Busia Speaks of “African Democracy” – Part 2


In a practical sense, and on the political terrain, it can be clearly seen that Africa’s encounter with imperialist Europe redounded to the regression of the former. For both the process of conquest ? euphemistically dubbed ?pacification? ? and the conduct of governance were anything but democratic. Once again, just as Danquah privileged human liberty over architectural landmarks, or autocracy in the specious name of the imperative need for rapid technological development, as obsessively represented by President Nkrumah, Busia envisaged pre-colonial Asante/Akan political culture in terms of an auspicious democratic template or benchmark: ”Democracy cannot survive, unless people are able to make the government express their will; unless they have the power to choose their rulers and to change them. These principles are discernible in the indigenous political system of the Ashanti”(Africa in Search of Democracy 26).

Still, the author is no flamboyant nationalist and/or incorrigible idealist. For Busia clearly recognizes the grim fact of the system’s not being fool-proof against pre-colonial monarchical tyrants with a temperament not unlike that which was pathologically and notoriously exhibited by Ghana’s first postcolonial premier: ?Though the system was designed to check any tendency towards absolute despotism, it could not prevent a ruler from failing to observe accepted practices, and becoming a tyrant; but it could be maintained that the despotism was a violation of the system”(26).

At any rate, argues the author of Africa in Search of Democracy, it is insufferably insulting for anybody to presume one-party political hegemony to be a unique attribute or the especial preserve of African humanity or the so-called African Personality. The one-party system is, in effect, a universal human pathology over which Africans wield no especial preserve or monopoly whatsoever: ?Neither authoritarianism nor the one-party State can be traced to traditional political systems like these. Arguments [advanced] to justify the one-party State or authoritarianism cannot be based on the grounds of tradition. There were tribes which had hardly any institutional checks on their rulers, or where these [checks] were so ineffective as to make the [entire] system [appear to be] autocratic; but it is stretching the point too far to argue from this that one-party rule is a uniquely African innovation, uniformly in accord with her tradition. One-party governments can, in this twentieth century, be found on all continents, and cannot be appropriated by Africa as her own unique attribute?(27).

Even so, for Busia, while the Akan system of consensual governance, or governance by consensus, was not as neatly packaged and practiced as its modern rough equivalent, nonetheless, the traditional African system was far more progressive and accommodating, as well as conciliatory, than the one-party system that was fanatically adopted and blindly prosecuted by the Convention People’s Party (CPP), for a ready and typical example: ?When a council, each member of which was the representative of a lineage, met to discuss matters affecting the whole community, it had always to grapple with the problem of reconciling sectional and common interests. In order to do this, the members had to talk things over: they had to listen to all the different points of view. So strong was the value of solidarity that the chief aim of the councilors was to reach unanimity, and they talked till this was achieved. Some have singled out this feature of talking till unanimity was reached as the cardinal principle of African democracy. They have even gone farther to maintain that it is the essential mark of a democratic form of government, and that any government which has this [procedural protocol] therefore is democratic. This is going too far, for there are other important elements of a democracy. The principle is, however, noteworthy. The members of a traditional council allowed discussion, and a free and frank expression of opinions, and if there was disagreement, they spent hours, even days if necessary, to argue and exchange ideas till they reached unanimity. Those who disagreed were not denied a hearing, or locked up in prison, or branded enemies of the community. The councils could afford to spend hours or days of talk till they reached unanimity. They could do this because the volume of business was small, compared with what modern governments have to get through. In the new situation, local councils and legislative assemblies have wide and complex problems on which to make decisions, and there is no time to talk till unanimity is reached on every issue. So they now resort to voting, and accept and act on what the majority agree upon. But the traditional practice indicates that the minority must be heard, and with respect and not hostility. The traditions of free speech and interchanged of views do not support any claim that the denial of free speech or the suppression of opposition is rooted in traditional African political systems?( Africa in Search of Democracy 28-29).

