Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Western-style Democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa

By Winnie

Democracy may be a word familiar to most, but it is a concept still misunderstood and misused in a time when totalitarian regimes and military dictatorships alike have attempted to claim popular support by pinning democratic labels on themselves. The New York Times Magazine published an article by Jim Holt titled “Export This?” in which he discusses the difficulties associated with the use of the word “democracy.” He points out that the word has been used to refer to forms of government that are often radically different from one another including some that most would actually consider a dictatorship.

My everyday news gathering as a Five Freedoms Intern has prompted me to blog about democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa; specifically democratic elections and their legitimacy in promoting democracy in Africa. Because of the recent post election conflicts in Kenya and Zimbabwe and so many other countries in Africa, I raise the question of whether Africa is capable of following the European or American style of democracy. I sincerely believe that Africa needs a form of government that speaks to its culture and traditions.

I understand that a Western-style democracy has the potential to confer legitimacy, moderate dissent, engender compliance, and heighten citizen efficacy. Elections are especially crucial for eliciting consent from those citizens who would prefer alternative rulers and policies. But do Western-style elections fulfill these functions in Africa, where competitive elections are often unfamiliar and imperfect? Specifically, do citizens who feel close to ruling parties (winners) believe that their government institutions are more legitimate than do citizens aligned with opposition parties (losers)? If losers are more disgruntled than winners, is it because they doubt the procedural fairness of the recent elections?

Take Kenya, for example, a country in Africa challenged by its attempt to govern its people under a western-style democracy. Although Kenya has a strong economy, the botched elections that recently took place put this beautiful country on the “Failed State” list with other African nations using Western-style democracy to elect their leaders. This list of allegedly failed states includes: Somalia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, and Cote D’Ivoire. There are other countries in Africa who want to believe that this system of democracy is working although it is clear that their countries also stand on the brink of being classified as failed states.

The elections that took place on December 27, 2007, have kept Kenya in the spotlight of daily world news because of the violence that has spread outside of the capital, Nairobi. World leaders, in their effort to help bring an end to the violence that is destroying the country, have traveled to Kenya, called the leaders of both parties, and asked former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to try to negotiate a peace settlement. As I watched and read the news reports about the tragedy in Zimbabwe and in Kenya, where nearly 1,000 have been confirmed dead, 300,000 displaced, stores looted and property burned, I came the conclusion that the Westminster System of Democracy might be a poor fit for Africa.

Africans, as most people of the world, long for democracy where the masses are free to choose their leaders without a trail of death and destruction before and after elections. So in order for this to happen, Africa needs a think tank comprised of “the best minds” that can develop a form of democracy that speaks uniquely to the African experience, and also considers the best interest of the continent's countries. I believe the conflicts in Kenya and Zimbabwe bring home the reality that trying to adopt a Western-style system of government for the people of Africa might actually be a failure; It is time for a change in Africa’s style of governance.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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