Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version
Lecture in memory of Dr. Abdul Raheem Tajudeen and Prof. Chinua Achebe at the Center for Democracy and Development, Abuja, Nigeria, 11 June 2013

Democracy in Africa now features semi-competitive elections that retain and entrench neo-patrimonialism and old networks of elite domination. But social transformation that gives human content to good governance will only begin with strong African social movements in every state


Chinua Achebe and Abdul Raheem Tajudeen stand out as two Nigerians who will be remembered for long for their outstanding contribution to understanding African politics, political developments in Africa since independence and the major contradictions and changes that have faced African communities in post-colonial times. Achebe, the author of outstanding novels, a prolific essayist, controversial critic of African leaders and politicians and a visionary who saw where Africa ought to have gone in terms of development, died outside Africa having refused several honours from his own government because he strongly disapproved of bad governance in his country Nigeria. Tajudeen, a young, dynamic intellectual activist, a strong believer and practitioner of Pan-Africanism and a political organizer known for his zeal and commitment, died in Nairobi early one morning while on his way to the airport to do what he believed in: organize people and leaders for the transformation of Africa for the better.

In his career Tajudeen was better known as the General Secretary of the Pan-African Movement working out of Kampala, Uganda, at a time when very few people on the continent were as excited about the concept as Tajudeen was. But he believed in what he was doing and why it was important for the future of Africa. Hence he wrote immensely about it in newspapers, journals and chapters in books. Almost half the age of Chinua Achebe, Tajudeen was almost in a hurry to make history before his time was over; and he did. As the Director of Justice Africa and Director of UN Millennium Campaign in Africa, he authored many essays and articles on social inequality and marginalization in Africa, always calling for positive and radical transformation of social relations in the continent so that democracy and social justice would become the living experience of people and not just concepts in the heads of intellectuals. Hence his incessant call to organize and not agonize. He left a living legacy for this kind of critical and creative thinking on good governance when he founded the Center for Democracy and Development here in Nigeria in 1997 during the worst period of General Sani Abacha’s dictatorship. Fifty years from today where will the African human being be in terms of the quality of life lived, the system of government under whose authority the individual is subjected and an international system within which all of God’s creation finds itself?

As we remember both Tajudeen and Achebe today, these are the major issues we need to reflect upon, especially when they were so central to Achebe’s writings from his world acclaimed magnum opus “Things Fall Apart” and the equally formidable “No Longer at Ease”, and “Arrow of God”, the other two parts of the trilogy. One detects a running theme throughout Achebe’s novels, and the theme can be summarized in the form of a question: where will the African feel at home in the post-colonial period? Okonkwo of “Things Fall Apart” cannot recreate the idyllic traditional Ibo society of the past, however assertive he may try to become. That inner being that the African should sustain notwithstanding the cultural crisis born out of colonialism is the central concern of Achebe in “Things Fall Apart” as well as of Okot p’Bitek in “Song of Lawino.” Apparently successful in becoming part of the modern African elite through education, lifestyle and aspirations, Obi Okonkwo of “No Longer at Ease” is in the end put on trial for essentially failing the test of integrity, the very essence of being wholly human. So how and where is the African human being to feel at home in our post-colonial societies?


It is now fifty years since most African countries became independent. At the dawn of independence the newly found political freedom was seen as offering an opportunity for prosperity and social justice; values that were denied African individuals and communities during colonialism. But, as Chinua Achebe demonstrates in “No Longer at Ease”, these values increasingly became elusive as new forms of political oppression, social injustice, corruption and the arrogance of political power in the hands of local elites started to make life difficult for the ordinary African human being. The sheer pursuit of material wealth devoid of human feeling and communal care is seen in the emptiness of Obi Okonkwo’s life in “No Longer at Ease.” If political independence does not bring with it that society in which we can all feel at home, then what can? What else is left to complete the journey to the good life?

