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African democracy has never been stronger.


On Friday, February 17th, 2012, the Star carried an article by US academics headed “Africa’s democracy on its deathbed”.  Further reading of the article showed clearly that it was dealing with the current stalemate in Senegal.  Upon further reflection, I asked myself how the events of one country out of many, can be broadened to include the rest of Africa.


But even more so, the events in Senegal, as worrying as they may be, are a reflection of the strength and depth of democracy in Africa. Senegal is one of the few countries in West Africa that has escaped coup d’états. The reasons for this are twofold; Senegal’s enduring democracy, and [perhaps the presence of French soldiers on its soil. The first post independent President of Senegal, Leopold Senghor resigned voluntarily ad handed over power to Abdou Diouf. Senegal is known to have a vibrant civil society, issue and ideologically based political parties, and a conscious citizenry, who have always challenged injustices in their society. What is happening in Senegal at the moment is nothing but a blip, President Abdoulaye Wade has misread the signs, but peoples’ power will prevail in Senegal. Every society has its tensions, and so the current movement against attempts by Abdoulaye Wade to perpetuate his rule is an example of such tension, but by no means the death of democracy in Senegal.


The second liberation in the 1980s opened up possibilities for change against one party dictatorships and military regimes, mostly in West Africa. This was a people’s movement which relied more on the popular aspirations of the people, and did not need foreign intervention. In Francophone African countries, this led to a reassessment of their relationship with imperial France. In some cases, France tried to install their poodles – mainly World Bank and IMF bureaucrats in place of one party or military rulers. These were soundly defeated in polls. Of course, imperial France never gave up.  In countries like Ghana and Nigeria, the second liberation led to pro democracy struggles led by youth and the trade unions, framers movements and indeed all sectors of society. In East Africa, the second liberation saw the defeat of the Kenya Africa National Union (KANU), and the restoration of multi party democracy. Central Africa descended into chaos and anarchy with the DRC, Burundi and Rwanda, engulfed in civil wars.


Any serious assessment of Africa today should therefore recognise the pace of democratic change occasioned by popular struggles. Democracy is a process. Every society determines the level of people’s readiness for participation, their ability to challenged existing power structures, and the need for various social and productive forces to re-asses their role in society, and their engagement with the political elite. Africa today is a far cry from the Africa of the 1970s. Let me retrace my steps. In the 1970s, African countries were mainly led by one party governments and military rulers. Our economies were run by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) bureaucrats. These institutions took advantage of the weak nature of African economic and political institutions, and the greedy nature of the elite to run Africa as it is was a private company. Civil society was weak, while people were subservient to their rulers.


Through the heroic  resistance of the workers, students, farmers, youth and women of African against World Bank/IMF orthodoxy, these edifices began to crumble. Workers led the resistance against IMF/Workd Bank dictatorships. Srudents and youth led the struggle for democratic change, working with women and famers’ movements. The political changes we are witnessing today are the result of these struggles.  It is significant to note that African ‘dictators’  of the time were acting on the behest of the Western imperialist powers, for whom Africa has always been a cow to milk for their own good. The struggle for poplar democracy and change was therefore also a struggle against imperialist and neocolonial domination of the continent by combined forces of ex-colonial regimes and their African cohorts.


Africa today is a continent on the move towards change of a different nature.  There are those who would like to dismiss elections as yet another fad.  In my thinking, elections on their own do not bring about  social change. However, they constitute the most civilized, democratic, and less costly ways of replacing governments and rulers. Elections allow various competing ideological forces, social classes to compete for power. I cannot think of any better way. There will always be challenges, as we saw in the Ivory Coast, there will be attempts to use the genuine grievances of African youth against other Africans, pitch them against each other for selfish and oily really reasons as we saw in Libya. Some African leaders such as President Abdoulaye Wade in Senegal, will misread the mood and try to hang on to power, but I believe that the Senegalese will eventually decide who governs their country.The vibrant media in Africa today also attests to these changes. FM radio stations, independent TV stations, daily and weekly newspapers and magazines, are avenues through which citizens express their views on all issues – no hold barred. But more than that they reflect the rise of the  institutions of democracy. Multi party democracy has come of age, with all its weaknesses, it thriving in Africa


But that is not the end. Constitutionalism is taking hold in Africa today. After 10 years, Ghana reviewed its Constitution last year,  with the view of making it more responsive to national needs. Kenya as gone through a democratic process of adopting the 2010 Constitution, which has been judged by others to be one of the most progressive Constitutions in Africa. This process was democratic, progressive and in indeed popular.  The process of implementing the 2010 Constitution in Kenya is part of the ongoing democratic reforms. Difficulties will be experienced as various social forces try to influence the pace of implementation or even sabotage the process for their own self reasons.  But one thing is clear in Kenya, and indeed, in many African countries; the process of democratisation and progressive change is unstoppable. Regional institutions such as the Economic Community of West African States, the East African community, IGAD, and many others are now taking economics and issues of integration seriously. The Africa Union is beginning to represent Africa in the way doyens of African independence like Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Presidents Jomo Kenyatta (Keya), Emperor Haile Selasie  (Ethiopia), Sekou Toure (Guinea) and several others did. These are supported by international organizations like the United Nations Development Programme and several other development oriented organisations.


What we are therefore seeing in Senegal, in Kenya, in Ethiopia, in Ghana, in Nigeria, is a class struggle of a different kind. Neocolonial institutions are being challenged by nascent Parliaments, youth organisations, trade unions, women and social movements using the internet and other social forums. Civil society is at the forefront of these struggles as well. Today, no one can take African women for granted. They do so at their own peril. This is the Africa that we need to understand. Reading Africa through lenses constructed in the 1960s – 1990s will not do.


Of course, the processes described above are being sabotaged by well oiled western interests and their African counterparts. Power former colonial powers like the UK and France will see Africa’s match towards democracy as a threat to their enduing interest. The United States, in spite of its hypocritical platitudes about democracy, does not support African democratic efforts. African democracy will mean that Parliaments will control resources and not powerful   western multi nationals. The African ruling elite will begin to despise youth movements and civil society. Yet, these should be seen as part of the ongoing democratic struggles, the process of democractisation was never meant to be smooth.  The powerful never yield power to the politically and socially dispossessed classes.  But if we run away from ever setback instead of mobilizing to defend the interest of the disposed, democracy will take   firm roots.


In the same way, we should not see every single setback or struggle as the death knell for African democracy. Is it out of ignorance, mischievousness or a certain mindset which says, Africa can never get its act together. In spite of the current serious political and economic crisis in Greece, no one predicts the collapse of Greece. Why Africa? For me, Africa’s match towards democracy has never been more vibrant, more democratic, and more enduring. African youth are rising up to the challenges of nation building like the heroes of our independence movement. This should be celebrated while we keep an eye on local, national and international forces trying to roll back the gains of our independence. If you doubt this, look at Kenya. It offers lenses through which we can look at the future of Africa: rich, democratic, peaceful, and economically viable. A country in which citizens can no longer be taken for granted by their rulers. African democracy is alive and kicking, not on its deathbed.


Zaya Yeebo comments on pan African issues.

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