By Greg Mills, Olusegun Obasanjo, Jeffrey Herbst and Tendai Biti
Synopsis of Chapter 6 – Beginning the March to Democracy
Reviewed by Michael E. Agada
“I have cherished the idea of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die for”
–Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom
The profundity of this chapter, particularly as it relates to democratic transitions in Africa, is beautifully conveyed in the above remark from Nelson Mandela, one of Africa’s leading democracy activists and freedom fighters. The personality of two significant leaders, Frederik Willem ‘F.W.’ de Klerk and Nelson Mandela, can be ascribed to South Africa’s democratic journey. The journey embodied their desire to see a society that ensures freedom of choice and fair opportunity for all. As we know, they represented and lived for these ideals, earning them global recognition.
Throughout this chapter, you will notice that the imbalance of democratic values is at the heart of the discussions. The complexities inherent in African democracies are central to the chapter.
The authors admit that Africa has some really distressed countries. They classified 22 African countries as “not free” in 2018, citing the fact that these governments have constantly been autocratic since 1988. Algeria, Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, and Zimbabwe are among these countries. Nonetheless, they believe that numerous countries have moved out of the “not free” category. Some have succeeded, while others have eventually failed and reverted to their previous ratings.
The authors highlighted that “over the decades of independence, a political culture has often developed that views control of the state as a prize to be won by any means necessary, and not to be given up by risking truly consequential elections.” They further noted that the press and judiciary are either underdeveloped or completely controlled by the current regime. The authors characterized the opposition as usually weak, disorganized, and sometimes “more interested in assuming power for material self-interest than to initiate a democratic order.” The chapter introduces an idea that the authors refer to as a “referee” in the process of African democratization. They believe that if the majority of Africa’s problematic countries are to democratize, they will require a kind of “referee” – either internal or external – “who can assure the parties that the new rules of the game are going to be followed, that the next election will not be the last transition, and that they will be able to compete for power in the future.”
Overcoming these commitment concerns (which I feel are evidently absent in most African societies today), the authors argue, is critical to establishing a democratic regime. They contend that becoming a referee comes with its own set of political and even personal obligations, as well as possible threats to their life and future. They believe the prospects for transition are mainly dependent on the emergence of the appropriate leaders or external forces. The authors classify Nigeria and Liberia as “partly free” because both allow for the holding of consequential elections on a regular basis and have seen a political transition between parties.
They advanced their points by presenting examples of notable democratic “referees” or lack thereof, as well as their contributions to the democratization of their respective countries. Four (4) noteworthy examples are: South Africa’s Frederik Willem ‘F.W.’ de Klerk, Nigeria’s General Abdulsalami Abubakar, Liberia’s former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Burundi, which lacks a referee and thus qualifies as a “not free” country. Taiwan’s transformation was given as an example outside of Africa by the authors.
Looking at the first three examples, it was simple to see a pattern among the democratic referees: they were willing to sacrifice personal interests for national interests. They seemed to mimic some of the motivating factors cited by former Liberian President Sirleaf, whose top priority was to “keep the peace,” which was crucial after their many years of conflict. The second priority was to restore essential services, and the third was to “restore the nations’ reputation and creditworthiness.” These actions stand in stark contrast to what occurred in Burundi, where the transition from conflict to peace had been hampered by the absence of a “credible referee,” particularly following the assassination of Prime Minister Prince Louise Rwagasore in 1961, who was seen as someone who could bring the two groups, Tutsi and Hutu, together.
Now, for those who succeeded, these were not without challenges for these leaders, some of which I deduced from former President Ellen Johnson’s account in the chapter were cultures that were hostile to the country’s democratization, such as a poorly educated civil service, corruption, patronage politics, and dependency issues. To address these issues, she displayed integrity, focused on building strong institutions, enacted strong laws and policies, and improved worker welfare to help reduce the incentives for corruption. It is another matter entirely whether these policies were successful in these countries. However, there is no doubting that these individuals made significant contributions to the country’s democratic process as it exists today.
In concluding, the chapter reiterates that a credible referee and leaders who decide to embrace democracy are necessary for a democratic transition. In their opinion, leaders will ultimately need to make tough and costly decisions while undertaking democratic transitions, most of which will be based on the strength of their character.
The main takeaways from this chapter are that in order for African democracy to be successfully established and maintained, we need leaders who can rise above a regressive and self-serving system and refuse to allow themselves to become ingrained in its eroded principles even after assuming the highest positions of authority. The transition from the old to the new—a new that, if it takes place on level playing fields, everyone wants and loves—would be the ideal route towards democratization. For example, authoritarian governments to majority rule, decree-based administration to constitutional democracy and the rule of law. In actuality, a nation is considered democratic to the degree that it adheres to democratic norms and practices.
It is important to emphasize that, as we move further to developing fully fledged democracies, investing in a value system that molds individual attitudes in our daily lives will make it much simpler to raise leaders who uphold these selfless principles. As Africans, and especially as Nigerians, the truth is that our value systems have a significant influence on the types of leaders that arise in our communities. These principles ultimately serve as a general guidance for decisions and priorities.
One important question that needs to be tackled by our nation is this: what kind of values did we foresee when we made the transition to democracy? What ranked highest among us? In my opinion, young Nigerians and probably many Africans on the average are ignorant of their nation’s fundamental values, if any exist at all. Thus, how can we expect our priorities to be in line with the fundamental principles of a value system that most people are unaware even exists? that’s assuming it really does exist. The Nigerian value system and national values have never been explicitly stated, not even in secondary education or at the university level. There aren’t many in most families. Some individuals don’t. As a result, expecting Africans in our different countries to live in accordance with democratic norms while endeavoring to develop may be absurd. It’s not surprising, given the odd occurrences that surround us.
Therefore, in order to advance democratically, we must take a holistic approach and reconsider our values as a continent, as individuals, and as a people. This is because the leadership of a country and progress are contingent upon these values, so it will be easy to discuss loyalty to the nation rather than to specific individuals because, once leaders start promoting ideas at odds with national values, they will be left on their own. By doing so, we would have developed a cadre of leaders who appreciate national principles, resulting in even stronger institutions focused on our democratic survival. We can’t keep going to bed, sleeping soundly, and waking up hoping to see an Africa or Nigeria that we didn’t create.
Michael Eche Agada is currently a Technical Advisor – Electoral Affairs at GIZ Nigeria and ECOWAS. He is an advocate for inclusive governance, conflict prevention, credible elections, and community engagement.
Democracy Works: Turning Politics to Africa’s Advantage by Greg Mills, Olusegun Obasanjo, Tendai Biti and Jeffrey Herbst, London, Hurst & Company, 2019.