The author analyzes the concept of democracy, notably as it is perceived in the contemporary Western world, and refers to the present debate amongst African scholars as to whether it would not be better to abandon this "alien" political doctrine and turn to more traditional African values. He concludes that while traditional cultural values provide strength to a society, the Western concept of democracy is now a factor in African life, and because certain elements of popular democracy were often present in pre-colonial African society the best way forward in Africa is build on such elements as will help in the construction of an authentic paradigm relevant to the conditions in Africa at this crucial moment of her history.
Key Words: Pre-colonial African cultures, participatory democracy, liberal democracy popular democracy, pre-colonial African political systems
Africa no doubt occupies a very strategic position in the world's political landscape. Unfortunately however, most states in Africa have had sad political experiences in the past, and because of the centrality of government in providing direction for the overall effective performance of other sectors of society, many commentators have expressed the opinion that the myriad problems plaguing African states would be mitigated if there were a change in the continent's political culture from authoritarianism, whether military, or civilian, to 'participatory democracy.' In fact, it is believed by many that the absence of 'popular democracy' has been responsible for Africa's serious crisis of development since the 1970s.
Democracy is today taken as another word for civilization and political decency and many states in Africa have wasted a lot of resources on democratization processes, many of which never had any definite destination. The Generals Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha's transition programs in Nigeria are good examples of such colossal wastage on democratic transitions.
Today however, democracy has become a global hype and the democratic wind of change has swept like a hurricane across the length and breath of Africa. Not less that 70 percent of states in Africa have embraced democracy because democracy, we are told, is the only viable and sustainable mode of organizing society for development. Despite this massive embrace of democracy however, there has been no significant improvement in the socio-economic situation or human condition in most of the states in Africa. On the contrary, what we have witnessed in many African states - Algeria, Burundi, Ivory Coast, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda and Sierra Leone - are anarchy, wars and genocide. This raises the question of whether Democracy is really the answer to Africa's myriad problems.
In this essay, an attempt is made not to controvert the popular belief that democracy is an aid to development, but to suggest that the widespread aberrations of democratic practices in Africa can be attributed to our refusal to accept that democracy in its concrete expression may vary from one society to another and that by reason of this elasticity, democracy needs not be practiced in strict adherence to those attributes that define it in its Western conception.
The problem with democratic practice in Africa, this essay argues, stems from a fundamental misconception that democracy as a form of government can be imported wholesale from one society to another regardless of cultural differences. We will look at some governmental arrangements in traditional African societies that exemplify the qualities that are today regarded as the hallmarks of successful democracies. From this, the essay will conclude that democracy, seen as a set of basic principle according to which a good government must be run1, can be made to work in Africa-but only if the continent's democratic heritage is explored and those ideas and concepts that define good governance are brought to bear in evolving a unique kind of democracy best suited for resolving Africa's own kind of peculiar problems. …