In France, in 1789, the King was faced with direct opposition for the first time since his ascension to power in 1774. The ordinary people in the Third Estate had finally decided to make a claim for the establishment of a parliament, the National Assembly. On June 17 1789 they declared that France was to be run by the National Assembly, which subsequently would alter the whole political and social system in France. Louis XVI, recognising the impact the action had on his and the privileged classes’ status, BANISHED the Third Estate from the Estates General meeting place. A striking aspect of this event is the reaction of the Third Estate. They vowed “not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the kingdom is established” and that “wheresoever its members are assembled, there is the National Assembly”
This was a turning point in the history of insurgent politics. It does not have to be in government buildings that a political system functions. Politics is both personal and inescapable. Since the beginning of modernity, when politics was divorced from religion, it has become essential to have parallel systems of checks and balances. Thinkers from Cicero (societas civilas), Aristotle (koinōnia politikē), Locke (civil government), Hegel (the ethical roots of society), Kant (moral universalism), Marx (socialism), Weber (rationality and rationalisation of society) to Gramsci (civil society and hegemony), Habermas (communicative action and deliberative democracy), Manuel Castells (communication power and insurgent politics) and Zygmunt Bauman (liquid modernity); all recognised the importance of alternative structures (in different forms) to the state. The systematic design of government structures is essential but in those structures there should be enough space for Civil Society and cultural systems that are independent of government control.
Why am I taking time concentrating on the centrality of Civil Society? Because the socio-political scape has transformed remarkably in the past two decades that if we do not locate where our alternate political structures are, we run the risk of recycling the dictatorships that have dominated the global political arena, especially in the global south, for the past three or so decades. In Africa we have had the unfortunate experience of colonialism which has tarnished and distorted our legacies and hampered our lifeworlds. The evils of colonialism can never be denied, anyone who does is either mentally unstable or sadistic. However, those who went into power after the colonialism have adopted a wrong ideology and a paranoia that is unwarranted at best and mostly exaggerated for effect. Concepts like Civil Society and ‘democracy’ are unwelcome in African governments and political systems. People who want to engraft these ideas into African politics are deemed as traitors and puppets of the West. To address these notions, let us turn our attention to two questions: 1) What (or who) is the West and what (who) is the South? and 2) What is the best system of government?
Why the divide? What the South and West are and are not
The global West, as it is known, is a geopolitical sphere that is acknowledged to be economically better than the global South. The West, consisting of the USA and European countries, because of its economic advantage over the West (Africa) and the East (which is no longer the case), has a hegemonic advantage; they are politically privileged. This has prompted realists in global governance to call for the control of the global structure and global problems to be solved by the ‘powerful’ nations. Under the same token, African governments have become mostly reactionary, labelling anything that questions or discredits their hold to power as Western. The Judiciary in most African countries is never independent. Even in South Africa, who are regarded as a developed democracy on the continent, the Judiciary could not complement the efforts by the International Criminal Court of Justice (ICCJ) to apprehend Omar Al-Bashir because the government was in ‘solidarity’ with the African people against Western hegemony.
As it stands, Civil Society and opposition parties are viewed by African political elites, especially those who survived the colonial era, as Europeans in ‘African skin’. They are, for these revolutionaries, simply puppets of Westerners and sell-outs of the African values. President Mugabe, one of the longest ‘serving’ African leaders, voiced that democracy in Africa is a difficult concept. We ask therefore, what kind of system would we want? Ok more of that later. Let us ask first; is it necessary to label everything as black or white, or West or South or East? Are we not capable of equal cooperation? Are we not dwelling too much in history, fearing to delve into the future.
The problem with African political systems is that the leaders’ point of reference for everything is always in the past. We have shared the same education with he ‘West’ for the past century and yet we continue clamouring and holding on to tradition. I should make it clear that the concept of ‘culture’ is grossly abused by African politicians. Culture is something that changes over time, something capable of creating tradition. if culture does not change then we do not have a living society. African politicians try to fight against the Westernisation of African culture. The problem is, rather than trying to negotiate the norms and values that govern morality and behaviour on our continent, we concentrate on imposing tradition, cultural residues that governed behaviour in a different epoch, under completely different circumstances. This is a topic for discussion on its own but I have devoted space to it here because it is this contemporary negotiated culture that informs political culture. We have unprecedented corruption in Africa because of the gerontocratic and aristocratic beliefs that dominated traditional society. The wealth of Kingdoms was concentrated in the hands of a few people who controlled everyone and the people did not own anything. Julius Nyerere rightly observed that the concept of capitalism and private property did not exist in pre-colonial Africa. The only problem with that analysis is that it ignored royalty, who had access to anything produced by a Kingdom. Nyerere’s principles of Ujamaa could only work if the ruling elites adhered to the principles of the generality of the people too. This, even Mwalimu himself acknowledged, is democracy.
