It is not news that liberal democracy, which evolved in various forms in Africa in the aftermath of the Cold War, stands troubled in many countries. How did we get here, and what can be done to invent a democratic culture and practice more suitable to Africa’s histories, its peoples’ aspirations, its many national peculiarities, and the cultural orientations and socializations of its peoples?
Questions about the precarious state of liberal democracy in Africa invite a deep, critical philosophical reflection on democracy in both its generic and liberal Western iterations. We must proceed from a premise that discards the notion that democracy, in all its forms, is sacrosanct and beyond reproach. We must also embrace a new premise that posits democracy as a set of malleable principles and aspirations rather than a settled practice.
For me, there are four tenets of democracy: accountability, representation, transparency—the notion that the rules must be known by everyone involved—and participation. All four elements were present in precolonial African political systems. The byproducts of those systems were inclusion, legitimacy, consensus, reduced dynastic and leadership turnover, and stability. It is of course dangerous to romanticize or prescribe precolonial political arrangements for complex postcolonial African polities, but the relationship and contrast between the incipient democracies of precolonial times and the political troubles of the postcolonial present prompt us towards generative thinking.
Precolonial African histories furnish us with political cultures and leadership modalities that were democratic in their own ways. They were variously founded on consensus, inherited authority, or sacred, religious, and ancestral ordination. What they all had in common was legitimacy, the basic idea of a leader, group of leaders, or a political configuration being accepted as representing the will and interest of a people at a particular time. Not only did these precolonial forms of African democratic practice possess the key ingredient of legitimacy; they had in-built mechanisms of accountability, participation, and checks and balances. Moreover, there were procedures for addressing post-selection grievances and managing the occasional crisis of succession and leadership failure.
With this precolonial backdrop in mind, it becomes easy to imagine the first task in extricating Africa from its current liberal democratic conundrum, namely, to decolonize, decenter, and provincialize liberal democracy as a distinctly Western form of democratic practice rather than a universally applicable and replicable formulation. Thankfully, this is not a new intellectual enterprise. African nationalist intellectuals who lived through a colonial iteration of liberal democracy vigorously questioned its universality. One such African is Nigerian nationalist and statesman, Chief Obafemi Awolowo. In his critically acclaimed autobiography, Awolowo, who was Premier of Western Nigeria and the Federal Commissioner of Finance of the newly independent Nigeria, critiqued the tendency to recommend, lionize, and then punish deviations from a single Western paradigmatic democratic path:
There are no dogmas for the practice of democracy; and democrats cannot and must not censure any nation on the ground of deviationism. But they must at least have the courage and honesty to insist that a flagrant departure from the ideal of democracy is not an acceptable variant of the most beneficent and ennobling form of government which mankind in all its long and chequered history has evolved.
In this passage, Awolowo rejects a monolithic framing of democracy as well as the notion that a rigid template of representative and participatory government can apply across different polities. His was not an abstract philosophical critique. The unspoken target of Awolowo’s critical intervention is a Western consensus on democracy that rests on the claim that individuated voting rights and competitive, zero-sum elections are the only guarantees of accountability, representation, and equal participation.
Awolowo proposes a persuasive theory of equal rights to democratic innovation, as well as the equality of differently conceived democratic practices. So, democratic plurality is not simply about multiparty elections and contestations between diverging visions, ideologies, and platforms. Rather, democracy, he contends, should by its nature be diffused and accommodative of multiple semiotic and practical expressions of its organizing tenets—representation, participation, accountability, and legitimacy. Awolowo’s treatise congeals to what one might describe as democratic cosmopolitanism. In Awolowo’s political imagination, democracy has multiple origin stories and is not a system of government upon which the West has a proprietary claim.
Awolowo’s polemic on liberal democracy renders Africa’s democratic futures open to unfettered debate and deliberation. It is a denunciation of the idioms of philosophical finality and cocksure absolutism in which liberal democracy is often framed. Awolowo’s skepticism of the universality of liberal democratic norms enables Africans to imagine an alternative African democratic culture rooted in African historical experiences and present aspirations.
The history that should inspire new African democratic forms is deep. Africans must strive to recover, revise, refine, and repurpose Africa’s precolonial political cultures of inclusive, accountable, equitable, and representative politics. The sheer variety, diversity, and depth of this precolonial political history call for a deliberate and critical epistemological shift to that history to guide the debate on African political futures.
The current epistemological moment is a decolonial one, but discourses of decolonization and decolonial praxis erroneously assume that the temporal baseline of Africa’s current political impasse is exclusively colonial, and that the supreme task of African theoretical thought is to undo the political epistemology of colonialism. Decoloniality as an epistemological political project inadvertently reifies the colonial moment as the point of both reference and critical reevaluation. By polemically and strategically exaggerating the ways that colonization destroyed the African cultures, practices, and innovations that predated it, and by not explicitly recognizing the persistence of precolonial African political, ideational, and intellectual cultures and the possibility of recovering some of them for instrumental reflection in the present, decolonial theories fall short of advancing a reclamatory political agenda beyond the liberatory project of rejection and distancing.
As demonstrated through Awolowo’s treatise, Africans have been decolonizing, critiquing, but also enriching liberal democracy from an African perspective since colonial times. They have also been gesturing in the direction of alternative African democratic forms. Today’s pro-democracy and decolonial intellectuals owe a debt to this body of work and can learn from it.