It is still fresh on our minds and I personally referred to it, severally: Former French President François Mitterrand at La Baule summit in June 1990 tied Aid to Africa to the implementation of democracy.  Since then, we have seen a lot on the continent in terms of democratic regime, governance, elections, and much more. It has been a real ‘game’ that has taken many shapes, forms and formulae. The recent coups d’état in Guinea and Mali call for a reflection over that concept again. What is happening to democracy in Africa?

Western leaders and their prescriptions

Advice was given by western leaders in different ways. President Mitterrand of France told African leaders: ‘move towards democracy; democracy is a universal principle, it is the direction that must be taken…have confidence in freedom’, then he assured France’s support to countries that would ‘take the road to democracy’, and added that France would give outright grants, not loans to the poorest African nations, and limit the interest rate on loans to middle income countries to five per cent. Thirty-five African delegations were present – Francophone, Anglophone and Lusophone – and the theme of the summit was ‘Debt and political evolution in Africa’. The general situation in Africa was described as one of ‘democratization unrest’ because some absentees at the summit were dealing with issues of political unrest in their countries: Félix Houphouёt Boigny of Côte d’Ivoire and Mobutu Sese Seko of the then Zaire could be mentioned. Another characteristic of the context in which the summit took place was this. As of 1990, France had the largest ‘permanent’ military presence (over 8,000 personnel) in sub-Saharan Africa of any foreign power. Djibouti, Chad, Central African Republic, Cameroun, Côte d’Ivoire and many other countries accommodated some of those military bases.

Which debt and who has to pay back?

One word that was used over and over again in the discussion on the democratic path in Africa was the ‘debt’ and I believe that there was no better or more befitting occasion when talking about that ‘debt’ than the – coincidentally – ‘Addis Ababa Summit on the Debt’ in July 1987. That was a historical event because Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso proposed a united front against the debt, in the speech he made. He was the only head of state who opposed that notion of debt, a notion that he questioned through a brilliant rhetoric anchored in history and geopolitics, and arrived at the conclusion that western countries rather have a debt to pay to Africa, the debt of blood, because when western countries were engulfed in wars, killing one another, African troops were used a cannon fodder by the armies of the colonizer countries. That, to Sankara, is a debt that the West can never pay back. He then gallantly went ahead and added that his country, Burkina Faso has no debt to pay back and with humour and tragedy he added these words: ‘if I am the only president who takes this position, at the next summit, I will not be here’ and indeed the same year, Compaoré had him assassinated. So, the notion of the debt that western countries peddle, brandish, formulate and reformulate is grounded in fake and false concepts. There is nothing like a financial debt that Africa must pay back to the West. It is, therefore, not a surprise that the concept of democracy that the West prescribed for Africa is failing woefully. 

A real drama of a coat changing colour in order to cling to power

The aftermath of the Baule Summit was a myriad of masquerades. Some military rulers declared that they were no more soldiers and as such, they could run for the presidency of their countries and some of those “new civilians” carried out some degree of positive reforms while others did not. Then the most poisonous twist in this copying of the western model of democracy is the changes that constitutions suffered. Presidents toyed with it in such a way that the number of years they spent in power was prolonged and that unleashed a natural reaction of the African masses. In Burkina, Compaoré was ousted by civil society, in Mali, Moussa Traoré was taken out in a bloodless coup, in Togo, Eyadema’s heir, Faure had it tough continuing the reign of the Eyadema dynasty, in Côte d’Ivoire, total violence shook the country after Houphouёt Boigny’s demise. More recently, Mali had its fair share of the anger of the masses when Ibrahim Boubacar Keita tried to engage in the same maneuver; civil society threw their weight behind Assimi Goita who is hailed as a liberator who has spared the country a tyranny and some few days ago, in Guinea Alpha Condé was deposed by the young army officer Mamady Doumbouya. What explains this failure of Africa’s experience with that model of democracy?

Need for an endogenous governance system for Africa

The Mande Charter or La Charte de Kurukanfugan “created” in 1240 by an assembly of nobles as the constitution of the Mali Empire is the incontestable evidence of the existence of democracy in pre-colonial Africa. These are some of the articles of the Charter. Article 5: Every individual has a right to life and to defend his/her personal integrity. Consequently, any attempt at taking someone else’s life will be punished by death. Article 16: In addition to their daily chores, women must be involved in all levels of government. Article 22: Vanity is a sign of weakness, and humility a sign of greatness. Article 24: In Mali, never mistreat a foreigner. Article 25: In Mali, the envoy is always safe. An African endogenous governance system that has African values at its core cannot fail. The Greeks came to learn several subjects (the art of governance included) from sub-Saharan West Africa in the twelvth century and then claimed to have invented all these arts. A blind imitation of western political systems can but create wars and military coups in Africa. It is high time we learned our lesson and went back to the right path.

Moussa Traoré is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of English of the University of Cape Coast, Ghana.

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