Democracy and Democratization in Africa: The “White Man’s Burden”?

By : Apollos O. Nwauwa

Discourses on democracy and democratization in Africa are usually presented in the West as though they are entirely new notions and practices to Africans.

The idea of democracy itself is viewed almost exclusively as a Western concept of which African societies now stand desperately in need.

Similarly, the presumption has been that democratic values and practices are alien to the African continent, with the West posturing as their cultural bearers and defenders. This mindset considers Africans as incapable of democratic thoughts and hence they should be infused with the “civilized” notion of Western democracy.

What has been consistently ignored is that democratic values and processes have been as indigenous to Africans as they were to the ancient Greeks. African traditional political cultures and organizations would give credence to this conclusion.

While the term democracy,now a Western buzzword for representative government, might have been borrowed from the Greeks, democratic thought and values have never been exclusively Greek or Euro-American preserve. Indeed, the desire for representation, inclusion, and participation in public affairs—essential elements of democracy—are universal to all humans; the difference rests in the methods of attaining these goals.

To what extent a society “democratizes” is incontestably dependent on its sociocultural milieu, whether it is African, European, American, Asian, or even Islamic societies.

Efforts by the West to “introduce” democracy to Africa bear close semblance to the concept of the “civilizing mission” trumpeted by Europeans during the era of colonialism in the nineteenth century.

In his now infamous poem “The White Man’s Burden,” Rudyard Kipling considers European colonization of Africa as a blessing to Africans but a huge burden for Europeans. Europeans sought to bring civilization to Africans, whom Kipling saw as a degenerate race, incapable of development and civilized behavior. And, European cultural benchmarks were used in determining what civilization entailed, and who was or was not civilized.

Since Europeans were themselves the judges, a civilized culture (whether social, political, or economic) was that which approximated the European model.

Furthermore, since colonialism justified and legitimized itself on the assumption of the superiority of the white race (Europeans) over blacks (Africans), it became quite logical for European colonizers to discredit the existing culture of the colonized Africans no matter how comparable they both were.

Consequently, African societies (including their indigenous democratic values) that were not necessarily “civilized” to the European mindset were portrayed as barbarous and, therefore, stood in need of “civilization.” It was a unique union between cultural arrogance and dubious altruism.

Thus, in reality, the supposed burden was an effort to replicate or reproduce European models and values in Africa—another form of neocolonialism so to speak. It was all about Western hegemony. The current obsession for Western democracy, democratization and globalization inAfricais, then, déjà vu.

Reminiscent of European motives or justifications for colonialism, the current push for democratization has little to do with the selfless notion of the “civilizing mission.” Instead, the interests and well-being of the African peoples have been subordinated to those of the industrialized countries of the West.

Since the classical times, democracy has been neither a linear nor a monolithic concept. As the meaning of democracy shifted in time and space, so has its actual practice. In her response to the U.S. House Sub-Committee on Africa over charges of tardiness in the democratization process in Africa in 1999, Vivian Lowery Derryck, an assistant administrator for Africa, USAID, noted: “we have learned that there is really no uniform model of democracy. To function effectively, a democratic system should reflect the unique needs and culture of a given country.” The subcommittee was not amused, especially when the official position favored the wholesale transplantation of the American style of democracy to Africa. Yet pervasive in all democracies is the basic concept of popular participation in government by the citizenry.

Before European contact and subsequent colonialism, Africans practiced some variants of democracy alongside authoritarian rule. However, European colonialism undermined the traditional participatory democratic system for almost one hundred years, only to revive it on the eve of decolonization in the form of a parliamentary system.

Similarly, the West undermined both the indigenous and postcolonial democratic efforts in order to contain Soviet influence during the Cold War.