it was only after the District Assemblies were up and running that we began another series of country wide public fora to discuss the shape of a new constitution and the form of national government which we should have. The results of these discussions were collated by the National Commission for Democracy and formed the basis for a draft constitution which was submitted first, to a very broad-based Consultative Assembly and secondly, to a national referendum.
Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, I have gone into some detail in order to make a point, which often escapes those who make easy generalizations. The processes I have described took time to bear fruit. It would have been easy to give in to the pressures, both international and internal, which called for the early drafting of a new constitution and quick national elections. The involvement of a few backroom constitutional experts, a Constituent Assembly limited to the elite “pillars of society”, would have, in the eyes of some experts, gained instant respectability for our reforms.
But we would then have imposed a structure upon the people, however seemingly democratic in its form. There would be no sense of ownership, no real participation and therefore, no progress.It would have been even easier to have assembled a few experts to put together an improved local government system and then to have told the people, “this is what the experts say.” That, to me, would have been contrary to the basic tenets of the reform programme and would have become stillborn. It is my belief that any reforms aimed at encouraging genuine democracy must be designed with the people and not merely for them.
Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, there is much that we can be proud of in Ghana’s local government reforms and in other democratic reforms, which we carried out. But we should not forget that reforms have to be sustained, otherwise there will be a gradual erosion of popular interest, and power and influence will once again begin to accumulate in the hands of a few.
Since the change of government in January 2001, for instance, the District Assemblies have suffered some setbacks. Among these was the removal from office of all District Assembly members, as well as non-elected members of the District sub-structures. Not only has this deprived the Assemblies of many committed almost non-partisan, and skilled people on the assumption that anyone appointed by the previous government must be dispensed with, but no replacements were appointed. And interestingly, a good number of such people who were appointed were even strict adherents and disciples of the present government.
Very recently, District level elections became due. They were postponed because the logistics were not in place. This is the first time that such problems have arisen. When the new date arrived, only part of the country was able to vote, whilst many electoral areas had to wait once again for arrangements to be completed. It is hardly surprising that many of the electorate were less than enthusiastic. Late release of funds to the National Commission for Civic Education also had a dampening effect.
Many commentators on the rather low voter turnout have suggested that what is needed to renew the interest of the electorate is to make the District Assembly elections partisan by changing the constitution. This view seems particularly popular among members of the party of the current government.
There is no doubt that if candidates for the District Assemblies were to represent political parties, the elections would be loud, lively and expensive and would generate a great deal of interest. But would the candidates be judged on their own merits? Would the focus of local government, which is the practical development and good governance of an area by its own citizens, be distorted by partisan politics? Would the core values of the carefully crafted local government system be subverted, making the Assemblies merely part of the machinery for seeking political power and influence? I believe that it would be a sad day for Ghana if this were to happen.
Ladies and gentlemen, I have spoken in some detail about the evolution of democratic institutions in Ghana over the past 20 years. I do not have time to go into the parallel overhaul of the economy and of institutions. We had to take a hard look at the neo-colonial structure, the tax system, the civil service, the administration of justice, traditional institutions, the banking and financial system, our set of values and norms, in short the totality of our colonial heritage. This was a rigorous intellectual exercise, involving some of the best minds on the continent, some of whom also came from here (in Nigeria).
The far-reaching changes, which we instituted, could not have yielded the desired results if the people did not see in us beacons of hope and worthy examples that could inspire confidence. The sacrifices were immense but we tried to justify those human and material sacrifices by ensuring that the same iniquities for which lives were lost did not resurface in our national public life.
That was the spirit of our revolution and the essence of our reforming ideology. To the international financial community, we demonstrated a readiness to do the hard work of ensuring a disciplined society, an orderly and transparent system of investment business. By doing what we had to do convincingly, we had created the enabling environment for the inflow of investment and capital. Investors began to take us seriously. But at the same time, we never failed to indicate to the international community that our problems and the solutions to them were peculiar to our own historical and social context. This, in a nutshell, was the philosophy of our reform process in Ghana.