Our interpretation of things is determined by our position and trajectory in life. Those who gain power in Africa define culture as ‘respect’, but unfortunately the respect is only for those in power and not reciprocal. They demand a virtually blind and unquestioning following when they run Africa into the ground. Anyone who dares to think that the people have the right to contribute to the running of the government is deemed a traitor. The African public, not because of the West, want to take part in government and to have new ideas in the development and progression of the continent. We have had only a few visionaries in Africa who recognised the importance of the future. Leaders like the aforementioned Julius Nyerere, Salim Ahmed Salim, Amilcar Cabral, Seretse Khama, and Nelson Mandela among others have had more far-reaching visions for Africa, recognising the importance of the future, education and the youth. These leaders did not want to take all their efforts blaming the West but tried to design systems that could work for their countries, albeit with different successes and results. Based on this evidence we are forced to argue that there are a few good people who can bring real change to Africa. Do we have then to say democracy is Western?
The West has become a figment in the minds of the African elite who want to stay in power. The South is also their way of projecting self-pity and inverted racism. We have to know that whoever takes time to always blame some external force for their failure is both lazy and inhumane. We have to solve our problems in a contextual manner and give the young blood of our nations the chance to bring new ideas for us to realise efficient and progressive political systems. The only new ideas that are accepted by African leaders are those from youths who have been trained by the revolutionaries, who do not have a brain of their own and who have gobbled the political agitprop fed to them to the brim. If we are to move forward, we have to embrace globalisation and make it work for our own good.
What is the best system of government?
The simple answer to this is: there is no best system of government. As we have seen above, Africans have had problems since independence from colonialism with democracy. It is not plausible to take another country’s political system and plagiarise it as your own. We have to find what works best for us. But, does that principle work when people assume office only for ‘power’ or benefits? Most leaders in Africa believe in what is known as ‘prebendalism’ – the belief that leaders have to benefit more than anyone else when they go into politics because they work more. But does their work merit applause and beneficiation? Can these people lay a foundation on which we can all work, on which future generations can develop? That is the fundamental question. Their failure is perhaps understandable because they have the scourges of colonialism as their point of reference for government but they are responsible for at least moving away from, not opening, doors for others to have access to their own destiny and for the good of society.
Salim Ahmed Salim at the 26th OAU Summit in 1990 said that “Africa could not ignore the global consensus on the value of democracy; but democracy must be home-grown”. This is a fundamental point if we need to move forward. At any rate, democracy is and should be contextual and changeable. It has to be a negotiated affair. It is true that democracy has its own problems, but it is still the best form of government. On 11 November 1947 Winston Churchill remarked in the House of Commons that ” No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” You cannot surely tell me that dictatorship is the best, not to say good, form of government. Socialism in all forms failed. The protectionism of African elites against the loss of political office is simply appalling.
The Importance of parallel structures to the state
When governments think they know everything that is happening “on the ground” they are most likely to be mistaken. The importance of civil society cannot be over-emphasised. I would like to make a point here for the various forms of opposition and contribution. I have started this article with an event from the French Revolution to show how the government can be run outside the dominant structures if they cannot listen to the people. The ability of a political system to maintain the Repressive and Ideological State Apparatuses only run in as much as the people have at least minimal stake in government. As they grow detached from the government any insurgency can lead to implosion and subsequent collapse of a system. If the government cannot include the ideas of the masses they lose legitimacy, and concomitantly, power.
In Africa the revolutionary parties have maintained their legitimacy through enticing the rural and old electorate through ideas of ‘culture’ and have created regimes of fear through colonial and war imagery. This has worked for the past few decades but it will definitely not work with the emergence of the internet generation. The young generations are the most affected by the ineptitude of the current crop of leaders in Africa. The uncertainty created by the current leaders has adverse effects for our future.
We have a generation facing the prospect of wasted lives, who do not know what tomorrow holds for them. The only thing we are sure of as youths under the revolutionary regimes is history and we are told we have no way of freeing ourselves from it. We are told not to take opportunities and to think for ourselves unless under the prescription of the failed elders. As highlighted above, one’s position and trajectory influences interpretation. What the political elites see in youths is not a part of African values AT ALL. As one who grew up with elderly people in the rural areas I can confidently claim and ascertain that elderly people in Africa respect youth so much and look forward to our contributing to change in all aspects of life and to bring new ideas to the table. The belief that African political elites have is unAfrican. They believe that ‘if they are not my children, why should I care?’ Most of them have invested heavily for the futures of their children in sheer disrespect of the people from whom they get their monies.
It is high time African youths came together and raise their voices against the tyrants we are feeding. The existence of politics warrants the existence of counter-politics. It does not mean we have to oppose for the sake of opposition but we have to contribute to our own futures. The catch is that wherever you are, there the government is. You are the parliament on your own. With the internet at our disposal, we have found our Tennis Court where we can map the direction of our countries and our continent. It is high time we ditch our petty differences as try to forge a clear way forward, asking the question “what kind of continent do we want?”
University of Portsmouth, Graduate Student in the Department of History, Politics and Social Studies.