An African friend of mine recently asked me to express my views on democracy in Africa to her organization. “Watch Democracy Grow.” Contrary to the incessant babbling by Western officials, NGOs and advocacy groups, below you can read a summary of my thoughts on what constitutes real democracy and how to create the conditions conducive for growing democracy in Africa.
I will focus my presentation on the relationship of elections to the deeper principles of fostering a true democracy. Many Westerners, European and American institutions and governments falsely assert that elections are the sign of a functioning democracy. This narrow understanding or interpretation of democracy is insufficient. It contributes to the poor conditions of life throughout most of Africa today, and actually undermines the creation of sustainable a Democratic Republic on the continent.
A Thinking Citizenry
A republic is not a democracy, and for good reason. A majority, consisting of uninformed opinion, should not rule unfettered over a nation. That is why in a functioning Democratic Republic, we prefer the wisest people to govern. But how do we choose the most knowledgeable representatives? Yes, we do it physically at the polling booth in periodic and orderly elections. However, the act of voting itself does not guarantee viability of a nation, much less a thoughtful policy. The only guarantee that the voters are electing or even nominating the most intelligent guardians of their society is; an educated citizenry.
A true democracy requires all its citizens to think and discuss the most appropriate policies for their nation to adopt in order to secure a future for their children and grandchildren. In other words, the citizen should accept the responsibility for shaping the future of their nation, as if they were running for office themselves. Individuals seeking public office, who purport to have the qualifications to decide policy for their nation, are distilled from the population at large. Therefore, to ensure the selection of qualified leaders similarly requires an informed and thoughtful citizenry. A continuously advancing society, both materially and spiritually, existing within an educated science oriented culture, is the underlying platform for a viable Democratic Republic.
Like the individual seeking a leadership position in government, the citizen should have a vision for their nation that extends two generations into the future. Every citizen should believe that his or her participation is vital in shaping the policies that will determine the wellbeing of their progeny for generations to come. As eloquently articulated in the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution, elected government exists to “… promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”
The fundamental unalterable principle that is the foundation of economics, national and foreign policy, and democracy, is the knowledge that each human being is sacred. It is necessary to acknowledge what it means when one states, that human beings are in the image of the Creator. Every member of the human race is born with the potential for creative thought that is in harmony with the creative principle embedded in the design of our lawfully ordered universe.
Poverty Kills Democracy
Every human being is precious. Degradation or any preventable death, of a member of the human race is a violation of this natural law. Every human being has the right to live a dignified, meaningful, productive existence that affords a better-quality of life for future generations.
Thus, if we truly desire to increase the involvement of civil society in elections and in shaping the future of their nation, we must end poverty and hunger. There is no bigger threat to democracy than allowing substantial portions of a nation’s population to suffer in abject poverty and hunger, with death looming. The gross failure of groups advocating democracy and human rights, is their refusal to comprehend that development is a fundamental human right.
The dearth of electrical power in Africa is appalling and criminal. Producing less than 100,000 megawatts of electricity for a billion or more people in sub-Saharan Africa guarantees that Africans will not have the minimal standard of living necessary for democratic institutions to thrive. Over 600 million Africans have no access to grid electricity and 900 million Africans cook without electricity or gas. Without energy no nation can survive. Yet this shameful state of affairs has existed unaddressed for decades.
Some may object that I have brought extraneous concerns into the discussion of building democratic institutions. I can assure you that I have not. The ability to have access to energy, to feed one’s family, for parents to have a productive job, and for youth to look forward to a hopeful future, are absolutely germane. In fact, these concerns are at the heart of sustaining a democratic government.
If a majority of a nation’s people are hungry, not employed, living in substandard conditions, simply trying to survive, democracy is a mirage.
To reiterate: a true democracy requires a discussion and exchange of ideas among the citizens on what are the best policies for the future of their nation. All citizens and their elected representatives should have a vision for their nation. Society should select those candidates that have the qualifications to implement that vision. Do parents anxiously trying to find food to feed their children have the mental luxury to discuss with their friends and neighbors the most pressing issues facing their nation? Do citizens have the leisure time for such a discussion, and hours of relaxation to read and study the issues of the day? Does adequate housing exist with separate rooms for the children, and electricity to light rooms for long hours of study? Are there enough adequately supplied libraries for parents and children to learn history, philosophy, and science?
Without a prospering economy that offers a sufficient material quality of life, simply lining up at voting stations every four years is insufficient. The questions I have addressed above, are essential to sustaining
No Democracy With Ethnicity
Ethnic nationalism does not permit democracy. I can assert this with authority, having examined, up close, for thirty years, African nations, whose societies are ethnically divided. Ethnicity is antithetical to a Democratic Republic. Human beings are not determined by their bloodline or their geographic location. The very existence of ethnicity is anti-human. It attempts to falsely differentiate people, rejecting the universal quality of the human species; its unique potential for creativity. Every child born in any location on this planet has the same innate potential for creative thought. Only we human beings have been gifted with a creative imagination. It is this quality of the mind that uniquely characterizes a single universal human race.
A true Democratic Republic recognizes the contributions of all of its people equally and provides for the general welfare of all its citizens, regardless of ethnicity. Ethnic nationalism in Africa, which has existed for decades, in some cases for centuries, as a legacy of colonialism, tears apart the fabric of society and undermines the sovereignty of a nation. Ethnic nationalism contributes to weakening the central government, making it easy prey for foreign instigated destabilizations and attempts at regime change. The self-governance of a nation by its citizens, to create a better future for its people, cannot co-exist with ethnic nationalism. This type of ethnicity prevents democratic systems from taking root and flourishing.
To help build democratic institutions throughout Africa, we need to go beyond simply encouraging nations to have free and fair elections every four years. A viable Democratic Republic is much more than having its citizens show up at the polls every four-five years. Many advocates have not understood that democracy is not possible without development. Nations deprived of economic growth will not be able to provide its citizens with the basic material essentials of life, a prerequisite for a thoughtful deliberative process of governing. It should also be understood that an economically deprived population is desperate and can be easily manipulated against its own government, and its own interest. Economic destitution and the loss of hope for a better life, are the combustible fuel for violence and dictatorships. Conversely, a divided nation can be united when its leaders articulate a visionary program for economic growth that serves the interests of all its citizens,
It is high time we learn this indispensable lesson: democracy cannot succeed without development.
Lawrence Freeman is a Political-Economic Analyst for Africa, who has been involved in economic development policies for Africa for over 30 years. He is a teacher, writer, public speaker, and consultant on Africa. He is also the creator of the blog: lawrencefreemanafricaandtheworld.com. Mr. Freeman’s stated personal mission is; to eliminate poverty and hunger in Africa by applying the scientific economic principles of Alexander Hamilton