Western-style Democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa
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.