While, indeed, the colonial conquest of Africa by the West may be legitimately faulted for abruptly and violently bringing into sharp relief problems of religious conflict and ethnic nationalism (or tribalism), nevertheless, the author of Africa in Search of Democracy prefers to maintain an objectively balanced sheet vis-?-vis what may be reasonably deemed to be among the salient benefits and hindrances on both sides of the epic encounter between Europe and Africa, even while clearly and bitterly, albeit in pensively muted vein, damning the European colonizer for inordinately privileging Africa’s mineral resources, and other material wealth, over the salutary development of human rights: ?The heritage of religion and tribalism dates from the pre-colonial past; but it is colonialism which has provided the immediate background to contemporary political problems of Africa. Colonialism is under constant fire. Some nationalists have maintained that it was colonialism which obstructed the progress of Africa. However emotionally this may be argued, it cannot be denied that in many parts of Africa there are obvious signs of material progress achieved under colonial powers. They brought administrative, commercial, and technical skills and capital; they established law and order, essential for progress; they extended commerce, built roads, railways, and harbors, opened schools, and thus laid the foundations on which newly independent States are building. It has been alleged that colonialism was responsible for the ‘balkanization’ of Africa. This, too, is not supported by the facts of history. On the contrary, many of the present States of Africa consist of different tribal territories brought together under one administration by the colonial powers. The problem they left behind is not that of ‘balkanization’ but of boundaries dividing ethnic groups who thus find themselves in different States. There are boundary disputes between Ghana and the Ivory Coast, between Ghana and Togo, between Ethiopia and the Sudan, between Kenya and the Somali Republic, to mention but a few of those which have been raised during 1965, and still await settlement. These disputes point to the area in which the most serious failure of colonialism can be seen; it is evidence of failure in the area of human relations. Relatives find themselves divided by State boundaries which make them nationals of different States, though they are bound by ties of blood and language and culture. What gave impetus to the colonization of Africa, and to the wars and rivalry of the colonial powers for the possession of territories in Africa was not primarily a concern for the welfare of the peoples of Africa as [it definitely was] for trade and the possession of materials known and believed to exist in Africa. This was of greater force than the anti-slavery movement. The colonial powers wanted materials and set out to get them. It was things that came first, and not [African] human beings and their welfare. Nowhere was this attitude more clearly demonstrated than in King Leopold’s Congo Free State. The King’s decree of 1891 required his agents to increase the production of rubber. It was quite clear that this was the main concern. His agents were to produce rubber in increasing quantity to swell his revenue. It did not seem to matter how they did it. The record of forced labor, and even of massacre committed against the Congolese between 1893 and 1904 by the King’s agents in order to force the chiefs and their people to raise the quota of rubber allocated to them must rank among the darkest records of inhumanity, black even for colonial history. Whole villages were attacked and burnt down, men, women and children were mutilated and killed, when the rubber expected from the villages was not produced. These outrages were confirmed by an official commission, and the Belgian Government took over the administration of the territory from the King. But the army and the police had a similarly bad record of coercion and ill-treatment of the Congolese. The acts of looting, burning, and rape committed by the Force Publique in the Congo in 1960 shocked the world; but it was not out of keeping with the traditions of atrocities the Congo had witnessed as a colony. There are records of outrageous ill-treatment and injustice which Africans could rake up against former colonial powers. Colonialism in Africa was characterized by the rule of white people over black people. The whites lived in different residential quarters; they established separate clubs for themselves; the higher administrative, executive, and managerial posts were reserved for whites only; higher incomes for whites, lower for blacks. Colonial rule was an expression of the supremacy of the white races. The recent Unilateral Declaration of Independence by the white government of Rhodesia (November 1965) is only a flagrant demonstration of the most galling aspect of colonialism: the rule of a minority of whites over large populations of Africans. It is indefensibly undemocratic. It should be noted, however, that the denunciation of injustice as being undemocratic implies the advocacy of justice as an element of democratic rule. ?. If the achievements of the colonial powers in Africa could be reduced to figures on a balance sheet, there would undoubtedly be achievements which could be entered on the credit side of the account; but on the human side, in the treatment of colonial subjects, there would be much, both of commission and omission, to be set down on the debit side. There are two aspects of the failure in human relations; one is broadly [speaking] that of injustice to which we have referred, and the other is the inadequate development of human resources which the granting of independence to African countries has laid bare?(Africa in Search of Democracy 36-40).

The preceding, while quite eloquent and objective, nevertheless, offers Busia’s weakest argument against the nationalist polemic on the ineluctable question of ?balkanization.? The fact of the matter, as even Busia himself pointedly admits in the preceding extract from his book, even where fragmented pre-colonial polities of the same ethnic groups were organically reconfigured by the conqueror, other culturally and linguistically discrete polities were violently brought together against the will of the captives, as it were. The postcolonial effect has been one of dysfunction verging on outright chaos, which is not very far from the geographical concept of ?balkanization.?

Further, on the question of the imperative need for postcolonial African governments to prioritize the provision of amenities for human development, particularly in the critical areas of health and nutrition, Busia observes: ?The deepest emotional reactions of Africans to colonialism are aroused, not by the material monuments which the colonial powers have erected[,] but by the injustices of colonial rule, and the failures of the colonial powers to provide adequate opportunities for the development of human talent. It is in the context of race relations that Africans assess colonialism?(42).

Earlier on, the author of Africa in Search of Democracy notes: ?In every African country, there is the combat with disease and insanitary conditions to be waged; everywhere[,] there is an awareness of the need for more hospitals, more doctors and nurses, more sanitary instructors, and more instruction in sanitation. Not enough was done under colonial rule. Two more illustrations may be quoted from a study undertaken in Ghana, on the eve of that country’s independence: ?In general[,] the concept of good nourishment is virtually absent; it is known, of course, that life cannot be preserved without food, but the dependence of health on the quality of food is not appreciated. That food is transformed by physiological processes into [bodily] substance is too materialistic an idea to be entertained. A woman came from a village to my clinic bringing four children and asking for medicine because ‘their bodies were weak.’ And indeed they were: their limbs were but little sticks and they could hardly walk for fatigue. I asked what food she gave them: she replied, cocoyam. I inquired what else, but there was nothing else. She was wholly unable to accept, or even consider the suggestion, that cocoyam was insufficient. She said they were ‘only children.’ And again, from the same work: An industrious and fortunate cocoa farmer may make up to thousands of pounds in a year, but seldom is any of this spent on raising the bare standards of living. He may have a sumptuous [sic] car and driver, a wireless set, a carpeted sitting-room (seldom entered), a steel safe, a three-story block of shops and offices in Accra or Kumasi, sons and nephews reading Law or Medicine in England or America, but he lives and eats as his fathers did ? in a squalid yard where women cook on the ground and naked children swarm, crawl and eat dirt. The children may have expensive imported tricycles, but they have yaws, worms, ringworm, and deficiency diseases as freely as other children?(41-42).

*Kwame Okoampa-Ahoofe, Jr., Ph.D., is Associate Professor of English, Journalism and Creative Writing at Nassau Community College of the State University of New York, Garden City. He is Director of The Sintim-Aboagye Center for Politics and Culture and author of ?When Love Is Unduly Delayed,? a forthcoming volume of poetry. E-mail: okoampaahoofe@optimum.net.

Articles by Kwame Okoampa-Ahoofe, Jr., Ph.D.

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