Still searching for the ‘political kingdom’
The struggle for democracy in Africa, including the role of social movements, found early expression in the anti-colonial movement, while recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt are reminiscent of the second liberation struggles of two decades earlier.
A critical evaluation of emerging democratic forces in Africa is vital to the analysis of the trends in the struggles for people power, and to define strategies for avoiding the pitfalls that undermined earlier waves of democratisation in the continent.
Under what conditions can an ‘emanicipatory’ African national democratic project—defined by an increase in people’s participation in authoritative resource allocation—be initiated and sustained in the face of a deepening crisis of the current neoliberal world order?
The current trend in the struggles by pro-democracy social movements in Africa against authoritarian rule is often legitimised but masquerading under the name of (pseudo) democracy. We need a critical interpretation of the trends of people power on the continent and the prospects of their quest for a just and inclusive political order.
The uprisings and protests in 2011 in Tunisia, Egypt, Uganda, Malawi, Swaziland, Senegal and Botswana are part of a protracted history of resistance by ordinary Africans against oppressive regimes and unpopular policies, dating back to the anti-colonial struggles of the 1940s and 1950s.
This follows from a long history of people’s struggle for freedom from the days of resistance against colonial subjugation, post-second world war nationalist struggles, and the postcolonial struggles against authoritarian single party/military rule, culminating in the post-cold war ‘third wave’ of democracy that swept away many of Africa’s despotic governments in the 1990s.
The struggle for justice and freedom did not stop with the end of formal colonialism. Throughout the past 50 years of African independence there have been numerous documented cases of resistance to oppressive regimes as the central pillars of the nationalist project—democracy, inclusive development, nation building and national unity—quickly disappeared from the political programme of post-independent African governments.
Barely half way into the second decade of independence, the gulf between the state – controlled by elites – and society in Africa had widened considerably, while discontent continued to simmer below the surface.
The breakdown of the nationalist alliance between the elite and peasants, and the descent into single party/military rule, along with the silencing of alternative voices and opposition in the name of national unity and development, helped fuel mass discontent.
The so-called ‘nationalist development project’, which was supposed to be liberating and empowering, instead became a means by those in power to enrich themselves and their political supporters while their populations were left to fend for themselves. Governing elites failed to promote development in the rural areas where the vast majority of citizens earn their livelihoods, or to provide basic services to the growing urban population.
But with the economic crisis of the 1980s popular discontent with autocratic regimes erupted across sub-Saharan Africa, as citizens began to demand sweeping political and economic reforms and the introduction of multiparty democratic systems of government. These popular uprisings came to be known as ‘Africa’s second independence’.
They initially provided the most encouraging evidence of the creation of the new structures and values on which a substantial process of redemocratisation must be built.
The scope of resistance to oppressive African regimes by a multitude of local forces has grown over the years, and is likely to continue to do so in the coming decades as the scale of marginalisation and re-stratification deepens in response to internal and external factors. At the same time there is no guarantee that the mounting resistance will produce democratic outcomes.
At the national level there is a need to revitalise the nationalist project by reconstructing the state, rebuilding citizenship, renewing the social contract, re-enacting society and rejuvenating integrated and inclusive economies.
First, we need fresh approaches to understanding political economy and state-society relations. Despite the phenomenal growth of resistance groups and political parties across Africa, social forces remain weak, fragmented and lacking any clear alternative political agenda for transformative change.
Political parties in particular are led by opportunistic individuals whose primary motive is capturing the highest office in the land rather than a genuine desire to bring about structural change in society. Moreover, political parties tend to represent only a segment of society, mostly urban-based organised groups, while excluding many others, such as peasants and women.
Given the heterogeneity of the pro-democracy movements in each African country, identifying the agents of transformation committed to popular welfare and genuine democracy in a diverse context remains problematic.
What social forces are involved in the emerging socio-political pact in Egypt or Tunisia? Given the opportunistic about-face of the USA and other Western powers in welcoming the people’s revolution in both Egypt and Tunisia after years of unconditional support for the regimes of President Ben-Ali and Hosni Mubarak, what is the West’s real hidden agenda in North Africa? What type of democratic outcome would the West be willing to tolerate?
These are important questions that require real answers. Equally important is the continued influence of international actors on the ability of African nations to chart their development unencumbered. The democratisation process is taking place at a time when the sovereignty of African states has been gravely compromised. Western governments, with long-term strategic and economic interests in Africa, continue to influence, if not directly determine, the type of democracy that Africans must have—a democracy where the economy is dis-embedded from society.
Through the instruments of foreign aid, debt and trade, external powers will continue to limit the policy space of African countries. Important economic decisions are rarely brought to public scrutiny as parliaments, civil society and other interest groups are excluded from the formulation of policy, particularly on the need to agree on how the costs and benefits of such reforms should be shared among the population.
The critical challenge in the coming decade is going to be how to create a new balance between the interests of a transnational economy and the real needs of local communities in the face of the diminishing power of the African state.
Africa’s marginal position in the global hierarchy provides domestic social forces with a compelling occasion to embark on an ‘emancipatory’ democratic project with a dual purpose: ensuring the economic emancipation of the people and securing a degree of ‘autonomy’ by African nations from foreign influence in determining their economic and political future.
Central to an ‘emancipatory’ project is the development of a strong, democratic and activist state that asserts its development role within the context of a commonly shared national development vision with strong support from the population.
The national development vision should emphasise a ‘guided embrace of globalisation’ with a commitment to resist, as opposed to and ‘uncritical embrace of globalisation’, an approach that has been associated with the loss of sovereignty by African countries.
Strategic engagement of global forces should be decided on the basis of how the policy supports national interests in terms of promoting economic growth, redistribution and structural change.
In the final analysis, if democratisation is to be firmly anchored in African societies, we should insist that the initiative towards democratization remain in the hands of domestic social forces. Fundamental to this endeavour is the need to build a functioning and effective state that responds to the concerns of its citizens and articulates a common national development vision unconstrained by the remote forces of neoliberal globalisation.
Unfortunately, this is more easily said than done. In the post-cold war international order the West (perhaps wary of Chinese influence in Africa) is paradoxically resorting to military intervention to promote its own version of democracy and global peace and security.
What options are there for African people? What is the next phase of the struggle for democracy? What strategy is necessary to provide the ideological and organisational basis for the struggle? These are important questions, and the ultimate answers can only be determined by the nature of the struggle in each African country, with the outcomes likely to be different from country to country.
One thing is certain, however. African’s thirst for democracy remains strong despite recent democratic reversals and the resurgence of the predatory state. At the same time, we must face the hard truth that it would be difficult to build and sustain democracy in Africa in the absence of economic justice. The link between democracy and economic justice must be strengthened.
This is an excerpt of the full article published as Fantu Cheru (2012): Democracy and People Power in Africa: still searching for the ‘political kingdom’, Third World Quarterly, 33:2, 265-291.