From: Berhane Habtemariam (Berhane.Habtemariam@gmx.de)
Date: Fri Jul 17 2009 - 14:40:12 EDT
Africa had pre-colonial 'Democratic Values'; but where are they now?
Efrem Habtetsion, Jul 17, 2009
During the international symposium on: 'Democracy in Africa: Reality and
Prospects,' that was conducted in Asmara from 21 to 23 May 2009, many
scholars participated and presented research papers on different topics.
Shaebia.org interviewed Dr. Amir H. Idris, Assistant Professor at Fordham,
New York City's Jesuit University. He is from the Department of African and
African American Studies.
Q: What is democracy based on African point of view?
Dr. Amir H. Idris: I think the question of democracy in Africa is very
important question. But, what we need to do is we have to put it into a
context. Democracy is one form of political system and all of us know that
the purposes and functions of any political system is to share specific
objectives. In the case of Africa all of us know that post colonial states
now exist in Africa since the 1950s and 1960s. These states face so many
problems, and we can summarise them into three main challenges: first is the
question of national unity or national identity; the second is the question
of economic developments; and the third issue concerns human rights. And I
may also add the question of ethnic conflict, civil war etc; these are some
of the major challenges of many African countries and I think if you want to
talk about democracy then it must be a means of resolving such challenges in
a peaceful way.
Q: Is that democracy is only about elections.
I am not one of those people who define democracy in terms of elections and
vote. Democracy is a system that allows the states or governments to address
specific issues that concern them. For some reasons, many African
governments have failed to clearly identify the relation between democracy
as political system and the functions of democratic constitution. The
functions of any democratic constitution are to reduce the gap between the
state and the society. The state should address the interest, the
aspirations, the dreams of the society and the society has the mandate to
direct the state to engage in specific activities.
To me the question of democracy should be perceived as a system that the
society is able to hold their government accountable; participate in policy
formulating and control government implementation of its mandates. But
sadly, many African countries know and understand the functions, purposes,
and the meaning of democracy in post colonial Africa but fail to practice
Q: What was the reason?
We have to make distinction between two things: democracy as values and
principles and democracy as an institution. What are the democratic values
we are talking about? Are they equality, justice and equal treatment to all
people from different background including ethnicity, religion, gender etc?
Many people, when they talk about African democracy they consider it as if
African democracy create an alternatives to, "cultural values" if we are
talking about values such as justice, freedom, equality and rights, they are
not European or American values; rather they are universal values. But, the
meaning of freedom, the meaning of justice, the meaning of equality may
differ the way Africans perceive. If we read or study the history of African
societies, you begin to understand so many African societies practice some
kind of democratic values and they were part of so many pre-colonial African
societies. The values of democracy were practiced long years ago among
Africans. The idea of living in a community in West Africa was exercised in
the 15th century. They participated in open political discussions, raised
political issues based on the democratic way of the community where all the
people were invited for discussion on matters that concern them. So,
democratic practices existed in Africa long before the colonial times.
Q: But still Africans failed to establish a democratic society?
The main concern is, therefore, that when we talk about democracy in Africa,
either we criticize the western version of democracy or we come up with this
vague and undefined term called African democracy. Africa is not a country;
it is a continent. If you accept Africa as a continent, no one would speak
about African Democracy. Eritrea has to come up with its own version of
democracy. It is not western values after all and we could not practice
western democracy in Africa because we have extremely different social
There is also that problem of conceiving Africa as one entity; after all
Africa is a continent. So, we could not collectively talk about African
democracy. Every single country has to develop a democratic system based on
its society's realities. Only when we develop our own democracy is that we
could get relieved from the burdens of western democracy.
My position is that we have to shift the conversation from democracy as a
political institution to democracy as values, principles, and norms.
Democracy in the African context has to be directed to address some of the
important issues in the continent; democracy should enable us to address the
question of property; it should address the question of education,
health.equal participation of all and so on.
Q: What is the problem that is hindering the implementation of these
democratic values then?
Many people try to interrelate it with the western democracy; but there is
nothing wrong with their values of democracy. The fundamental mistake is in
the way other societies including African societies interprets, perceives
and implements democracy as political systems. As in the case with Kenya,
for example, the way democracy being framed in Kenyan society, in my view,
has not been adequately defined in the manner that incorporate the diversity
of the Kenyan society. There are many people in the Kenyan society who are
not part of the decision making. It is also very important to address the
question of equality and inequality. The Kenyan issue also has to be put in
the context of competition over land, resource, in the country. Majority of
those who rioted live in the slum areas near Nairobi; they work in Nairobi
during the day and return to the slum at night. Such people are deprived
from basic rights while the resource of the country is exploited by few.
So, in order to ensure sustainable democracy, a government has to make sure
that all members of the society are called upon for decision making; that
they have the right to vote, present their views, to have development
rights, to make change in their socio-economic life and they have to see a
bright future for their children.
Q: When do you expect to see a democratic and prosperous Africa?
Africans have to be engaged in very serious conversations that allow all
members of the society talk about the problems we have. Having serious
conversations on the major current challenges of national identity, economic
problems and the question of freedom, equality and human right, we would be
able to solve them.
So, having a conversation around these issues will help African governments
and societies chart out special path on how they could design and formulate
a policy that would be accepted by all members of the society.
The second issue is that we need to retain the way we look at liberal
democracy or western democracy. We have to rethink about our perception of
western democracy in that we have to make distinction that the values that
are incorporated in western democracy are universal. The difference is in
the way we practice democracy as political system. So, when democracy didn't
work, it could be of two things: either there is a mistake in the values as
a whole or on the system that carries them. Critical eye and conversation is
Q: What is your impression of Eritrea?
I have not visited the whole city yet. This is my first time to be here, but
last night one of our Eritrean friends took us downtown Asmara and watched
the colourful Independence Day celebrations. It was really wonderful to see
people celebrating their independence in such a way. We also realized that
the Eritrean people, as a lot of people told me before I came here, are
friendly, polite and hard working. I think they believe in conversation
which demonstrates the powers of a society. I will go around and see more
during my stay here and I am sure that I will return back to US with
precious memories about your lovely country. But, so far I am sure that I am
going to comeback regularly.
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