Africa’s Democratic Dilemma – Andrew M. Mwenda

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President Yoweri Museveni’s suspension of the Democratic Governance Facility (DGF) has caused uproar. This has been a big programme by Uganda’s “development partners” aimed at “providing harmonised, coherent and well-coordinated support to state and non-state entities to strengthen democratisation, protect human rights, improve access to justice and enhance accountability in Uganda.”

Museveni’s actions may be motivated by his selfish interest to protect his power rather than to enhance the independence and sovereignty in Uganda. However, they raise important issues about the relationship between governments in Africa and Western governments. It is these broad issues that have motivated this article.

But first, I sympathise with many Ugandans whose livelihoods have been ruined by this suspension. However I have a problem with Western efforts to shape African nations and societies in their own image. While many Western actors in these endeavours genuinely believe they have our best interests at heart, and while they have many local allies who share their vision, they are not any different from their colonial ancestors who came here claiming to spread the three Cs – Christianity, Commerce and Civilisation. These efforts to shape us according to their fancies show contempt for our uniqueness. Africa needs to be given space to shape its future.

I think the West suffers from chronic racial (though often presented as cultural) hubris. There is a widespread belief in the West that their political institutions are not just Western but universal and should be emulated by every society. Thus the West has decided our future for us – we should be liberal democracies. It funds a host of programs to direct us that destination.

Yet liberal democracy grew out of a very specific historical experience! It was largely a result of the industrial revolution, which produced social change reflected in the development of new social forces. These animated political struggles, which were nourished by a nutrient culture – norms, values, habits, mentalities, etc. producing a particular set of political institutions. If these institutions serve the West well, it is in large part because they evolved organically out of the above-mentioned processes.

Yet today the West thinks their institutions are universal and can apply anywhere, anytime and under any circumstances. So the Western mind-set is to cajole and even force other societies to adopt its ways. This is done through economic incentives and/or diplomatic pressure, and in the most extreme cases of Libya and Iraq, through force. This thinking has achieved hegemonic status. Large numbers of elites in other regions of the world, especially in Sub Sahara Africa, embrace these beliefs and their accompanying institutions – liberalism, democracy, free markets etc. unquestioningly. I used to be that African elite and am not sure I have fully changed.

Every government in the world is dichotomized into two categories: it is either a democracy (meaning modern and humane) or a dictatorship (primitive and cruel). Democracy is presented as a moral crusade which every country should embrace or else risk economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation or even war. Yet to become democratic, the West went through a long and tortuous process of political struggle and social upheaval. These struggles lasted decades and even generations. Progress was never linear. Often it was characterized by gains and reversals.

But when it comes to Africa and other societies, the West demands democracy should be an event; there is no journey, no struggle and no politics. Africa should just become democratic in exactly the same manner and extent of the West by copy and paste and in an instant. What this actually means is that the West is asking us to abolish politics; democracy ceases to be a result of political struggle shaped by negotiations and compromise. It is becomes technical fix.

Thus any and every government in Africa is a dictatorship (primitive and cruel) unless it mimics western systems (then it is modern and humane). To be civilized and humane is to be western; to be barbaric and cruel is to be non-western. There is a racist tinge in this cultural rhetoric that presents the particular as universal. It echoes the spread of Christianity during the colonial encounter: African religions were called satanic. To have faith was to be Christian. Today Democracy is a secular religion.

As Africans we have no identity except as carbon copies of “Western man.” Only the African with a formal education (Western education), who espouses democracy and human rights and the wider the language of modernity, is a civilized African. That is the African elite who is respected in western circles; given audience in their media, academia and think tanks in large part because he regurgitates westerns norms without nuance or subtlety

To challenge these dominant assumptions is to be labelled backward, supporting tyranny and corruption. Then such an African is sanctioned, blacklisted, marginalized, ostracized. And these actions are supported in the name of liberalism, democracy and free speech. Freedom must be forced down the throat of every society. All cults: Christian fundamentalism, communism, Islamic extremism, etc. have claimed universality. As normative values they are hostile to each other. But as positive theories they are alike.

Anyone opposing an incumbent “regime” that does not meet procedural standards set by the West can claim to be fighting a dictatorship and will be believed. Western institutions will not pause to examine the social forces propelling such an upstart (they may be anarchic, radical extremist, tribalistic, etc. – as long as they are not Islamic). They will not look at its values, policies and conduct. They will embrace it, as they did the Misrata brigade in Libya, and refer to them as pro democracy activists.

Western governments and foundations also finance a plethora of NGOs and call them civil society. Historically, civil society was composed of membership-based associations. People came together around a shared interest in a voluntary fashion. They created associations to aggregate their interests and place them on the political agenda. They raised money to fund the activities of the association and elected leaders whom they held to account via elections.

Yet today’s NGOs are not membership-based organizations. The beneficiaries of these NGOs are never members of these NGOs. So what they get from the NGO is charity, not rights. They do not fund the NGOs or elect their leaders who “fight” for their interests. So they cannot hold them to account. Instead these NGOs are funded from London, Brussels, Washington and Paris. The funders, not the local beneficiaries, decide what issues are important.

The local managers of these NGOs design proposals to suit the interests and fancies of foreigners and account to these foreign funders. The local beneficiaries have little or no say in it all. Both the ideology and the issues it gives prominence are decided from abroad. How can such foreign funded ideology and issues be democratic?


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