Democracy and its Relevance to Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism

Written by on 15/03/2021

written by Mufaro (Makombe Blogs)

“Democracy is un-African.” 

Undoubtedly, this statement has been brought up in many debates in the Black community, perhaps put forward as an idea by those who believe that the restoration of a pre-colonial African identity is paramount to the achievement of Black liberation. Conceptually, it may be intriguing to some, or deemed ultimately true by others, as it is one of those interesting debates in post-colonialism that push us to question the ideas that are presented to us as objectively righteous and correct by the “oppressor”, thus helping us to decolonise our minds and become acquainted with our own social indoctrination.

However, this is the limit of this particular debate’s usefulness to the Black community. At most, the “democracy is un-African” debate is a great way to stimulate intellectual conversation, but in terms of building a “Black future”, so the speak, and the practical implementation of this goal, it is worthless.

This is because the argument is fundamentally flawed. Firstly, does it suggest that democracy didn’t exist in Africa before the arrival of Europeans, which we know is false? Secondly, democracy is a huge concept that extends past cultural and generational lines. So, wouldn’t attributing democracy entirely to Western civilisation do exactly what colonialism already attempts to do to the Black mentality, by claiming any progressive human philosophy in the name of Western culture? Finally, even if we were to say that democracy is inherently Western and therefore un-African, so what? Should we dispose of all ideas that don’t originate from within the continent? If yes, then we will be missing out on huge opportunities for bringing about progress in Africa and the wider Black world.

Democracy is not totally Western

The “democracy is un-African” paradigm is factually baseless, because clear examples of pre-colonial democracy have been found all over the continent. For instance, the Igbo ethnic group of West Africa is well known for having been an egalitarian society before the arrival of Europeans. In his essay, “Igbo Traditional Political System and the Crisis of Governance in Nigeria”, Ikpechukwuka Ibenekwu supports this claim:

“…the pre-colonial Igbo society consisted of autonomous villages and village groups ruled via diffused authority without any sort of formalised, permanent or hereditary leadership systems. The Igbos can be said to be republican by nature. They maintained a decentralized and a cephalous society. Igbo society was democratic and egalitarian to some significant extent.”

Ibenekwu, 2015

Similarly, Robert H. Bates further reinforces this claim in his essay, “Democracy in Africa: A Very Short History”:

“Without seeking to romanticize the past, we can note the democratic tendencies that infused precolonial societies in Africa… Even within centralized kingdoms, others stress, there existed prominent fora within which citizens could challenge the royals and their bureaucrats. In some, the office of the prime minister was reserved to the commoners. In others, commoner councils provided a check on the public administration. In still others, societies—some secret, others, like the asafo, fully public—organized a defence for commoner interests.”

Bates, 2010

Evidently, African political and social history is too broad, too distant, and too undocumented to be generalised. The historical claims above show that, even if the scope of democracy in pre-colonial Africa is unknown, its existence is indisputable; but they also show that the lack of written history in Africa and the intense process of historical propaganda, which has seen African history distorted and destroyed, makes any debate about political and social organisation in the precolonial continent largely speculative. Nonetheless, Africans were absolutely capable of developing their own democratic and egalitarian systems.

Of course, some might say that the examples above don’t exactly show “democracy”, but rather show cultural practices that may be viewed as democratic in nature. Indeed, when some say “democracy is un-African”, they are referring to the more clear-cut modern conception of democracy that is directly based on Western liberal philosophy. This is the mainstream state model that we see around the world today: a civilian government that dissolves regularly for re-election; parliaments composed of more than one party; the rule of law and the supremacy of the national constitution; distinct boundaries between the political bodies of the country, i.e. the executive, legislative and judiciary; inalienable human rights, and so on. This type of system, admittedly, was inherited from our colonial masters.

