By Oluwasegun Abifarin
On Wednesday, August 31, Gabon, whose Presidential envoy was in Abuja two weeks ago on solidarity visit to President Tinubu who is the ECOWAS Chairman over the Niger coup debacle became the latest bride of coupists on the continent of Africa.
Early on Wednesday, August 30, the Gabonese national electoral authority announced that Bongo, who had been in power for 14 years, was re-elected for a third term with 64.27 percent of votes cast.
Soon after, a group of mutinous soldiers appeared on state TV saying they were seizing power, cancelling the election results and “putting an end to the current regime”.
Before now, the military has taken over and sacked democratic institutions in seven other African countries in West, North and Central Africa.
Twenty years back, Mr Gbenga Olawepo-Hashim had warned that if the wave of democracy in Africa does not lead to development in the social and welfare condition of the people, the content risks relapsing to authoritarianism rule including a gay of coups.
According to him, the close of the 20th century Democracy was the most canvassed global concern. The year 1989 appeared to have been the turning point in the democratization wave that swept the entire globe from Tianamen square in China where the students revolted, to the massive rebellion against military dictatorship on the streets of Lagos, Kano and the length and breadth of Nigeria,
In a paper delivered at the University of Jos, North Central Nigeria in 2003, Olawepo-Hashim Posited that since the late 80s, the democratic wave has refused to abate - sweeping the pariah regimes of apartheid in South Africa and semi dictatorship in Indonesia in the 90’s. So profound was the wind of democracy that Omar Bongo the strong man of Congo explained “the wind of the east are shaking the coconut trees!”
To appreciate the depth of the democratic current of the mid-eighties and nineties we may have to turn to statistics. According to David Porter et-al in Democratization (“in 1975 68% of countries throughout the world were authoritarian, by the end of 1995 only about 26% of countries of the world remained so.
What then has made democracy thick? Why is its reach so overwhelming, tearing down physical and spiritual walls? What is its staying power?
In addressing these questions we need to first answer what is democracy, its mores, values, its dynamics, its texture, its essence, what is it not.
The dictionary meaning of democracy is a government in which supreme power (sovereignty) is rested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agent under a free electoral system.
Abraham Lincoln called it a government of the people, by the people and for the people. In what- ever way we look at it, Democracy is associated with how to institutionalize freedom. And freedom is natural to man, it is innate and in alienable
Democracy is an unfinished song, sometimes slow, sometimes fast. Democracy like its core issue-freedom has had also to witness its operation, features and boundaries defined and redefined in the long stretch of human history. It is a tree whose root continues to be wet by the blood of its martyrs, from country to country, class to class, race to race and generation to generation.
AFRICA AND THE STRUGGLE FOR DEMOCRACY
In our earlier definition of democracy we averred that democracy is associated with the institutionalization of freedom, and that the desire for freedom is innate to all men. It therefore goes without saying that the struggle for democracy is an heritage, which Africa shares.
However, the pattern, tempo and the direction of democratization in Africa did not follow the patterns of the French and the American revolutions, essentially because the social economic framework of Africa were not the same as that of Europe and America.
In Africa pre colonial and pre oriental, every family had access to land not as chattels and serfs but as freeborn.
Also at the political front in pre-colonial Africa the superintending political super structure where-as was monarchical, it was not absolutist. It carried in it features of modern constitutional democracy with the exception of electoral sufferages which in most cases were not completely achieved in Europe until after the first world war.
Extreme inequalities, alienation and absolutism in very pronounced terms were to become more evident in Africa, only with the development of orientally influenced empires or the advent of colonialism which necessitated that freedom that were taken for granted in pre-colonial African state would have to be bitterly fought for and canonized into a defined constitution. Therefore it is not accidental that we shall begin our discussion on the struggle for democracy in Africa, with the struggle against both the direct rule brand in British West Africa and settler colonialism in Africa
The first wave of resistance to colonialism was first from traditional elites of pre-colonial Africa. It is in the second wave of nationalism that modern democratic concepts similar to those expressed by democratic agitators of Europe and America emerged
Playing a lead role in these are West African educated nationalists like Kwame Nkruma, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Julius Nyerere and other second-generation freedom fighters. For them the question of democracy was intertwined with the question of self-determination and independence. The fundamental question was how to exercise power after the overthrow of colonialism.
In countries of settler colonialist like Kenya, Zimbabwe, the struggle also took the twist of armed struggle before the elections were organized.
INDEPENDENCE AND THE TRANSITION TO AUTHORITARIAN RULE IN AFRICA
Independence and the triumph of elected government were short lived in Africa. As from around 1966 most of the elected governments on pluralist-multi party basis began to degenerate into one party rule or were already overthrow by military coup detas. This reality was later complicated by increasing interest of the Unites States to act as counterweight to the influence of the then soviet union.
DEMOCRATIC RENAISSANCE, 1989 – 1995
Though democratic rule was relatively short-lived after independence. In Africa there was still the general feeling that it is what ought to exist and the idea of democracy remained a popular concern in what has come to be known as the mass movement in Africa
These popular concern were to later receive a lot of impetus by a major global development which in future will play serious role in whether Africa will be safe for democracy or not.
This major development was the collapse of the Soviet Union and the entire Warsaw alliance. By this major development the US dispensed with the services of its authoritarian front in Africa which it has used to maintain some balance of power in the continent since Africa accounts for ½ of a percentage of its total foreign investment
Promoting democratization globally therefore become a component of the US foreign policy and infact part of the ‘conditionalities’ of Brettonwood Institutions – World Bank IMF, IFC etc etc.
This newly promoted democratization however is not ideologically neutral. As it came with a neo-liberalist category which include economic liberalization, privatization, devaluation of currency, removal of state subsidies, fiscal discipline, reduction of public sector finance etc etc
The struggle for democratization and the sacrifice that goes with it has been in every region of the continent and broad based. In Nigeria it was ignited by the student’s movement, human right groups, the media and even a section
of the billionaires in dollars class. In fact it claimed the lives of the late business mogul Bashorun M.KO. Abiola, and his wife Alhaja Kudirat Abiola and a septugenarian businessman Pa Alfred Rewane.
In Malawi the struggle involved the clergy, led by Archbishop James ChionnG who issued his pastoral letter in 1992 against the government of Hasting Kamuzu Banda.
In Ghana the opposition led by the current president Khufour were exemplary, in Zambia the congress of trade unions were unique.
To these continental wide struggles for democracy must we add the struggle for abolition of apartheid in South Africa and Namibia?
DEMOCRACY MAY NOT SURVIVE WITHOUT PROSPERITY
That between 1889 and the 90’s Africa achieved fast track democratization in about 68% of the countries should present a great excitement, but lessons from history commends only caution. One of these cautions is that for democracy to be firmly established it has to be nurtured by vigilance and above all an economic environment that replaces despair with hope and poverty with prosperity.
Lesson from history instructs us that where you have democracy arrived at without the requisite balance of internal forces, and an economic environment that generates the prosperity of the majority of people especially when democratic institutions are still fledging and fragile a relapse to autocracy is possible.
**Abifarin, a journalist and Team Leader at Newsroom Nigeria writes from Lagos