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ECOWAS Must Champion the African Roots of Democracy


· Africa


Stable democracies in Africa have emerged and will continue emerging from very different social and historical circumstances than those characteristic to Western societies. As a regional body, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) cannot fulfill its core mandate if it uses Western standards that are inadequate for African reality, because they fail to relate to common African identities and shared values.  

Revisit Africa’s democratic roots 

Representative democracy is hailed as a modern European invention. But the evolution of democracy is not its prerogative. In fact, available evidence adduces independent evolution of democracy in Africa and shows that the reforming ideas that culminated in Athenian democracy were a product influenced by African heritage.  

Non-Western historiography establishes that democracy, both in context and application, is not alien to Africa. Democratic practices in Africa evolved independently and devoid of European influence. This makes them at least as old as that practiced in Athens. Indeed, Africa harbored several democratic institutions before the advent of Europeans and devoid of Athenian and other foreign influence.  

Political organization of the precolonial African Kingdoms of Mossi, Ghana, Mali, and Songhai and of the Igbo and Yoruba societies in present-day Nigeria show that the practice of democracy was pervasive and pre-dated the Western invasion of the continent and its subjugation through the Atlantic Slave Trade and colonialism. There are therefore a number of forms of democracy that are unique to the African continent.  Democratic practices such as popular assemblies, leadership succession by election, and public deliberation antedate the African modern state. 

The depredation of slavery and colonialism truncated indigenous African democratic development, but its indigenous roots of democracy nullify the idea that democratic institutions were introduced in Africa by the West. In fact, Western domination of the continent led to the burning of democracy on the continent. Today, African democracy is struggling to rise up from the ashes. 

Far from being mere receptacles for foreign ideas, African societies have kept the fire of their indigenous democratic roots alive. Today this matters…a lot, even if Western democracies label them as ‘‘the non-democratic other.’’ It should therefore come as no surprise that many in Africa are questioning the tenets of liberal democracy promoted by the West and its relevance for the continent.  

What comes across as anti-democracy and anti-Western sentiments (particularly anti-French in West Africa) and expressed through the military coupsin Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso is in reality deep frustration with Western double standards. A coup is never to be condoned, but they happen for a reason. And Africans have good reasons to feel Western hypocrisy legitimizes the dirty habits of democratic-turned-autocratic rulers by prioritizing Western powers’ particular economic interests over the abuses of Africans’ rights while pouring billions into the continent to promote a smokescreen of good governance and support for the “fight” against poverty, corruption and terrorism. 

An ECOWAS reaction that is reactionary 

In the aftermath of the military coup in Burkina Faso, the role of ECOWAS is not to push the provision of highly political goods that ensure “oversight” (indirect interference?) from Western “liberal” democracies through sanctions, reprisals or expulsion. ECOWAS must instead champion the indigenous roots of democratic norms and practices rooted in African history and values such as the National Conference.   

It is clear that the western liberal type of democracy has not been as successful as anticipated. Western champions of liberal democracy may feel it’s the “best” and most appropriate prescription for ending poverty, corruption and human rights abuses, but it has evidently inappropriately addressed Africa’s social, cultural, political and economic realities, because it has ignored and even denigrated African indigenous democratic roots. ECOWAS, as a regional African institution, is called to put those roots into value and to work for the good of Africa. 

The continued discrepant attempts, namely by the United States and France, to institutionalize democratic practices, good governance and human rights through tied aid, unfair trading systems and sanctions are rooted in inherently ethnocentric values and beliefs. In practice, they have supported strongmen with poor leadership and economic management skills who wield power as delegates of Western interests for access and control over minerals, land and markets. 

After decades of mismanagement and blind homage to foreign interests on the part of African leadership, it is understandable that the African spirit of hope and optimism has been replaced by deep skepticism and frustration that is erupting into present-day popularly cheered military coups, which, by the way, do not seek power but rather justice and freedom.  

Imposing sanctions (on Guinea and Mali) and more recently suspending Burkina Faso from the regional governing body are reactionary measures. They favor a return to the status quo ante: abusive strongmen propped behind cosmetic democratic practices that reproduce what Nigerian political scientist Julius O. Ihonvbere (Africa and the New World Order, Peter Lang, 2000) calls “the inherited unequal alliance with profit- and hegemony-seeking transnational interests”. This type of reaction will only increase tensions in the region, because it focuses on the typically narrow Western emphasis of political and civil rights, while ignoring the social, economic and cultural rights that Africans are seeking in democracy. 

In order to effectively and actively manage the tensions resulting from the coups and prevent movement toward authoritarianism, ECOWAS needs to respect sovereignty with responsibility. As argued in a previous article “What’s in a Coup?”, this requires recovering and revaluing traditional African-style democratic practices and processes.  

You can’t subjugate nations into being what you want them to be 

It’s time to stop using a Western yardstick for normative comparison with the situation in Africa. As the recent trio of coups in West Africa shows, it’s not constructive to blame the victims or judge events by how much they have deviated from or fallen short of Western standards. You can’t expect your talk to be seen as legitimate if you don’t walk it: the democratic backsliding, autocratization and decay in many Western countries themselves indicate a gradual decline in the quality of democracy they practice and insinuate a process of de-democratization. Neither France nor the United States can legitimately pursue the recreation of Africa in their own image.  

Most Westerners simply don’t understand the complexities and nuances of African problems and realities. And Africans are sick and tired of being forced into limited democracy that pays lip service to “international morality”. They are sick and tired of Western sanctimony in its battle for “reconquering” Africa. They are sick and tired of being under the supervision of others who know nothing about them and mostly consider them a charity case rather than agents of their own future. They are sick and tired of imperialistic promotion of growth, development, peace, stability, harmony, or law and order. 

Africans want to be free, not an object of Western battles for markets and consumers or the subjects of misguided notions of an existing lack of common identities or shared values. They want to regain their right to self-determination and legitimately be able to require accountability from their leadership at home first, instead of first getting "approval" from France or the United States or international organizations.  

Africans have a right to become the pillars of their democratic system.They have a right to participate in deciding how to conceptualize their democracies so they are structured and composed to perform efficiently, effectively, and productively in their benefit. And ECOWAS should be one of their champions.    

Astrid Ruiz Thierry, Principal, Upboost LLC


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