However, this does not mean that democracy as a whole should be deemed “Western”, since the Western system is merely a version of democracy, not the blueprint. Many political minds have used this premise to advocate alternative forms of government, even promoting the one-party state as an alternative form of democracy. Such was often the case in post-colonial Africa:

“…apologists of the one-party regime such as Mwalimu Nyerere maintained that African traditional societies were akin to one party system (Nyong’o, 1992). Others like Kwame Nkrumah, maintained that democracy or multi party regimes were divisive hence unfit for the newly independent African states which needed a unified energy and enthusiasm so as to move forward.”

Monyani, 2018

Even if it were Western, so what?

Despite the many reasons as to why “Western” has often come to mean anti-African and anti-Black, the Western origins of modern democracy do not automatically make it unfit as a future model for Africans. It must be stressed that the process of decolonising our mental and societal view of the world does not end at promoting Black history and thought, but also includes liberating all forms of human thought from the captivity of racism and prejudice. In other words, labelling all Western concepts as out of bounds for Black people is not much more progressive than the previous order in which Black people were taught to reject all things African in favour of all things Western. True intellectual liberation would mean allowing the Black community to appropriate all the information that has been passed down to it, to be repurposed for the betterment of the people. Thus, modern “democracy” may not have originated in Africa, but if the majority of Africans see it as an overall good system, it should be preserved.

The political underpinnings of this argument should also be addressed in this debate. It seems as though the issue of whether something is “African” or not is only brought up to buttress one person’s view over another. For example, An African politician might say that democracy does not respect the traditions of African society, but neither do the Western-style judicial systems that most African nations have maintained. Virtually everything about the structural makeup of the modern African nation-state has been inherited from the colonial era, from state systems, to national borders.

Post-liberation, most Africans did not actively seek to undo the majority of systems of social organisation that were introduced by Europeans. This isn’t to say that such institutions were superior to African alternatives, but rather that enough Africans were willing to tolerate and adapt to them to allow for their continued existence into the modern era. Significantly, where Western-inherited systems did bother the population, changes, or attempts at changes, were made. This has been shown by land redistribution efforts in countries like Zimbabwe, South Africa and Kenya.

Interestingly, the African one-party state ideology gained lots of support from incumbent leaders and their political parties and followers, and little support from their opponents. It is very likely that it was merely used as an excuse to solidify the dominance of one faction over all others in nations across the continent.

Continuing on this point, aside from the hypocrisy behind it, the “is it African enough” question is also destructive to the progress of Black people as a whole, as it serves to thwart debate and aims to establish orthodox views in a group of people who are too diverse to be bound by such narrow dogmatism. There is no universal Black or African culture or identity outside of the colour of our skin and the struggle that it has carried. Therefore, any philosophy created by an African is eligible to be called “African philosophy”. Any set of cultural beliefs promoted by a Black person forms a part of “Black culture”. If we are to promote Black nationalism or pan-Africanism, we must respect and accept all contributions to the community, and decide which ideas propel us forward and which drag us backwards, in a democratic way.

The new model: Black democracy

This leads me to my final point in support of the role democracy will play in the future of Black nationalism. To me, the Black liberation movement represents its own form of democracy and egalitarianism, built on a foundation of genocide, civil war, enslavement and cultural destruction, of which Black people have faced in past generations. It is built on the premise that all human beings are equal and have rights. All voices must be heard and respected. Black nationalism has united over a billion people around the world with the hope for a better and fairer world. I can think of few movements that have appealed more to the basic humanity of people than ours.

Democracy, in its most basic form, is about respecting and valuing the contributions of all to the community. It’s about upholding the views of marginalised groups, and allowing the transferring of ideas between people. It’s about unity in division. Much like our world at large, Black people need unity more than ever, but we mustn’t pretend that we are not divided, ethnically, linguistically and culturally. On the contrary, democracy is about respecting such differences.

Few cultures, few nations and few groups have succeeded in fostering true democracy – the type that penetrates to the deepest levels of society and to the psychology of the individual. Thus far, democracy has been an experiment, tried by many and failed by many. Maybe we will be the first to succeed.

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