Kwame Nkrumah’s assertion that Africa needed first to seek the political kingdom “and all these things will be added unto her” was deliberately misunderstood. It was not simply political independence that Kwame was talking about but the political ability to determine one’s destiny, to solve the socio-economic problems that colonialism turned its back to. Kwame saw balkanized Africa as bereft of developing this ability; hence African Unity was a sine qua non for the complete self-determination of all Africans. And in this self-determination Kwame saw the ability for Africans to harness their resources and environment for a better life, a life where people are truly the extension of society, as he argued in his philosophical treatise “Consciencism.” But Kwame was ahead of his time; he did not develop the full political content and practice of consciencism in terms of quality of governance and social justice in actually existing states in Africa. Indeed, Nkrumah can be rightfully accused of not paying enough attention “to the enemy within” in the post-colonial African societies; the bureaucratic bourgeoisie that Issa Shivji spoke about, or those who uproot the pumpkin in the homestead that drew the wrath of Okot p’Bitek. As the “war leaders” continued to “eat each other’s liver”, observed Okot, the pythons of sickness were continuing to swallow our children, the buffalos of poverty were knocking our people down and ignorance, like an elephant, continued to stand there staring at the dark continent. The attention paid by scholars to the nature and character of the post-colonial state perhaps ended our romanticism with independence, and the beginning of looking at political power and social class relations as things to do with competing human interests across color, continent or ethnic identity.

With the completion of the decolonization process in Southern Africa and the pressure for democratization by social movements in most African countries, even the Organization of African Unity, assumed to be largely a club of Africa’s rulers, itself responded by passing an African Charter for Human and People’s Rights in the early 1990s as an important step towards addressing the quality of governance in post-colonial Africa. This, as it were, was to complete the work that Nkrumah left undone: giving a democratic content to the project of building the national democratic and developmental African state. Subsequently the OAU, transformed into the African Union, went ahead to set up institutions at the continental level that would seek to institutionalize democracy and good governance among its member states. But the institutions have largely remained mere institutions: it has not been very easy for the AU to enforce the values and principles of democracy and good governance among its members. The Union remains strong at the level of aspirations but weak in the practice of using the values it espouses to advance good governance in Africa. We cannot, therefore, peg too much hope in the AU for Africa’s social transformation; social transformation that gives human content to good governance will, of necessity, begin with African social movements in every state as indeed it has always been throughout the history of all hitherto existing societies.


Mwalimu Julius Nyarere, Tanzania’s first president, still remains the most outstanding exponent of justifying political authority on the basis of its good deeds to those it rules. The state, as it were, though a necessary evil, exists to promote the common good of all the people. The purpose of development, Nyerere asserted, is man. Social order is only good in so far as it promotes the material and moral existence of people. People cannot sacrifice too much of their well being simply to maintain a social order; hence Nyerere’s apprehension against “capitalism without a human face” and his love affair with socialism. But Nyerere eventually found that he was a minority in Tanzania. A good number of the Tanzanian elite were averse to socialism; some accepted it simply to travel along with their leader, while most of the people went along with whatever ruling ideology prevailed. Having justified the one-party state as the most viable political framework for national unity as well as for socialist development, Nyerere eventually came to the conclusion that it was difficult to offer the electorate political choice in a democratic election under the one-party system. Who governs should not be a fait accompli imposed on the people by whoever is in quest for political power. On the contrary, who governs should be determined by a self-governing people.

That situation that faced Nyerere is even more formidable today when socialism has been relegated to the backstage in African intellectual and political discourse, democracy has gained popular currency but neo-liberalism reigns as the international ideology of development, quite often putting democracy itself in jeopardy. Though elections are held periodically in many African states they rarely present citizens with the freedom to choose who govern them. Nowhere in Africa have popular forces gained ascendancy to establish popular democratic republics through elections except South Africa under Mandela. Elsewhere elites, tied within the web of neo-liberal local and international forces, ascend to political power largely through non-competitive or semi-competitive elections. The outcome of such elections rarely creates political space for the popular will of the people to determine the actions of the state, hence the limited transformative character of state power notwithstanding the many elections held periodically in accordance with the constitutions of such countries as it were.

