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Olusegun Oladipo

Tradition and the Quest for Democracy in Africa

 
Summary

Taking off from reflections on the relevance of traditional political ideas for a democratic order in contemporary Africa, some traits, chances, and problems of Kwasi Wiredu's model of a non-party consensual democracy are analyzed. The goal of this article is to show that a currently viable adaption and transformation of the African democratic heritage could help to consolidate Africa's multicultural societies. A central task in this process lies in the reconciliation of democracy and justice via the establishment of a consensus-oriented dialogue for decision-making, a constitutional legitimation of the rule of ethnic groups, and a decentralisation of political power, so that local and regional autonomy becomes possible.


Content

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Introduction
Elements of the African Democratic Order
Wiredu on Consensus and Non-Party Polity
Matters Arising



 Introduction



Kwasi Wiredu:
"Democracy and Consensus in African Traditional Politics. A Plea for a Non-party Polity".
In this Issue.
Article

1

  In two recent publications, Kwame Gyekye and Kwasi Wiredu, two prominent African philosophers, make a case for the relevance of traditional political ideas in contemporary African life.  1  For Gyekye, there was a democratic order in pre-colonial Africa, the understanding and adaptation of which could be beneficial to contemporary African societies. Wiredu, on the other hand, makes a case for a non-party polity in Africa. For him, the multi-party system based on majority rule does not secure a reasonable system of democracy anywhere, but especially in African multi-ethnic states. He also argues that in at least some African traditional systems of politics, there was a potential for democracy based on consensus upon which we can build in our time.

2

  The point of both essays is that viable political institutions can be developed on the basis of Africa's »own traditions of political rule«. More specifically, it is claimed that »the traditional system of government did have some democratic features from which a new political system can profit«.  2 

3

  My aim in this short essay is to argue that this claim is not without foundation. A careful reconsideration and adaptation of the African heritage of democratic governance could help in the revitalization and consolidation of the democratic ferment, which Africa has been experiencing in the past one decade or so.



 Elements of the African Democratic Order

»[B]ecause the king was surrounded by councilors whose offices were political, and was himself only a representation of the unity of the people, it was quite possible to remove him from office; the catalogue of the possible grounds of removal was already held in advance.«

William Abraham
(Note 5)



4

  According to David Held, democracy in modern times is defined in terms »of a number of liberal and liberal democratic tenets«.  3  These tenets, he asserts, include »the centrality in principle of an 'impersonal' structure of public power, of a constitution to help and safeguard rights, and a diversity of power centres within and outside the state, including the institutional fora to promote open discussion and deliberation among alternative viewpoints and programmes«.  4  Although the traditional African political order was based primarily on kinship and it was guided almost entirely by oral tradition and a body of unwritten conventions, it did not lack the core ingredients of a democratic order as identified by David Held. The basic elements of the African (traditional) democratic order, which have been discussed by scholars, Africans and non-Africans alike, include the following.

5

  First, power was derived from the people for whom it is held in trust. According to William Abraham, this condition of democratic governance was, in the case of the Akans of Ghana, safeguarded by the provision for the removal of rulers, and the grounds for such removal. Although the king's power was hereditary, he could be removed on a number of grounds. Among these grounds are: self-opinionation; oppression and arbitrariness in governance; corruption; neglect of state affairs, etc.  5  These grounds were stated in the charter of leadership that defined the contract between the king and his people.  6  These was, thus, in traditional society a regime of checks and balances which was meant to ensure that the king did not become authoritarian in his rule.

»Unanimity and all the rigorous processes and compromises ... that lead to it are all efforts made to contain the wishes of the majority as well as those of the minority.«

T.U. Nwala
(Note 8)



6

  Another feature of the African democratic order was the reliance on dialogue and consultation as means of decision-making. K.A. Busia expresses this aspect of the African democratic order when he writes thus:

 

»When a Council, each member of which was the representative of a lineage, met to discuss matters affecting the whole community, it had always to grapple with the problem of representing sectional and common interests. In order to do this, the members had to talk things over; they had to listen to all different points of view. So strong was the value of solidarity that the chief aim of the counsellors was to reach unanimity, and they talked until this was achieved.«  7 

7

  T.U. Nwala expresses the same idea, with particular reference to the Igbos of southern Nigeria, when he writes that:

 

»Unanimity and all the rigorous processes and compromises ... that lead to it are all efforts made to contain the wishes of the majority as well as those of the minority. In short, they are designed to arrive at what may be abstractly called 'the general will of the people of the community'.«  8 

8

  Here, then, is another feature of the African traditional democratic order: decision-making was based on consensus rather than on majority opinion. It is the relevance of this aspect of the African democratic order that Wiredu discusses in his essay earlier mentioned.



