Will democracy ever take root in Africa? All over the continent, presidents are extending terms and people do not seem to think their vote counts.
Paul Kagame could be in power in Rwanda until 2034; ANC remain in power although fewer people are voting for the party; Kabila, president of the DRC since 2001, has been accused of delaying the November 2016 elections by neutralising opposition leaders. Is the idea expressed by Abraham Lincoln of a ‘government of the people, for the people, by the people’ a foreign concept to Africans?
But a deeper look at the history of the continent reveals something quite different. African kingdoms had democratic institutions well before colonisation. And although Athens might be remembered for creating the first democracy, it was from ancient Egypt that democratic principles started spreading to the west.
African kingdoms like the Mossi, Songhay, Mali, and Kongo even adopted representative systems.
Solon and his reforms in 6th century BC Athens are often credited with laying the foundations for democracy. But his reform ideas, inspired by his trip to the continent, were influenced by the social organisation of the kingdom of Egypt. Their system was thousands of years older and had tried different systems before choosing a more inclusive structure. Many scientists, artists, and philosophers at that time visited Egypt; it was a common rite of passage.
Kingdoms other than Egypt also had sophisticated democratic features. To avoid the type of social unrest that erupted in Athens, African kingdoms like the Mossi, Songhay, Mali, and Kongo adopted representative systems. Furthermore, they had clauses in their constitutions that limited the power of the kings or emperors and gave governors and ministers the right to impeach their rulers.
In the Mossi empire, governors came from specific families or social classes. The structure was so inclusive that an ordinary Mossi was in charge of the cavalry and a slave headed the infantry. In addition, the king was obliged to follow the constitutions or else be impeached. He could not even sack ministers once they were in office. This important clause allowed for the representation of all social classes and prevented the nobility from taking power.
Not only did ancient African societies have a democratic structure, they also recognised major sets of human rights and civil liberties.
A similar type of constitutional arrangement could be found in Cayor, a former province of the kingdom of Ghana. The prime minister had the right to impeach the king if he was ruling against the wishes of the people.
In the case of the Kongo kingdom, the authority of the monarch depended on his personal qualities, the will of the people, and the inclusive nature of the democratic rules. All villages chiefs, as well as governors of states and provinces, were elected and could in principle stay in office for life unless they were thought to be inadequate by the electors.
Not only did ancient African societies have a democratic structure, they also recognised major sets of human rights and civil liberties. The Kurukan Fuga charter (1236), also known as the Manden Charter, was the constitution of the Mali Empire, created after the military victory of the emperor Sundiata Keita. The aim was to regulate relations between different social groups, promoting stability and long lasting peace. The charter granted equal rights to all citizens, including women and slaves.
Since it is older than the ‘Bill of Rights’ (1689), the Declaration of the Right of Man and of the Citizen (1789), and (almost) the Magna Carta (1215-1297), it is considered by some to be the first declaration of Human Rights in the history of human society. The Kurukan Fuga is still transmitted orally to the younger generation. In 2009, UNESCO included it in the Representative Lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
The current perception of African politics is that it is dominated by powerful men.
And now? The current perception of African politics is that it is dominated by powerful men. Sylvie Aboa-Bradwell, founder of an African think tank called Policy Centre for African Peoples, believes that democracy has not become alien to Africans: ‘Every single African I have come across know what I mean if I mention the discussion tree. Hundreds of people come together and agree on what the majority decides. There is consensus, debates, and voting.’
Some countries like Somaliland still use their democratic heritage in their current political structure. In addition to having a national assembly, they have created a House of Elders.
‘Every single ethnic group nominate their representative,’ Aboa-Bradwell explains. ‘They’re directly accountable to the people who chose them. The process is done in a traditional way under the discussion tree.’ So the idea of a simple winner takes all is not applicable to Africa. But is this something Kagame, Zuma or Kabila can grasp?