The role of tradition in African democracy

Reading time 5 min.

“Democracy works only when it has evolved within a specific socio-cultural
environment and fused into the traditional political systems such that it is
seen as an indigenous product, but unfortunately Africa has not been given the opportunity to develop this.”

Comments from the former President of the Republic of Ghana, His Excellency Jerry John Rawlings, seek to treat democracy as a political system that ought to function on the basis of cultural relativism. The idea of allowing local values, traditions and cultural habits to factor in our democracy has been touted by leading academics and scholars as well. The argument is that democracy as it is practised in Africa is a wholesale adoption of a Western
political practice. As such it might prove to be incongruous to Africa’s traditional ways.

What are some of these traditional ways? One might ask. For one thing traditional African societies have generally been communal. The notion of placing emphasis on the group is in essence at variance with a political practice that empowers the individual (one man, one vote) to partake in the process of societal governance. Civil and Political Rights by definition puts the interest of the citizen above the society and endeavors to liberate the
individual from social shackles that may impede individual freedom.

The traditional African society however, sometimes suppresses individual rights for the sake of the rights of a group. The minor is expected to shelve personal views in the presence of elders. This practice is carried into boardrooms and the political arena as well. So a full or proper implementation of the tenets of Western democracy in Africa is at times curtailed by some of these factors indigenous to the African way of doing things.

Even advanced democracies on the continent such as Ghana are still having difficulties fully adapting to western political practices. Freedom of expression is still somewhat elusive in Ghana due to the fear of victimization or societal alienation. The generational gap between the young and the old means that, the youth are still struggling to make an impact on the society and continue to fight for acknowledgment that will enable them to partake properly in the process of policy formulation. Even in corporate settings views espoused by relatively younger workers are dismissed for viewpoints that are deemed to be more elderly. What this invariably means is that African societies continue to be excessively conservative and tend to be parochial in terms of outlook and ideas.

Needless to say that, such a paradigm of Africa is strongly endorsed by ultra conservative reactionaries who are in the habit of referring to the superiority of ancient ways. Dr Kwame Nkrumah’s vision for Africa is often cited as a continental ideal seeking to form a United States of Africa. In Ghana it is a sacrilege to criticize or dismiss views that seek inspiration from this wise statesman. African societies are therefore slow to change and the proclivity to embrace cultural liberalism is condemned and seen as a perversion of local values.

Hence the tendency to believe that even democracies must have a local flavor, otherwise they are doomed to fail on the continent. The problem with traditionalists and the conservative mindset in general is that, human institutions tend to be organic and dynamic and what this basically means is that they evolve with time to reflect the changing nature of people and the societies they live in. Failure to incorporate these changes into social ordinances and political practice can prove to be a great disservice to the people that these ordinances are expected to serve.

An evolving Africa means that, traditional practices and beliefs are becoming increasingly archaic and anachronistic. Holding on to them is tantamount to being stagnant and refusing to adapt to global innovations that are advancing other societies unlike our own. Democracies are already indigenous to human beings and need no local flavor to thrive successfully in any cultural setting. If democracies in Africa are so far failing to enrich states on the continent as expected, this may be due to repeated and consistent failures on the part of African politicians whose tendencies to be dictatorial remain strong even when they are expected to function in democratic political

Rather than, infusing African democracies with traditional political practice, the continent must endeavor to introduce systemic innovations to democratic practice by limiting the power of politicians and increasing the power of citizens. A leading democracy on the continent like Ghana still needs to incorporate fresh ideas into its democratic methods by edifying the electoral process especially.

Entrepreneurs and businessmen continue to have a foothold in party politics. This unfortunate political norm must be curtailed with the introduction of caps and restrictions on political campaign contributions to ensure that political parties are not manipulated by financiers and sponsors. The power of the executive branch ought to be limited as well by adopting a style similar to the Westminster system in England where the Prime Minister is expected to account to legislators and explain his actions to the parliament.

When some of these Western democratic practices are introduced to African democracies, the political system will surely have the desired effect of enriching the continent by fully liberating its people. As long as traditional practice plays a role in governance, the tendency or rather the risk of going back to political dictatorship under the guise of cultural relativism remains. If democracies are so far failing in Africa it could be due to their poor implementation by politicians who still enjoy the cover offered by traditional practices that permit political autocracy as a method of governance.

The Other Afrik  The Other Afrik is an alternative and multi-faceted information source from Afrik-News' panel of experts. Contributions include : opinions, reviews, essays, satires, research, culture and entertainment news, interviews, news, information, info, opinion, africa, african-american, europe, united states, international, caribbean, america, middle east, black, France, U.K.
William Manful
Mr William Manful is a member of the Ghanaian Foreign Service. He has served in the United Kingdom as the Head of Protocol for the Ghana High Commission in London. Prior to his appointment as a Foreign Service Officer, Mr Manful worked with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) as a human rights advocate. He also has a degree in French and Spanish from the University of Ghana and was later awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship to do an MPhil in International Relations at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. Mr Manful also writes on philosophy, cinema, sport and religion.
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