Towards a Viable Democracy in Africa


Dele Gold

Democracy is defined by Abraham Lincoln, the father of modern America, thus: Democracy is the government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

This definition looks more of a pun, with the antanaclasis which involves the repetition of the word “people” in the age-long, intellectual assertion of the great American president who revolutionized the polity of the country that is regarded as God’s own.

A nation with great military fort, industrial and technological advancements, together with her leader-by-tacit consents, is considered as the defacto president of the world.

Going by the pristine definition, the phrase – “government of the people” – simply depicts the society, which could be a nation-state, region, or a sheer comity.

“By the people,” however, alludes to the people with suffrage to vote and to be voted for on eligibility basis, stipulated by electoral rules and regulations that guide the electorate and the aspirants, which may vary from one society to another depending on the clime.

“And for the people,” the last reflection of the word ‘people’ in the definition, stands as the crux in democracy, most especially in places such as Africa that bask in the euphoria of some pseudo-democracy.

What’s more, it is essential to identify for whom a government is enthroned. Without mincing words, democratic government, which is by the people, should be for the people, namely, the citizenry, within the territory where the sovereignty, or the ambit, resides _per se_.

This indicates that the principle of democracy does not outlaw or exclude any participating part or group, even abstentions, in the scheme.

Unfortunately, government in Africa is principally about the people at the helms of affairs and, by extension, members of the ruling party.

Draconian laws and executive orders are promulgated in favour of tenacity, in order to frustrate the efforts of the opposition party willing to democratically oust the incumbent government.

Typically, governance is partisan in Nigeria with the ardent struggle to empower the governors (people governing) and the governed who are acolytes towards ensuring perpetuation.

Broadly speaking, violation of human rights in the course of any administration is not only erring, but also heinous. For example, there are quasi human-rights advocacy in the definition that particularly refers to the government as the institution that must be orchestrated and developed by the people.

Notably, the a priori conception of human rights in the definition is the freedom to be part of the system that produces leadership.

Democracy, then, was not alien to the Yoruba race – as it were – in the vogue old Oyo Empire, for example, in which there was a clear separation of power.

The Alaafin as the chief executive and, in particular, the Oyomesi as the legislative arm were saddled with the onus of checks and balances in the democratic practice in order to for them to avoid autocracy and despotism.

In1754, the-then Bashorun Gaha, who staged a coup forcing four successive Alaafin to commit suicide, finally took over the rein of government, which was an aberration as far as the black-race was concerned.

The 1774 Alaafin Abiodun restored democracy and executed Bashorun Gaha, who truncated the democracy in Oyo Empire and who was not only ominous to consistent political imbroglio, but also ill-fated in governance.

Consequently, the bad precedent gave birth to tendency for ouster of Alaafin.

The unrivalled precolonial democratic practice was threatened by usurpation of the principal which became some ding-dong affairs as we have in the modern practice.

It is sad that the nascent democracy of Ghana and Nigeria were both truncated, respectively, same year in 1966 by Emmanuel Kotoka and Chukwuma Nzeogwu.

Why were the coups d’etat synchronized in terms of year of occurrence?

A good answer to this will be helpful to unravel the fundamental problem of democracy in Africa.

Alas! It is a mere misnomer in a Nigerian democratic setting that we should refer to any political party as progressive, or conservative.

There is no static principle, but again the phrase, “by the people”, is cogent as well as determinant.

The fathers of Africa – and indeed Nigeria – who travailed to give birth to civil governance frantically fought to instill the virtues of auspicious leadership in their political progeny, with a view to having ideal states devoid of misrule and maladministration.

Essentially, one needs to ask what is the cause of the chronic political malady across Africa in spite of the legacies of the pathfinders.

Democracy is not a law but rights and popular will, respecting practice, and which is guided and protected by statute and law of the states.

Democracy, through politics, produces leadership which, by due diligence and thoroughness of process, gives birth to people-oriented leadership and governance.

Altruism, that is to say, the fulcrum of leadership, cannot be overemphasized.

This human factor which is implicitly mentioned in the definition of democracy – “by the people” – provokes curiosity in finding the ulterior factors which are underlying in the participation of the said people.

The political class is hunting for power, while the governed are offering it like freebies with less consciousness. Votes are sold for an exiguous morsel by sheer apathy.

Yes, politicians buy votes, with empty promises and display of phoney nicety. This is taking advantage of the people’s deplorable situation mainly in poverty-ravaging cases.

Corruption is a notable bane of viable democratic rule in Nigeria, and several other African countries, spanning from fear of poverty, impoverishment of the people through looting of the treasury, etc.

To be precise, government without welfarism and people-oriented leadership will never enjoy viable democracy.

So, if the motive to fight poverty and aggrandize self at any level is the only reason for eyeing political positions, then there will be no headway.

African democracy that reserves power in the government, and not the people, naturally advances corruption. The people worship the elected and often acquiesce to their excesses with the belief that there is a national cake that someday, they will have either direct, or indirect access to.

The wailing governed (the last people in the definition of democracy) and the sly leaders are complicit in the misery of failed democracy.

It’s truism that man is a political animal according to Aristotle. On the other hand, man is not absolutely democratic.

It takes a refined social order to tame men to agree to the international falacy. And the wisdom and wit to make such choices lies in the majority.

According to former President Nwalimu Julius Nyerere, democracy is not a bottle of coca-cola which you can import. Democracy should develop according to that particular country.

Democratic governance in the United States is not in accordance with United Kingdom.

And Nigeria, which was colonized by Britain, adopts the presidential system in defiance of the colonial tutelage; Ghana, also former colony of Britain, brought a variation by adopting unitary system.

“When a man is denied the right to live,” said Nelson Mandela, “he believes he has no choice but to become an outlaw”.

Without any bigotry, the principle of democracy is the supremacy of the people’s will and the sanctity of checks and balances.

African nations of plural society and other constraint should endeavour to take the bull by the horn by coming up with modalities to make it work without tampering with its ideals.

Heterogeneity not withstanding, Africans are related by blood and not by bread; united by spirit and not by spirituous liqueur.

Our goal is better in recognition of the posterity that will inherit a never-waning leading light.
To be continued ….

Dr Timothy Oladele Gold
Fellow, Chartered Institute of Public Diplomacy and Management;
Fellow, Institute of Strategic Public Negotiation; and
Doctoral Fellow, Institute of Business Development and Corporate Communication Professionals.
A broadcast Journalist.


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