The recent military coup in Burkina Faso, on January 24, 2022, is the third in West Africa, after the August 2020 coup in Mali and the September 2020 coup in Guinea Conakry. Instead of reading it as an unravelling that works against the interests of alliances with Western powers, it should be read as a call for recourse to traditional African power structures and processes.
What is now happening in West Africa is a renewed striving for democracy African-style and away from elite-managed and controlled democratization characterized by concentration of political power, which leads to abuse, denial of human rights, election fraud and one-person dictatorship. The recent military coups can be understood as the expression of a silent revolution for a second liberation of Africa, one that seeks to consummate and consolidate independence through African-style democratic structures and practices.
African leaders are not delegates of Western powers
Paraphrasing Ivorian Mamadou Koulibaly (see his Youtube video entitled “La politique africaine de Macron”), African heads of state are not the delegates of foreign powers and should not act as if they are. France and others may consider Africans not worthy of freedom and therefore design policies to keep a stranglehold over them, but Africans don’t need controlling or misguided guidance of their economies, politics and nations. Such policies and “guidance” have devolved into plain bullying in the name of “democracy”, “national security” and “peace”.
The connivance between Western powers is undergirded by racism, neo-imperialistic market designs and paranoia about African population growth, and it has stifled democracy, human rights and lack of accountability. The imposition of Western-style power plays in the face of a string of coups is not going to bring stability, especially given the fact that those who represent that power are part of the problem that has led to the military takeovers.
Although each of the three West African coups is a reactive response to particular local circumstances, they all have 6 things in common:
- All three countries are former French colonies.
- All three coups have been entirely bloodless.
- All three coups are the expression of pent-up frustration with weak, self-serving (corrupt, manipulating and manipulated) leaders propped up by a foreign power (i.e. France with the connivance of others).
- All three coups have been led by young colonels (Mali-aged 39, Guinea-aged 41, Burkina Faso-aged 41) who declare having acted for the good and security of their people, country and sovereignty, not for power or internal military jousting.
- All three have been accompanied by cheering crowds of people welcoming a hope for change.
- All three coups have sparked a quick, reactive approach from regional organizations, like ECOWAS, that seem to be all ears to practicing Western-style discourse and impositions (such as sanctions) but do not take into account the interests and needs of the populations affected by them.
This is not to say that the military takeovers are an acceptable solution. They are not. But desperate people who feel downtrodden, ignored and silenced do desperate things for freedom and survival.
Democracy exists in different forms
To get the region back on track, the myths and mythology about African institutions and cultures must be dispelled. To be successful democracy needs to take a distinctive endogenous character. It is therefore urgent that regional actors revisit and revalue the indigenous elements of democracy (such as consultation, participation and consensus) that have prevailed in African cultures for centuries, in spite of colonialism’s efforts to destroy them and the imposition of alien ideological systems that later have tried to denigrate them.
Western democracy works on the basis of majority vote in a zero-sum approach that ignores minority positions.Traditional African democratic practices work by consensus, whereby all minority positions are taken into account. Western-style decisions by vote may be faster, but they lead to tension and strife in multiethnic societies like those in Africa. Decisions by consensus, on the other hand, take an awfully long time but once reached ensure that all will go along with it because their viewpoints have been considered (Defeating Dictators, George Ayittey, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2011).
As George Ayittey has written, “the people of Africa have for centuries had a political tradition of participatory democracy that allowed them to engage freely in the political decisionmaking process without harassment or exclusion” (Africa Betrayed, St.Martin’s Griffin, 1992). So why ignore that tradition and try to override it with foreign-imposed practices that lead to failure?
Western-style democratic practices imposed on Africans have bred authoritarianism, despotism and kleptocracy and have unwittingly supported the proliferation of dictatorships and are now motivating military coups “not so much by design but by munificence” (Ayittey). African-style democratic practices, on the other hand, are rooted in indigenous African political culture based on kinship and ancestry. They are structured to provide an effective bulwark against the threat of tyranny through decentralized systems of government and detailed devolution of authority, assignment of responsibilities and a complex system of checks and balances (Ayittey).
African-style democratic practices must be put front and center
Far from archaic, the traditional African system of authority has survived and even thrived in parallel to the development of the modern Western state structures. In that sense, African democratic roots are much richer than Westerners would like to admit. Indeed, what Africa epitomizes is the Mexican proverb: “They tried to bury us; they didn’t know that we were seeds.”
Today, the basic units of African democratic practices of self-government still exist: 1) the chief, who is the central authority, embodies the values and traditions that have come under threat and has become an informal administrator and a point of liaison between local communities and state institutions; 2) the inner or privy council keeps the chief in touch with happenings in the village/ community and keeps a check on his behavior (although African history is replete with well-known female monarchs, chiefs, and warriors, colonization relegated them, in the colonizers’ image, to domestic chores) ; 3) the council of elders represents the lineages in the village or community and advises and assists the chief and ensures he does not abuse the power invested in him ; and 4) the village assembly, which represents all the interest groups in the village/community.
In all four units of governance, dissent is tolerated, and every possible way of preserving integrity and survival of the village/community is explored in a consultative rather than autocratic manner. The chief, much like an umpire, ensures fair play and equal justice for all. Unity is achieved through the process of consensus-building, based on the principles of tolerance, accommodation, peaceful coexistence and autonomy (Ayittey).
The key and critical factor in African-style democratic practices is that they are based on ordinary oral discussion. And that is what is most needed right now, in Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso. Unanimity is not the goal; freedom of expression is, with sensible ideas and proposals applauded and inappropriate ones (for the specific African context) vocally opposed.
Africans want the freedom to develop the democracy that works best for them, devoid of double standards on individual rights to choice. ECOWAS members and their Western allies would do well to willfully understand that democracy and development in Africa must be defined and conceptualized in a manner that is suitable for the continent and consistent with African values or beliefs.