It is perhaps fortuitous that similar changes were taking place in Nigeria, at about the same time. When discussing change in a country like Nigeria, we must be fully cognizant of the intrinsic complexity of the country.
Nigeria is a very big country. Its problems are similarly big and complex. Therefore, when I visited Nigeria at the height of the reform process under the then Babangida regime, I was highly impressed by some of the bold initiatives he had implemented. He had taken measures that brought about greater efficiency within the huge parastatals and shut down the country’s wasteful marketing boards. Even more courageous was his decision to ban the importation of wheat into Nigeria, insisting that Nigeria could produce the wheat and other sources of flour that it needed to feed its people.
Believe it or not, ladies and gentlemen, only this morning, it was brought to my attention that Nigeria over the last 20 years for instance, extract the necessary ingredients from maize grown here in order to produce your club beer. Congratulations. I did not know this. And apparently, we have only started this about 2 years ago. I remember when our cotton industry was collapsing, farmers were going out of work and those who were knitting, and transforming the textile industry were also running out of business. You proud Nigerians always wear your garments, when I wore the smock to go and see Queen Elizabeth in the UK, and paid a big visit to the US and several other places, the opposition in power today were saying that I was disgracing the office of President of Ghana. In other words, I should be wearing suit. To make a point, precisely, because I wore the smock, a local product, the production of cotton grew almost five or ten folds which brought about so much more economic activity on the farms and today, the smock is a pride for us to wear. So those who knit from cotton into whatever it is and produce the smocks are in good business.
So today, you have a situation, which you can produce the corn over here, so your farmers can make some money, your farmers can sell their corn and produce more for the local beer drinking industry. Beer is a bit of luxury. Why import all this foreign products with your hard earned foreign exchange?
These are some of the basic things that are going on here. This is why some of us are kept as a market, a consumer community and I think we must break that cycle. Above all, the General’s demonstrated commitment to rural development was a decisive departure from the tradition in much of Africa. Part of the nightmare of our colonially induced development strategies has been the neglect of the rural areas. In some of our countries, we can boast of modern capital cities that can favourably compete with those in the developed world.
But a few kilometres outside the city, we come face to face with infrastructure and living standards that are worse than medieval. I believe it is the realization that the most crucial ingredient of development is the liberated energies of a mobilized people that must have guided my brother Ibrahim to undertake his revolutionary rural development programme.
I also recognize that not all segments of the Nigerian society may have been pleased by these reforms. By their very nature, reforms, especially when they are far-reaching, do not always command universal support, especially among those who benefited from the previous imbalances.
I have gone to this length to recall some of our specific experiences in Ghana in order to highlight the challenge, which faces every African country. For the avoidance of doubt, there can be no democracy if the economic framework does not exist for the empowerment of the people. This very fact is borne out by the very history of liberal democracy itself in the West. As it is well known it was the Industrial Revolution and its bi-products of economic prosperity, mass education, public enlightenment and consciousness of rights that created the middle class, which in turn challenged the hegemony of feudal oligarchy.
It was these revolutionary economic developments, which led to the rise of popular -democracy and the progressive enfranchisement of various segments of the European population until universal adult suffrage was achieved. Democracy was not first decreed from above, ahead of economic empowerment of the majority of the people on whom it, in any case, must depend to thrive.
In Africa, independence from the colonialists was gained without the necessary empowerment of the majority yet they were required to adopt the democratic norms of the metropolitan countries a day after the colonialist flag was lowered. The masses of Africa were thus being thrown into political independence and Western democracy at the same time. It was this situation that produced the political convulsions of the immediate post-colonial era.
Today again, the logic of world history has led to the projection of Western- style multi-party democracy as a universal model. Every country is now to be measured in terms of whether their political system approximates the classical Western model. More dangerously, adoption of this brand of democracy has suddenly become the criterion for either debt forgiveness or new loans! Very little effort is being made by the champions of this universal democracy to accelerate the economic development of those parts of the world that have obvious difficulty in embracing this foreign type of democracy. Also, very little effort is being made to understand the cultural and historical peculiarities of these diverse societies.
