In contemporary post-colonial Africa, the message of democracy, ensconced in multi-party politics and a ‘governance’ rhetoric, is a pervasive hegemonic reality. In this, representative politics as imported from the Western hemisphere via colonialism and neocolonialism become the dominant avenue towards achieving this message of democracy in practicality.
This, to everyone’s consciousness, obviously entails holding periodical elections for the selection of local government representatives, parliamentarians, and presidents/prime ministers.
But the question that remains is whether this method (elections in a multi-party political system, in Africa's context) of selecting political leadership in any given African political economy effectively works with desired egalitarian results.
This question comes to the fore with unrivalled salience given the dismal track record of elections: multi-party ‘democracy’, styled along the lines of Western liberal politics [disingenuously] and hinged on ‘good governance’, has failed to alleviate the dire material conditions of the immense poor black majority in Africa. Elections envisaged under Western democracy (which is not necessarily democratic) have further entrenched misery and oppression in Africa, with profound levels of alienation, disempowerment, and dehumanization by pushing the neoliberal agenda.
The historical and present contradictions of ‘democracy’ in contemporary post-colonial Africa
Elections in Africa preach Western-based liberal bourgeois democracy as fortified by imperialism—the highest stage of capitalism—and rigid patriarchal notions of populism and authoritarianism. All this must be gleaned via the lenses of colonial domination and neocolonialism, as well as the ineptitude and self-inflicted corruption of Africa’s [elite] political leaders. The agency of African politicians must always be mentioned.
The phenomenon of ‘democracy’ in the wholesale sense of the word is not an alien concept to Africa altogether as European [mis]education would want the world to believe. Africa had its own forms of democracy before colonialism, and these were warped by the colonialists to suit their nefarious goal of conquest and domination—for capitalist profits and the subjugation of African peoples.
This is not to say this political, social, and economic base of ‘traditional cultural democracy’ was flawless—but unlike Western liberal democracy, African forms of political governance and administration were inclusive of the people: participatory, representative, and they had fairly adequate mechanisms for checks and balances.
Although African traditional cultural democracy cannot be divorced from the contradictions of feudalism and nascent [capitalist] primitive accumulation, European ‘democracy’ as imposed on Africa via colonialism simply destroyed this organic form of democracy that was undergoing its own transformation in line with the conditions of its contextual time and space.
What colonialism did on African forms of democracy constitutes one of the worst crimes against humanity. Assuming cultural, religious, economic, and political superiority, European colonialism destroyed all forms of African indigenous knowledge, rendering the latter obsolete, archaic, uncivilized, barbaric, and unsuitable for the mission to ‘civilize’, ‘educate’, ‘enlighten’, and ‘modernize’ the world. It simply fostered inferiority complexes—mistrust and hostility among Africans, and this bedevils Africans to this day.
In the epoch of the liberation struggle and political independence from Western colonizers, African nationalist leaders did not seek to institute a thorough and revolutionary educational framework for the true liberation and emancipation of Africa. They desired selfishly the luxuries of the colonizer to preserve their new-found class interests. And so they made the repressive and exploitative institutional systems of the colonizer much worse and brutal on the African peoples. They continued with colonial education in which the African was [and is never] a full human being; but only an object to serve monopoly capitalist interests with slavish obedience.
The wave of political coups that rocked post-independent Africa—as viewed in the context of the Cold War—was a manifestation of contradictions arising from the failure to holistically decolonize the oppressed masses of Africa. The crux of such instability and strife, in which human lives were lost for the purposes of power and domination by European capitalists and the indigenous African elites, was predicated on the fight for the continuance of African dependence on the West.
Neocolonialism and ‘democratic good governance’ in Africa via elections
With the colonizers having their grip on African resources and labour through the help of the elite nationalist African bourgeoisie—with the latter fast turning into a ‘parasitic looting class’—Africa’s dependence on the West was fortified.
In this, the oppressed had internalized and ‘housed’ the oppressor in them. African leaders saw no moral aberrance in dominating and oppressing their own people.
And as such, the West easily maintained its pervasive cultural hegemony over the global capitalist economic and political order through ‘false generosity’—as Europe and the United States actively thwarted the effective emancipation of Africa they deceived Africans through foreign aid (mainly in the form of lending money from private capital financiers mediated via the Bretton Woods institutions). In this, African elites continued to envy global north politics (personal success, private property, and individualistic material wealth) as the universal standard of perfect democracy while succumbing to the divide and conquer machinations of the West.