 Wiredu on Consensus and Non-Party Polity





»Current forms of democracy are generally systems based on the majority principle.«

Kwasi Wiredu
(In this issue, 16)

9

  Wiredu observes in this essay that the demise of the one-party system has made the problem of working out a suitable political system an urgent one in Africa.  9  The vogue at the moment is to replace the one-party system with a multi-party system based on majority rule. However, for Wiredu, it is doubtful that this system can meet the democratic aspirations of the people or generate those conditions in which the »unhappy conflicts that have bedeviled African life into our times«  10  can be resolved. One of the reasons for scepticism regarding the potential of the multi-party system to meet Africa's democratic aspirations, according to Wiredu, is that it has the tendency »to place any one group of persons consistently in the position of the minority«.  11  This situation can easily generate disaffection in society.

10

  Another problem with the multi-party system is that it is a system in which »the party that wins the majority of seats or greatest proportion of votes, if the system in force is one of proportional representation, is invested with governmental power«.  12  This makes the struggle for power to be fierce and confrontational. Thus, rather than promote consensus and cooperation, the multi-party system generates conflict and disaffection. The unsuitability of this kind of party system for multi-ethnic societies, particularly those in Africa in which the search for community is still at a nascent stage, should not be difficult to see.

11

  Thus, for Wiredu, current forms of democracy based on the principle of majority rule are flawed. The alternative to them, of course, is not the one-party system. The alternative, he opines, is to build on the potential for democracy based on consensus that we find in some African traditional political systems, for example, the Ashanti system. Some aspects of this system, as described by Wiredu, make it a better one for Africa than the system of majoritarian democracy that is now in vogue.

»In a consensus system, the voluntary acquiescence of the minority with respect to a given issue would normally be necessary for the adoption of a decision.«

Kwasi Wiredu
(In this issue, 30)


12

  First, it was based on consensus not only in the choice of representatives, but also in the making of decisions. There were no political parties, defined as »organisations of people of similar tendencies and aspirations with the sole aim of gaining power for the implementation of their policies«.  13  This made it possible for all concerned to participate in power and reduced the potential for conflict that electoral competition under multi-party system has. In short, government under this system was a coalition of citizens whose right of representation was respected.

13

  It is this non-party alternative, modified so suit prevailing conditions in Africa, that Wiredu recommends. For Wiredu, what is remarkable about the non-party alternative that the Ashanti system, like many other African traditional systems, provides is that it has the potential to secure for us in Africa a political dispensation »under which governments are not formed by parties but by the consensus of electoral representative«.  14 



 Matters Arising

»To what extent is the traditional model of democracy adequate for our time?«

14

  A crucial question arises at this point: To what extent is the traditional model of democracy, whose basic elements are discussed above, adequate for our time? It should be noted, very quickly, that the "ideological legitimation" of the traditional political order is no longer adequate for modern times. The traditional socio-political order, let us recall, was legitimised by what T.U. Nwala has called a »mythical charter«.  15  This charter which, according to Nwala, was in »the history and ideology of the traditional community«  16 , stressed the people's »descent from a founding father, and the inevitable role of the gods of the community in its founding and perfection«.  17  But, given the negation of "the moral autonomy of the traditional community" and the emergence of new socio-political structures in Africa, this charter of legitimation would have to be replaced with a constitution.

15

  Note, however, that for a constitution to perform its noble role as the foundation or basis of order in society, the processes leading to its promulgation would have to be all-inclusive, giving every individual, group or interest in society the opportunity to participate in deciding what the founding charter of the society should be. The role of dialogue in this process cannot be overemphasised. It is the only means through which a rational, non-coercive harmonisation of views on the basic rules and procedures for regulating the affairs of the society can be achieved.