Yet it may easily be argued that both Rwanda and Ethiopia have done very well in terms of economic growth while limiting the democratic space in terms of competitive electoral politics and individual rights. Opinion is being shaped, in the media as well as some intellectual circles, that what Africa needs to confront poverty, political disorder and social indiscipline is some form of “prosperous dictatorship.” The argument, however, cannot be sufficiently sustained since the period covered is still too short to determine how durable the economies and polities under discussion are, and how deep such prosperity shall reach down the social ladder.


Africa is currently awash with the discovery of mineral resources from oil to rare earth, gold, natural gas and copper and many more. Indeed Eastern Africa is said to be entering an era of exponential economic growth as these minerals are exploited and GDP per capita shoots through the economic ceiling. Simultaneously, East Africa is going through a period of democratic inertia where so-called political stability and peace seems to gain more credence than the advancement of democratic political practices. It is likely that at a time when the developmental authoritarian regimes in East Asia are hitting their limits politically, we on the other hand, are tempted to rationalize authoritarianism in Africa as long as it guarantees economic growth. Tendencies to that effect are already emerging with election observer groups always approving of semi-competitive elections as long as they are concluded peacefully and reasonably stable regimes are established. International business will easily do business with such regimes while their governments coyly demand the respect for human rights by such regimes. Indeed, the recent African Union onslaught on the International Criminal Court (ICC) is hinged upon the knowledge of African leaders that the western governments, though committed to the global pursuit of human rights, remain ambivalent on how far they can enforce the requirements of the Rome Statutes on African regimes. It would appear that this ambivalence emerges as a result of a delicate balance between pursuing democratic ideals internationally and protecting global economic and security interests in specific countries.

But history is never static, and the struggle by human beings for change is a permanent struggle. In every epoch opportunities do arise for certain social forces to assert themselves while others get submerged. This does not mean that the submerged remain in their predicament forever. Changing circumstances bring with them new contradictions which create new set-ups for further changes. Looking forward to the years to come which direction do we see Africa traveling in terms of improving the conditions of life on the continent?


There is growing evidence that democracy, hailed two decades ago as beginning to blossom in Africa, is actually currently being reversed country after country. Dictators of yesterday have learnt how to speak the democratic language while practicing authoritarian politics and implementing non-democratic policies. If we define democracy (as is found in the 1955 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica) as “a form of government based upon self-rule of the people and in modern times upon freely elected representative institutions and an executive responsible to the people, and a way of life based upon fundamental assumptions of equality of all individuals and of their equal right to life, liberty (including liberty of thought and expression) and the pursuit of happiness,” [1] we shall find that even within so-called representative democracies today the struggle for democracy must still be waged. As Adam Przeworski notes, “today democrats are those who cherish the trio of representative institutions, equality for all, and liberty for all.” [2] Semi-competitive or even non-competitive elections, so characteristic of many elections in Africa, rarely produce representative institutions; many African elites ride to power on the back of human corpses; those who challenge such authoritarian and dictatorial tendencies face severe repression (the Uganda “Monitor” editors are a good example) and most governments so produced are rarely committed to the pursuit of the happiness of all the people.

With the re-emergence of military take over of state power as in Mali, and election “losers” refusing to leave power as in Kenya, Cote d’Ivoire and Zimbabwe, something will need to be done to preserve the progress made in democratization, let alone move further ahead than we have done to date. Semi-competitive elections that retain and further entrench neo-patrimonialism and old networks of elite domination in African countries only represent the declining strength of democracy in our political systems.

Local level democracies where people, organized in their own communities, can run government with powers devolved from the national government, may provide some mitigation against the tendencies towards authoritarianism as democracy declines. But even this will not happen on its own; democrats will have to struggle and win the battle for devolution. The Kenyan constitution gives primacy to devolution, and the successful implementation of devolution will perhaps be the most important democratic gain by the people in the new constitutional dispensation.