To my mind, the very essentials of democracy are in themselves desirable requirements for every civilized society. These include respect for the basic freedoms and responsibilities, the rule of law, due process, orderly succession etc. I however, refuse to accept the claim that there is only one model of democracy that ought to command universal application, as, in deed, no one model has as yet been known to be above blemish. What is called for is a creative adaptation of the basic principles of democracy to the local peculiarities of different societies. The cultural and historical diversity of Africa dictates this imperative. Perhaps what we need to be speaking about is “Appropriate Democracy.”
In South Africa, for instance, centuries of white rule dictated a different constitution from what we adopted in Ghana, where race has never been an issue in our history. Similarly, in Nigeria, no constitution will be workable if it does not recognize the diversity of this great nation, the fact, for instance, that this country also hosts two major world religions as well as traditional belief systems, all of whose adherents co-exist even if their political opinions differ. To that extent, the freedom of individual worship and belief, which is cardinal to the rights that democracy accords, ought to be made to relate to every Nigerian, irrespective of religion, for as long as their basic loyalty to the Federal Republic of Nigeria remains inviolable.
It is quite possible to see how some conflicts and tension in some parts of Africa are traceable to the rigid application of divergent interpretations of democracy to heterogeneous societies. Most African economies are still caught in a web of contradictions, with a constant crisis of expectations between what the West expects as the natural outcome of an election in Africa and what actually happens. This is one reason why foreign observers of elections in Africa’s new democracies always come out perplexed. A political system predicated on poverty cannot yield fair results or engender fair play.
As Nigeria prepares for a round of local, state and national elections, I leave you with these thoughts in the hope that when the contests are over, the business of reforming your institutions and system for genuine and appropriate democracy can resume. Better still, let us make our political contests be competitions for ideas that can best improve the well- being of our people. That, in my opinion, is the challenge of democracy in Africa today.
Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, in today’s troubled world, hovering on the brink of a war with global implications, the concerns of Africa have been marginalized. But we Africans, who daily experience those concerns, have no excuse to relent in the struggle to empower our peoples to harness the rich human, economic and natural resources of our continent to provide social justice and self-development in peace and dignity.
The models of democracy which are held up before us for admiration and emulation, and by whose yardstick we are judged according to how closely, even if specifically, we copy them have themselves become rather threadbare. It is no secret that these models are themselves riddled with unethical and self-serving practices and the influence of money, and that the electorates of these model democracies have become cynical and apathetic about their political systems, if not outright antagonistic.
Let us therefore fashion our own path, one which will foster true, meaningful and participatory democracy in the nations of Africa. And let us have the courage to speak out in the world for about global wrongs instead of seeking to please major powers for the sake of a few aid dollars.
But to do this, we and nobody else, must answer the question of why, for example, we cannot address the problems of bureaucratic inefficiency and apathy in our own countries, of pervasive corruption, of sudden eruptions of ethnic or religious violence, of the erosion of moral values, of mindless lawlessness. We debate and discuss, exhort and preach. But we do not get to the roots of the problems and so we do not act appropriately.
If meaningful democracy is to become a force for real change in our continent, then we must empower our people to make it their own. To impose “democracy” from above is a contradiction of terms. It must be a process, whereby ordinary men and women voluntarily take on the responsibility to speak and act for the good of the broader community. Where this is ignored or suppressed, resentments will build and will sooner than later lead to another cycle of disruption. Let us once again learn from history, and from the world around us today.
Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, before thanking you for your attention, let me say that I feel extremely privileged to have had the benefit of sharing my thoughts with such a group of very dignified people under the leadership of past presidents and aspiring presidential candidates. Let me hope that what I have to say will be taken in the spirit of wanting the best for our continent.
I thank you for your attention, and I hope that I may have left you with some food for thought. May I once again congratulate those responsible for the initiative, which has brought us all here today, and express my thanks for this opportunity to share some thoughts with you.