16

  Thus, the ideological legitimation of the traditional socio-political order is no longer adequate for contemporary society. Also inadequate is the emphasis on the clan as a basis of leadership, an arrangement which required "the establishment of a hierarchy of clans". It does not require much reflection to see that this arrangement has become anachronistic. The modern society is a cosmopolitan society in which people with different cultural, socio-historical background co-exist. Hence, the need for the democratisation of leadership and governance in a manner that allows all citizens to become »equal members of a single political community«.  18 

»The minority fears democracy; the majority fears justice.«

Mahmood Mamdani
(Note 19)

17

  This raises another crucial question. This is the question of how we can reconcile the claim of democracy briefly highlighted in the above paragraph with that of justice. This question arises with respect to African multi-ethnic states in which, to use the words of Mahmood Mamdani, »the minority fears democracy; the majority fears justice«.  19  This issue is at the core of many of the conflicts that have been tearing many African countries apart.

18

  It should be noted, however, that the tension between democracy and justice has arisen, partly because the dominant conception of democracy in Africa today is the majoritarian one. This conception, in practice, creates a situation in which some people are consistently in the minority. It is this kind of situation that the traditional African consensual model of democracy sought to prevent. But, how can this model be made functional in a new Africa in which "the moral autonomy of the traditional community" has been negated?

19

  To address this question, we need to spell out the kind of structures that would be required to make a consensual model of democracy work in today's Africa. In this regard, what is required is a kind of political arrangement in which power is sufficiently decentralised to allow for a significant degree of regional and local autonomy in African multi-ethnic states. This kind of arrangement would allow for political representation to be structured along lines that would allow each ethnic group to develop according to its values, culture, historical experience and aspirations. Also, it would prevent a situation in which some people see themselves as »permanent outsiders to the state«.  20 

Olusegun Oladipo
is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria.

20

  The point here is this: Any programme of social transformation, which would succeed in addressing the question of how Africans can develop and maintain viable social orders within which individuals can exercise their rights, perform their obligations, and realise their genuine human potentials, has to contend with the problem of the entrenchment of ethnic/clan consciousness is most African societies. What is required in this respect is not to obliterate this consciousness or pretend that it is not important. What is required is the construction of political systems within which this aspect of our social experience can be accommodated in a manner that does not threaten social cohesion. The consensual non-party model of democracy and a structure of political power, which guarantees considerable autonomy to the nationalities in Africa's multi-ethnic states, seems to be the best in the present circumstance.


Notes


 1   

Kwame Gyekye (1992): "Traditional Political Ideas: Their Relevance to Development in Contemporary Africa". In: Kwasi Wiredu / Kwame Gyekye (eds.): Person and Community. Washington, D.C.: The Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, 241-255 (Ghanaian Philosophical Studies 1).
Kwasi Wiredu (1996): "Democracy and Consensus: A plea for a Non-Party Polity". In: Kwasi Wiredu: Cultural Universals and Particulars: An African Perspective. Bloomington – Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 182-190. Also in this issue, 1-31

 2   

Kwame Gyekye: "Traditional Political Ideas", 241. 

 3   

David Held (1995): Democracy and the Global Order: From the Modern State to Cosmopolitan Governance. UK: Polity Press, 15. 

 4   

Ibid. 

 5   

William Abraham (1962): The Mind of Africa. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 77-78. 

 6   

See Taban to Liyong (1997) for a delightful poetic reconstruction of this charter in the poem entitled "The Magnum Akan Magna Carta" in his collection: Homage to Onyame. Lagos: Malthouse, 20-22. 

 7   

K.A. Busia (1967): Africa in Search of Democracy. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 28. 

 8   

T.U. Nwala (1985): Igbo Philosophy. London: Lantern Book, 168. 

 9   

In this section I have relied on my book (1996): Philosophy and the African Experience: The contributions of Kwasi Wiredu. Ibadan: Hope Publication, 44-45. 

 10   

Kwasi Wiredu: "Democracy and Consensus in African Traditional Politics. A Plea for a Non-party Polity". In this issue, 31

 11   

Ibid., 4

 12   

Ibid., 16

 13   

Ibid. 

 14   

Ibid., 27

 15   

T.U. Nwala: Igbo Philosophy, 167. 

 16   

Ibid. 

 17   

Ibid. 

 18   

Mahmood Mamdani (1998): When Does a Settler Become a Native? Reflections on the Colonial Roots of Citizenship in Equatorial and South Africa. Text of an Inaugural Lecture as A.C. Jordan Professor of African Studies, University of Cape Town (13 may 1998), 14. 

 19   

Ibid., 11. 

 20   

One African scholar politician who has worked out 'points of detail and even principle' on which the kind of decentralised political system which is being recommended here can be based is Chief Obafemi Awolowo. See his book (1966): Thoughts on the Nigerian Constitution. Ibadan: Oxford University Press. 



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