Equally important is the need to analyze and pay attention to a growing middle class in Africa which is ambivalent about democracy given its contradictory social identity and location vis-à-vis the demands of democratic politics and its tendency to give primacy to social upward mobility by accessing state power. The middle class has multiple identities: ethnic, cultural, religious, economic, regional and racial. The pursuit of individual prosperity, very often capitalizing on some of these identities and loyalties, quite often runs against the grain of some of the key pillars of democracy, such as: personal consciousness and group resolve against undemocratic practices and social injustice. In most cases the economic compass of the middle class and the pathways to democratic societies are not always neatly aligned. We could, however, concede that the level of information flow among the middle class, and the antagonistic relations that often emerge due to conflicts of interests in allocation of resources—jobs, honours, loans, titles, etc—are very often transformed into political agendas that plead for democracy as a more acceptable form of conflict resolution. Further, given the “age of economic growth” that is in the offing, factors favouring the demands for democracy are also likely to grow exponentially: social media will expand, growing infrastructure will bring large clusters of people into contact with each other, the poor will be increasingly literate and the cost of political repression will obviously be much higher in such circumstances. Democracy is therefore down but not permanently out.

It is to be noted that the social media played a very important role in the Arab Spring. But the social media can also be a tool in the hand of fascists, playing a disastrous role in the advancement of democracy. Moreover, social media is no substitute for the actual mobilization of democratic social forces in the struggle for state power; it cannot substitute the process of assessing the actual commitment of an individual in the struggle. By its very nature it is impersonal, remote and innate. Political organization requires human contact, emotional energy and not just information. While information will, no doubt, help in creating contact and emotional energy, the synergy that comes out of meetings and face to face arguments is obviously more powerful in binding people in a movement and creating relationships that are more durable. That is why the struggle for liberty, including freedom of speech, association and belief are so cardinal in the democratization of a society.

In the 2007 and 2013 Kenyan elections, the social media played a retrogressive and reactionary role. It divided society and entrenched parochial politics by taking personality-based politics a notch higher and justifying the politics of ethnic domination. The space that was created in the social media was hardly filled by democratic political discourses: very often it was jammed by messages of hatred. For its openness and extensive reach, social media may be employed in the transformation of group relations only if it is used by political conscious groups advancing progressive agenda. On its own as a mere platform, social media can deepen schisms and entrench bad politics in societies that already have these features, and in which these features can cultivate political decay rather than political development.

The Kenyan constitution upholds two types of rights: individual rights and people’s rights. In Africa people exist as communities as well as individuals. In Achebe’s “No Longer at Ease”, Obi Okonkwo is torn between his right as Obi the educated Nigerian and his right/obligation as a member of his community where the community upholds certain cultural practices and mores amongst its members. These rights of the people within a modernizing nation-state have been a subject that many African intellectuals, including Achebe, have grappled with. As history unfolds, obviously some of these cultures do also change; but they cannot all be abandoned over night in preference for other alien cultural practices in the name of modernity. Seen in that light, modernity cannot possibly be equated with democracy. Hence in the Kenyan constitution, the people’s rights enshrined in cultural practices, land ownership and political space have, for the first time since independence, been given protection in the constitution and recognized as part and parcel of the democratization process.

Democracy needs to be safeguarded in electoral practices which protect both individual’s and people’s interests. These people may exist in terms of ethnic communities, nationalities, religious groups, language groups and so on. In other words representation needs to take into account the diversities of those represented and not simply the fact of individual citizenship. In this regard, the Westminster type of democracy, now modified by recognizing the community interest of the Welsh and the Scotts, has always been unsuitable to Africa, and has been the source of many political crises in Africa since independence.

