Democracy or the question of whether it has procedural and substantive dimension turned a slippery, divisive topic again this morning as top African scholars, activists and barons of the civil society tried to respond to that question at a Centre for Democracy and Development, (CDD) event in Abuja. In the end, there was no consensus beyond the rejection of military option as answer to frustrations with democracy. Almost everyone in the room said no, with Professor Attahiru Jega arguing that military rule had left what he called dangerous legacies on the continent. Jega who chaired the four hour-long debating session which witnessed subtle storm of ideological currents pointed out how most of the constraints on democracy on the continent today came from military rule. He singled out the specie of politicians he conceptualised as militicians whom he said all learnt politics under military rule and practice politics with such mindset in engaging elections. Democracy, he said, might be challenging but the challenge should be how to address it within the democratic framework. According to Jega, democracy may not be the only game in town but it is the major game in town.
Before the question and answer session when the issue of military rule as a way out came up, the storm was between those who stand by a dichotomy between procedural and substantive democracy and those who stand in opposition. There was a third force in the debate who privileged exclusion of women as the trouble with democracy in Africa.
Trouble started when Prof Ibrahim Abdullah, the first panellist to speak, said the starting point is to problematise democracy itself. Is it the same thing with multipartyism? To what extent have the democratic institutions delivered on the mythical democratic dividend? And, might we be privileging procedural democratic practices? Describing these as disturbing questions for Africa, Prof Abdullah went on to identify three key features that he said had defined the past 60 years of Africa’s independence: The absence of the ordinary people from the democratic table; the equation of democracy with good governance which he disagrees with because good governance, in his view, is nothing more than about management and service delivery, less involving than democracy.
For these reasons, he does not think it is proper to say some parts of the continent are moving forward and others not. Rather, he insists the right way to go is to unpack democracy in the context of capitalism. His reason is that there was capitalist development before democracy became, a claim he illustrated by saying that the sequence in the Asian Tigers was capitalism, fascism and democracy. The point, for him, is not that there has been no forward movement or that there is complete absence of institution building. The point is that what he can see on the table is not development but the privileging of the neoliberal state, of market forces.
Jeanette Eno, the second panellist took over from there with the poser as to why Africa continues with doing the same over and over again even when it is not working for the continent. Her focus was on the question of who is benefitting from good governance if women are perpetually in the wings rather than at the centre? Although African governments have signed unto the different conventions that seek to expand the space for women, most of these, she told her audience, have neither been domesticated nor implemented. As such, exclusion is still the reality regarding the women. Yet, women have certain non-transferable skills of home making and care-giving to fathers, brothers and husbands, skills that amount to nothing if only one side of the population do all the deciding.
Professor Jibrin Ibrahim, the third panellist, came with the central claim that it is a wrong framing of the problem to insist on any distinction between procedural and substantive democracy and that any such distinction is a fake distinction. The point, as far as he is concerned, is that procedural democracy has substantive democratic content. He sought to illustrate his line of argument by saying that the reality of multiparty democracy, elections and freedom of association or rise of civil society after the National Conference in Benin Republic in 1989 could not be regarded as procedural democracy that had no substantive component. That is, multipartyism and elections contrast sharply with the situation from 1957 when Ghana inaugurated Africa’s wave of independence from colonial rule to 1989 when there was a National Conference in Benin Republic. During much of that time, the struggle was against authoritarian and tyrannical regimes once after the coup in Ghana. He cited examples to sustain his claim, such as his experience along with some academic colleagues in Niger Republic in 1982 when Nigeriens would ask anybody talking about democracy to lower his or her voice because Big Brother was never far away. Or the fact that no one could dare say that Seyni Kountche, the military Head of State of Niger was sick even though he was medically confirmed insane. He contrasts that to the probing questions that he said greeted Muhammadu Buhari’s period of presidential ill-health last year in Nigeria.
For him, the issue about the democratic transition in Africa is that it brought multiparty elections, civil society, gave voice to the judiciary as well as stabilised the free press, although he was to be shot down on this point subsequently when a questioner interrogated the reality of civil society and the press as democratic players on the continent. According to the gentleman, the civil society and the press are under attack and the masses have been defeated. But Prof Ibrahim persisted, saying that the two key grounds underpinning the suspicion of democracy – the reality of poverty and the policy choice limits imposed on Africa by the international financial institutions, (IFIs) – failed to recognise that democracy/democratisation is not free of zig-zags between deepening, deterioration and regression. By this postulate, he could explain the fact of authoritarian and tyrannical regimes dotting Africa today such as Obiang in Equatorial Guinea, Paul Biya in Cameroon, Museveni in Uganda, Nguesso in Congo and Joseph Kabila in the DRC who has flatly declared that he is going nowhere.
