By: Apollos O. Nwauwa
Before dealing with the issue of whether, in theory and practice, democracy existed in precolonial Africa, it is quite appropriate here to attempt to correlate the origins and meanings of the Western notion of democracy.
Ancient Greece (Athens in particular) is widely regarded as the birthplace of Western democracy and political thought, and the word democracy was coined from the Greek words demos,“the people,” and kratia,“to rule.”
In theory, this was rule by the people for the people as opposed to rule by one (autocracy) or a few (oligarchy), a form of direct democracy in which all citizens could speak and vote in assembly.
In practice, Athenian democracy did not extend equality and franchise to all persons and therefore allowed direct participation only by male citizens, a small political elite, to the exclusion of the majority of the populace consisting of women, slaves, and foreign residents. Greek democracy did not really encompass most of the key elements of modern democracy—equality of all persons before the law and franchise for all.
Thus, in reality, direct participation in government by the privileged few constituted the thrust of Athenian democracy. Limited as Athenian democracy was, the West still draws inspirations from it.
Since Roman times, the meaning of democracy has continually shifted, producing many variants. Democracy is now a relative concept; it no longer means the same thing to all peoples and cultures at all times. The ancient Romans took a practical approach to everything, including the principle of democracy.
The social conditions and divisions that existed within their community determined the political institutions the Romans adopted and, therefore, they “did not concern themselves with the construction of an ideal government, but instead fashioned political institutions in response to problems as they arose.” Thus, the democracy of the Roman republic differed from that of the empire with the role of the senators in government constantly changing from one era to another.
In England, the principle and practice of democracy also took on a different form. The British Parliament evolved in the late thirteenth century as representative government with a hereditary monarchy, though the former was answerable to the latter.
With the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the resultant Bill of Rights, constitutional monarchy coexisted with representative authority of Parliament.
Yet as capricious as these models appear, ancient Rome provided the West with a fine model just asEnglandis still considered as an ideal variant of democracy in the Western conception of the term.
While it is incontestable that Athenian democracy remains a fundamental inspiration for modern Western political thought, it seems rather naïve to continue to ascribe all notions of participatory democracy to that single source. After all, recent historical and archaeological research suggests that some of the key elements of democracy are traceable to older civilizations such as Mesopotamia, where city-states predated those of the Greeks.
In precolonial Africa, variants of the concepts of participatory or representative government (democracy?) evolved independent of the Athenian tradition and survived until the European invasion of Africa in the nineteenth century.
In modern times, however, there is no acceptable clinical or scientific definition of liberal democracy although “the main features are free competition among political parties, periodic elections, and respect for the fundamental freedom of thought, expression, and assembly.”
Tony Smith defines democracy as “free elections contested by freely organized parties under universal suffrage for control of the effective centers of governmental power.”
However, the above definitions are based on the Western concept of liberal democracy and they reflect an Anglo-American cultural bias. They reduce the concept of democracy to elections, multiparty system, and universal suffrage such that any deviation becomes an aberration. In the West, political parties form along different class interests or organized groups, whereas in Africa there was the near-absence of established classes before European colonial intrusion. Thus, contemporary Western insistence on multiparty politics does not consider indigenous cultural values and consequently multiparty electoral politics degenerates into ethnic or communal conflicts. Democracy would then simply become an instrument of political dissension and chaos.
Although more research is needed, however, it would not be surprising if the wholesale adoption of multiparty democracy turns out to be one of the major causes of the current political crises in Africa!!