Going into the future, the democratization process in Africa needs to institutionalize individual and people’s rights, and the politics of inclusion, in all aspects of government. The practice that the majority who win the vote should rule entirely on its own can deny large numbers of people their right to participate in a government. What is more inclusive for people—whether organized into political parties or other equally representative organizations—is for them to take part in government proportionate to their share of the votes. The received wisdom that when political parties compete for votes they provide organizational forms which allow people to make democratic choices on who rules and what policies are pursued by the state needs to be carefully re-examined in Africa. To what extent have the various types of competitive politics in Africa produced governments that are truly representative of the people, or governments accepted as legitimate in post-election times? The key question here regards what democratic political framework produces inclusive governments given Africa’s social structures and cultural diversity. In the final analysis, the presidential system of government tends to encourage the tyranny of the majority over the minority in any system, and it may not necessarily enhance improvements in quality of government. If anything, it very often becomes a system of rotating animosity among certain sections of society from one election to the other.

While it is true that the history of the human race is that of a quest for social progress over the ages, and that the last two centuries have seen tremendous social progress bringing the world together as a global village, this has come with some costs to human existence and survival. Threats to the environment, especially in Africa, are of great concern, especially when both the people and the governments have low awareness regarding the consequences of environmental degradation to human health, plant and animal life and food production. The tremendous increase in non-communicable diseases, such as cancer globally, is partly attributed to environmental and lifestyle changes that have accompanied social progress. It is now evident that processed foods and food additives, consumed by both the poor and the rich, predispose people to cancer and diabetes. If we are to guarantee the health of our people, we will need to guarantee the health status of the food they eat. This requires close attention to food production and food available in quality and quantity that will ensure sound health.

Such issues cannot be left entirely to be determined by the market. Indeed access to affordable and quality health care is by and large a social issue and not an individual issue. Whichever way we look at it the role of the state in ensuring social reproduction through provision of adequate public goods such as health and education will increasingly become important in Africa. Social democracy rather than naked neo-liberalism is more likely to guarantee Africa’s future.

But Africa seems to be engulfed in internal conflicts that constantly undermine its development potential and lead to the proliferation of failed states. Conflict management and resolution are both becoming a permanent preoccupation of African states and regional organizations, ranging from the perennial crises in the Congo and Somalia to the recent flare ups in Mali. In order to sort out these conflicts their causes need to be well understood and appreciated. It is only then that lasting structures for peace and development will be created which are acceptable to parties to the conflicts. In this regard the politics of exclusion need to be avoided and the inclusion of all parties to the conflict in any final settlement needs to be preferred.

Finally, the growing population in Africa needs to be taken into account in designing tomorrow’s governance architecture. More than 680 million people live in Africa today, and the population keeps on growing exponentially as it has done over the past century. The population doubled in the period 1982-2009 and quadrupled from 1955-2009, according to the United Nations estimates. The most populous African country is Nigeria with 148 million people as of 2006; followed by Ethiopia at 82 million and Egypt at 79 million. But all these countries are far from exploiting their full potential to support these population figures. In other words, population growth is really not yet a threat to Africa’s development but a resource for this development. What is of concern at the moment is that Africa does not have quality population due to the tremendous poverty of those living and potential poverty of those yet to be born. It is estimated that by 2050 Africa will have a total of 2 billion people, a figure still less than the population of India and China combined.

To effectively support this population the economies of Africa need to grow at the rate of 7% and above annually; a rate not too difficult to achieve with proper management, good governance and the elimination of internal conflicts. This is the challenge facing every African country; this is the challenge that all progressive forces in Africa need to understand and confront.

* Peter Anyang’ Nyong'o, Professor of Political Science, is a former Cabinet minister in Kenya and now a member of the country’s Senate.


[1] Adam Przeworski (2010) Democracy and the Limits of Self-Government (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 5.

[2] Ibid.


* Please do not take Pambazuka for granted! Become a Friend of Pambazuka and make a donation NOW to help keep Pambazuka FREE and INDEPENDENT!

* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.