Restating his argument that the choice is not between procedural and substantive democracy, Prof Ibrahim puts the issue as one of struggle to reverse the regression. In other words, he disagrees with his fellow panellist, Prof Ibrahim Abdullah and those like the late Claude Ake who said in Kampala in 1992 that liberal democracy is not democracy but impoverished democracy and is a threat to it. Interestingly, Jibrin Ibrahim had a fellow traveller among the panellists who spoke next. For Professor Boubacar N’diaye, the American based African scholar, Africa has made remarkable gains, democracy being a process and three decades being such a short time. N’diaye takes the holding of the debate as an evidence of the progress he claims, wondering if it was thinkable in the 1990s to hold it. Referring to the book he co-authored with two others, Not Yet Democracy: West Africa’s Slow Farewell to Authoritarianism, he argued that West Africa in particular signified the progress in question. In an unspoken attack on advocates of the developmental dictatorship in East Asia that Prof Ibrahim Abdullah made a passing reference to, Prof Ndiaye inferred that service delivery that was defined by the goodwill of a benevolent dictator was not good enough.
These initial submissions by the panellists of four speakers was the food the audience feasted upon when the discussion was widened for contributions, observations, comments and questions. One of such questions was the problem of quality control in the context of the paradox of government without governance in Nigeria. The paradox under reference is the contrast between so many governors, ministers, legislators and hundreds of extra-ministerial agencies but yet no governance; so many security agencies and yet, no security. Another questioner was more interested in how democracy as a concept and practice has been progressively rated as regressing, stressed, unworkable, etc by a particular think tank and wanted to know how Africa could be hoping to make it work for it.
The panellists took turns to respond, again, beginning with Prof Ibrahim Abdullah who opened fire on his near namesake, Prof Jibrin Ibrahim. He wondered what popular forces Jibrin was still talking about when those forces have already been defeated. The unions that were in the forefront of the struggles in the years gone by have been defeated, he maintained, adding that Jibrin could only insist on talking about democracy outside capitalism as a way of marketing his skills as a big time consultant. Otherwise, everywhere on the continent, it is all about rolling back the state.
Prof Jibrin had actually first launched an offensive by dismissing Abdullah’s hook – up as Marxism and hence his inability to appreciate that the procedural is also substantive democracy. The hall was reeling in laughter as the two friends took turn to smash each other, ideologically. For the four hours that the debate lasted, no sides gave any quarters. In fact, it reached a point where one of the panellists took on Political Science as a discipline, saying political science is useless. It was Prof Abdullah. He said when the African literary giants (he mentioned Ngugi Wa Thiongo) were foreseeing the danger signs clearly, political scientists were “uselessly discussing advantages of one-party statism” or supporting anti-democratic players such as the military. “Political Science is actually a useless discipline. Let’s forget about Political Science”.
He said that “if you look at Africa since the 1990s, the more things change, the more they remained the same”. Although you wouldn’t see ‘wetie’, (the peculiar political violence in Southwest Nigeria in the First Republic, 1960 – 1966), “but ‘wetie’ would happen and you won’t see ‘wetie’. He drew the conclusion from the three features that all Western think tanks are in consensus as defining Africa in the next 12 – 15 – 20 years, These are increasing poverty, most of the continent living in the cities and majority of Africans being under or 30 years of age. For him, gangs in ungoverned cities cannot but be the reality. By implication, Political Science must be a useless discipline if it cannot see the danger ahead.
With over half a dozen professors of Political Science and top political scientists in the room – Ebere Onwudiwe, Attahiru Jega, Nuhu Yaqub, Jibrin Ibrahim himself, Pam Dung Sha, Kole Shettima, Husseini Abdu – the attack on Political Science was both fun as much as a declaration of war. Prof Jega humorously suggested a different conference to sort out the war between History and Political Science. (Prof Abdullah is a Historian). Jega’s intervention attracted more laughter. It was not Political Science Abdullah was attacking but Prof Jibrin’s paradigmatic hook-up and its ‘slow and steady wins the race’ preference for change.
There was tension elsewhere. Someone asked if women were any different when one powerful woman who achieved a high state office ended more corrupt than the men. The questioner triggered the feminist sensibility radar in Jeanette Eno who said that the perspective behind the question needed to be sensitive to proper differentiation or risk further marginalising an already marginalised group. One powerful woman is not a representative of all the women but a product of how she was selected. Dr Jeanette Eno restated her argument about exclusion of women, locating this in political parties where autocrats and godfathers make decisions that have gender exclusionary intent. For her, the important questions are why women are always in the wings, what might they be doing there, what do chair ladies actually do? She wants interrogation of the intervening variables that explain all these.
There was a question about what other drivers of democratisation to consider outside of elections, especially when we look at the outcome of elections in the Republic of Cameroon and then Rwanda. One has brought development, the other has not. So, what happened? Prof N’diaye responded to him with the answer that institutions are critical.
Someone did not agree with Prof Abdullah that there is a difference between democracy and good governance. Another fellow brought to the fore the fact that General Sani Abacha established the National Human Rights Commission, (NHRC) in Nigeria and he wondered what would happen today if the headquarters of the commission were named after Abacha.
Attahiru Jega, the Chairman of the occasion, said procedural democracy must have content. The distinction, he said, has persisted because theorists of democratisation think that once the procedural dimension is established, everything is in. That has run into troubled waters. For Jega, the question is how we might locate what makes the difference. He put his bet on integrity of elections as well as good, democratic governance. “Unless people know that votes count, then there will not be responsive and responsible representatives and if so, then you cannot expect good, democratic governance”. After four hours of non-stop high breed intellectualism, people needed to take tea that must have gone cold by then but tea nevertheless! Democracy must be a wicked concept, indeed!