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The Path to a Cultural Democracy in Africa

The Path to a Cultural Democracy in Africa

Raïs Neza Boneza

When we study African cultures, we learn that that there is no native expression for either the word “democracy” or the word “dictator.” Africa has not been set apart from the world’s evolution, but as with the non-Greek portions of continental Europe it has had to introduce into its languages an alien word to describe a now common phenomenon. The origin of the word “democracy,” of course, is in the Greek words demos, meaning “the people,” and kratos, meaning“power” or “government.” The Swahili term demokrasia, like the English “democracy,” has been borrowed from the Greek.

So that we may better understand the hardships that we encounter when we try to adopt an intercultural approach, we must study the process of the birth and development of the relationship between two given cultures that have made contact with each other in space and time. For example, Scandinavia with its particular geography and climate, its own customs, history, social and political structures, is very different from the Great Lakes region of Africa. Therefore, European languages such as Norwegian, Swedish, English, French and others have inherited a common northern birthplace in either a temperate or a Nordic region, much of whose literature, art and expression is related and held in common. The Greek language, sharing the same geo-space, made up of the same geo-elements (such as winter, snow, cypresses, etc.) does not really have equivalents in Swahili, Bambara, Kinyarwanda or other African languages of the sub-Saharan region. Most Europeans will have no difficulty communi-cating with each other in terms of basic relationships, artistic and literary ex-pression or political and scientific terminology.

Consider the title Little White Snow (Sneewittchen, 1857, Gebrüder Grimm), or Shakespeare’s epigram, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” It is difficult to translate these words into African languages. It might, however, be possible to use expressions or images that are universal and detached from geography and culture. For example, The Dukke Hjem, 1879 (A Doll’s House) by the famous Norwegian writer Henrik Ibsen has been translated into almost all European languages and could likewise be translated into African languages, since oppression of women is common in Africa.

What about demos-kratos?

The analysis of certain figures of speech might prevent the African people from being cast into a stream of darkness, as the world (especially the western world) seems to be engaged in a crusade against civilizations considered to be backwards and barbaric.

Many Africans regard the western model of political democracy as extremely narrow and even alien to African cultures. Some African thinkers have called for the invention of an African-style democracy rooted in the original culture and customs of the so-called Dark Continent. But democracy is not just about voting and assuming power; it is also about the duty of every citizen to accept responsibility for her/his own society. The European imposition of democracy on the people of Africa without regard to their cultural background and customs seems to promote unnecessary competition and antagonism. In an African geo-space and cultural-space vision, democracy seems to signify a spreading of diverted ideas, whereas Africans today are in need of converted ideas.

The democratization of Africa requires not only the creation of many political parties but also a forum for the exchange of ideas to strengthen civil society and to promote stability and peace throughout communities infused with the spirit of liberty, justice, and equality. Although the word “democracy” does not really exist in our languages, the words for “liberty,” “justice” and “equality” do. These values represent the foundations of a democratic society.

Therefore Africans need to define for themselves the meaning of democracy within their own historical and cultural contexts, drawing both on their partici-patory traditions and on the experience of democratic societies elsewhere. Democracy is not limited to capitalism, globalization, a free-market society and multi-partyism; it must include as well respect for human dignity, for social, civil and economic rights. Moreover, if democracy is to be instituted in Africa, or anywhere else, the gap between poor and rich must be narrowed.

An overview of Africa

Does democracy exist in Africa? And if so what does it look like? Let us try to explore the political development on this continent from the end of the Cold War (in 1989 or 1990). Strangled by authoritarian regimes, most of them sup-ported by western powers, Africa has seen several movements and experienced massive demonstrations calling for a new political order of more freedom or liberty. As a consequence of these pressures, more than 60 leaders lost their positions during the period up to 1995. In this political abyss the Organization of African Unity (OAU) showed its weakness, as a majority of its member states were and still are in conflict.

The quest for democracy in Africa means a search for human dignity, expressed in Swahili as heshima; for liberty, uhuru; for unity, umoja; for right, haki. It is a quest for the liberation, utumwa, of men and women from every kind of servitude; from discrimination, ubaguzi; from injustice, udhalimu, and from humiliation, haibu. It is an undisputable fact that democracy, along with a hand-ful of other concerns such as health, afia, development, maendeleo, and peace, amani, have become the core and foremost preoccupations of the people of the world today; everywhere people are demanding their rights.

What, then, is the meaning of democracy?

In Athens, a small Greek city far from the African coast was demos-kratos born. As we have noted, demos means people and kraten or kratos means govern. An equivalent in Swahili would be utawala for kratos and watu for demos. The definition of democracy by the American President Abraham Lincoln is “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” For the African definition of the term we might turn to President Olessegun Obassanjo of Nigeria. As a participant in the 1989 Conference of Democratic Revolution, in Washington, he defined the institution as periodic elections of political leadership through the secret ballot; popular participation of all adults in the election process; choice of programmes and personalities in the elections; an orderly succession; openness of the society; an independent judiciary; freedom of ownership; institutional pluralism; a democratic culture and democratic spirit and fundamental human rights.

What about democracy in African society before colonialism?

Many African scholars have argued that traditional African society has always been harmonious, based on a certain practice of free expression among the elders. Although domestic slavery existed, African family life was based on the principles of unity, freedom, responsibility and equality. The African concep-tion of freedom cannot be separated from responsibility. Property ownership was also governed by the same egalitarian principles, and the individual hoard-ing of wealth, while others starved in poverty, was prohibited. There were no exploiting classes. African traditional life was socialist, as the late President Nyere argued, and inequality only set in with the advent of the capitalist money economy during colonialism, when this delightful, egalitarian harmony was disrupted.

In my view, it is an elusive goal to try to describe those traditional systems as democratic, because we do not have this word in our mother tongues. The root of African democracy must instead be found in African philosophy and its conception of power, grandeur and honor. In effect, many pre-colonial African regimes were certainly authoritarian, such as those of the emperors of Rwabugiri in Rwanda, the Kabakas in Uganda, Shaka the Zulu Chief or Nsiri in Congo. But that a country such as Botswana, for example, incorporated the traditional system of elders into a modern constitution is a clear testimony to an original African democracy.


Africa today is in a situation where superpowers compete for zones of influ-ence. Africa today does not need to define democracy, nor to construct an African type of democracy, since the basics of democracy (expressed in words such as “dignity,” “peace,” “unity,” “harmony,” “justice” or “tolerance”) have existed in our languages for several decades. Africans first need stability, the time to grow food, to progress and develop. The road to democracy is gradual, and the end of the process is to promote peaceful development and to encour-age political pluralism and tolerance. Since we find it difficult to define demo-cracy in an African way, let us focus instead on the universal foundations of the institution: freedom, respect for human rights, peace and development. Citizens should be aware that to expect a perfect democracy is not realistic. Based on their experiences and on their reflections upon the basic tenets of life, Africans must consider the application of democracy as a challenge and an opportunity to create healthy relationships in society, as agents of change with the ultimate goals of improving the institution and of building peace.