As the colonizers maintained their stranglehold over Africa—while frenetically fighting to destroy the progressive ideas of communism (the United States carried out endless ‘murder operations’ over the world to protect death-laden capitalism as the ‘natural order’ of humanity and social relations)—African countries found themselves grappling in coming to terms with the contradictions of a global capitalist economy solely arbitrated by the ‘free market’ in which they had no say—only being dehumanized consumers viewed as objects and markets to be conquered.
They continued to rely on Europe and America. And this came with devastating conditions whose ramifications continue to dehumanize Africans to this day; all because of disingenuous precepts and myths parroted as the panacea to Africa’s troubles.
One of these conditions, as dictated by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, was to establish a solid foundation of ‘good governance’ for ‘macro-economic stability’ and ‘economic growth’. And this was to be achieved via the disbursement of debt.
Multi-party elections in Africa: Do they really work?
The condition of adopting neoliberalism—austerity, reduced state role in the economy, privatization, deregulation, liberalization, massive unemployment, stability, and the rule of law—to gain foreign aid thus paved way for multi-party politics in Africa's young political economies, buttressed by regular elections (in which again the foreign masters dictate the final word on whether such elections are ‘free, fair, and credible’).
Because post-independent Africa did not engage in a robust and revolutionary (not reactionary) educational system aimed towards cultural, social, economic, and political revolution and ending oppression by humanizing the oppressor and the oppressed, structural adjustment programs were ubiquitously adopted across the whole continent in an undemocratic manner.
The West—and to a lesser but conspicuous degree the East—are, ironically, the unelected arbiters of whether political leaders (who serve their profit and hegemonic interests) are legitimate. If elections result in leaders who upset certain factions of local and foreign private capital (e.g. elections marred with rigging and political violence allegations), such an electoral exercise can easily metamorphose, with lethal suddenness, into bloody orgies of violence and death (as in Kenya and Zimbabwe in 2007 and 2008 respectively). Or, as in South Africa and recently Zambia and Lesotho, assume a populist outlook (more or less assuming messianic political figures) that cares less about truly liberation the poor majority.
Foreign private capital, supported by Western governments falsely proclaim aid—false generosity without addressing and resolving the underlying causes of poverty and inequality—as the ineluctable solution for Africa.
And Africa’s elites vaingloriously believed in this neoliberal propaganda, for their self-aggrandizement of course. (All this without acknowledging that the West fortified its ‘colonial democracy’ under new terms.)
The historical stage where triumphant neoliberal capitalism became the world’s prevailing and ‘de facto’ economic and political order after the fall of the Soviet Union—christened the ‘end of history’ by American political analyst Francis Fukuyama—introduced multi-party democracy in which good governance, stability, rule of law, and growth (neoliberal capitalism) determined the success and legitimacy (in the eyes of the West) of any given African political economy.
And multi-party politics as the sole determinant of ‘good democracy’ spread like wildfire across Africa, under the liberal bourgeois hegemony of the U.S. and Europe.
However, multi-party democracy, which reduced significantly the prevalence of bloody coups in Africa, did not portend the happiness, joy, nourishment, development, and growth as promised. An operation of mass deception had occurred.
This is because foreign aid continued to flow (only benefiting the indigenous political and economic elite), and Africa remained (and still remains) chained to the West for it could not industrialize and produce for itself, thus oiling the illicit wealth of the West (which it attained via the slave trade and imperialism) by buying finished manufactured goods from Europe.
Optimism for organic, participatory, grassroots, and counter-ideological African democracy
Yet, the fundamental feature of multi-party politics is having regular elections which are expected to be the only legitimate conduit for good democratic leadership. It is common cause that the introduction of neoliberalism in Africa under the guise of democracy has only worsened strife, violence, poverty, hunger, and inequality in Africa.
Leaders contesting in elections exude populism which only serves the interests of the oppressors—indigenous and foreign private capital; the oligarchical elites. Elections are bereft of critical consciousness—i.e., critical reflection and action rooted (praxis) in the people—and as such they only serve to benefit the elected few and their sycophants, who never tire in serving the interests of the colonizers.
This elicits the need for radical change. It is not easy, but it can be achieved. More so, this is not to portray a despairing picture of democracy and elections in Africa.
With genuine mobilization and organization of the people, in which altruistic leaders are in communion and dialogue with the people (rooted in genuine transformational love and cultural expressiveness), the good elements of liberal democracy can be conflated with the positive parts of African traditional cultural democracy to produce leadership that is passionately devoted to the organic development of Africa, for Africans, by Africans.
Under the current, prevailing theme of domination in our epoch, it is not remote to assert that elections (as long as they are modelled along the lines of Western democracy which in itself is not democratic) have vastly failed the immense black majorities of Africa.
So the question 'do elections in Africa really work?' demands critical consciousness—reflection and action in order to end oppression of all forms and thus achieve the full humanization of African peoples.