Africa needs to stop ‘cut and paste’ Western politics to do better

Wednesday March 7 2018

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Despite being gifted with this year’s Mo Ibrahim prize, Africa’s only elected female head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was a nepotist who left Liberia wallowing in the same poverty, corruption, incompetence and general backwardness that her predecessors left behind. That was after 10 years in power. PHOTO | FILE | SIA KAMBOU | AFP 

By FREDRICK GOLOOBA-MUTEBI
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Do some of us Africans feel too gloomy too often about our countries and even ourselves?

Are we too prone to dwelling on things that go wrong or that do not work and far less inclined to look on the bright side? Are we so used to seeing our glass as always half empty rather than as half-full, to borrow a familiar cliché?

Obviously I do not speak to or interact with more than a handful of fellow Africans on a typical day. And the interactions are usually about mundane things such as work, the weather, and personal issues linked to everyday existence. Occasionally, however, I talk to Africans who think of themselves as intellectuals.

Sometimes the encounters happen in the context of seminars, workshops and conferences, which are usually organised to discuss this or that aspect of Africa’s “development.”

Sometimes the conversations happen over drinks here and there. For some reason, even over cups of tea or coffee, the conversations tend to be dominated by politics or issues related to “development.”

Recently I told a friend, one of the intellectuals I usually have these conversations with, that many times I find them exhausting. For one thing, they are so repetitive when it comes to what is wrong with Africa or with this or that country. And the ideas presented for turning things around are “standard,” with no regard to contextual complexity.

And so one hears how this or that country is a police state, how there is no democracy there, how there is no media freedom, how elections are rigged, how corruption is too much, how this and that is not working.

Discontent Africans

Africans living outside Africa, in places where things work differently can be particularly vocal on these matters. They and the rest of us who live here and who tend to live in a permanent state of discontent often imagine that the conditions we are discontented about can change if we keep shouting and being angry about them.

And we have wanted them to change for a long time and yet shouting and being angry have brought us little relief.

The one thing that rarely features in all the “intellectual” talk is calm examination of what it is about us, our societies, our attitudes and the way we think about leadership and power and how they should be exercised, that makes the problems we complain about so durable.

It is, after all, not as if change in leadership or government necessarily leads to improvement. Recently we heard, for example, that despite being gifted with this year’s Mo Ibrahim prize, Africa’s only elected female head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was a nepotist who left Liberia wallowing in the same poverty, corruption, incompetence and general backwardness that her predecessors left behind. That was after 10 years in power.

Obviously Liberians did not mind all this, which is why they re-elected her to a second term. It is almost certain that her successor George Weah will do the same and will possibly also be gifted with the Mo Ibrahim prize for stepping down after the prescribed two terms, which Liberians will probably accord him, even as their lives will have stayed pretty much the same.

Particularly exhausting is the tendency to repeat seemingly self-evident truths, which in reality are highly debatable.

Consider the standard argument that electing leaders renders them accountable. It is a typical textbook argument.

In reality, whether we are talking of national government or local authorities, elections in Africa do not necessarily produce accountable authorities. This is not an argument against electing leaders.

Rather, it is an argument for the imperative to look beyond elections for workable solutions to the challenge of lack of accountability. What, if anything, can we learn from values and practices that once upon a time made leaders in our societies not only political but moral authorities as well?

Or let us consider the argument that in the absence of competitive multi-party politics and an “active opposition” in any country, there can be no possibility of holding a sitting government to account. The other side of this argument is that only an “active opposition” can hold a government to account.

Again, the evidence we have is that this is patently false. Many of Africa’s most unaccountable governments are elected in competitive, highly contested elections.
Yet we continue to opine that there is a direct connection between highly contested elections and accountability.

In our very neighbourhood is Rwanda, one of Africa’s least corrupt countries, courtesy of highly functioning systems of accountability that hold elected and appointed leaders in check.

What lessons Rwanda can teach the rest of us with highly competitive elections but abysmally low levels of accountability is one question we should be asking. We don’t.

Instead we theorise endlessly about building institutions and learning from countries with societies that bear zero resemblance to our own and with histories that have no parallels with our own.

Yet it is those very histories that have shaped their systems, which we think we can simply import and use without modification or adaptation to our societies with their own peculiarities. If there is one thing we ought to explore seriously on matters of governance, it is the need for less “cut and paste” and more originality.

Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]