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PHILOSOPHY AND POLITICS

WHAT WENT WRONG

It is a matter of common knowledge that since the euphoric early days of post-colonial rule, the politics of many an African nation has been blighted in several ways. The political institutions that were bequeathed to the African people by their colonial rulers, modelled, as they invariably were, on those of the colonial rulers, did not function properly. The democratic constitutions that were fashioned by the African people themselves suffered the same fate. This constitutional failure – the failure to rule in accordance with formally established procedures – may be explained in several ways.

One may be that the African people simply did not have the ability effectively to operate institutions of government that were alien to them, institutions that had not taken root in – and so had not become part of – their political culture. Consequently, in failing to elicit cultural understanding and legitimacy, these were institutions to which they had no emotional, ideological or intellectual attachments and whose nuances could not be fully appreciated: such institutions could easily be subverted.

Another explanation, for Gyekye, might be that the African people lacked certain moral or dispositional virtues or attitudes – patience, tolerance, moderation, incorruptibility - indispensable to the operation of these alien institutions. Yet another explanation may be that the political institutions – whether created by colonial or postcolonial African governments – would have worked well but for the disruption of the constitutional process of the military regimes. Why then might this have been? How were Africans traditionally governed?

BUILDING ON TRADITION OR OTHERWISE

For Gyekye, about the turn of the last century, Adolphe Cureau, a French scholar who wrote about the people of central Africa, observed that "over the free citizens, the Chief's authority extends only insofar as it is the mouthpiece of the majority interests, lacking which character it falls to the ground". A Basotho maxim says "a chief is a chief by the people". The Ndebele of Zimbabwe say "the King is the people. To respect the King is to respect oneself". Specifically in an Akan village in Ghana, the chief is chosen from the royal lineage by the head of the lineage in consultation with the members of that lineage. It is necessary that the person chosen be acceptable not only to the councillors, who represent their clan, but to the young men or "commoners" who are the body of the citizens. The injunctions declared to the chief through his spokesman are:

• we do not wish he should curse us;

• we do not wish he should be greedy;

• we do not wish he should be disobedient;

• we do not wish he should treat us unfairly;

• we do not wish he should act on his own initiative without consultation.

It is interesting to note, according to Gyekye, that in Ghana's Akan culture the same linguistic expression (adwabo) is used both for the council, and assembly, and for the market. Judging from the activities and transactions that go on in Akan towns and villages, the use of that expression "adwabo" points to a practice of bargaining, negotiations and compromise that characterizes the deliberations and decisions of councils and assemblies, as well as markets, organized in Akan communities. So how does such traditional practice relate to modern democracies?

The problem of democracy is simply how to give institutional expression to the will of the people, how, that is, to make the will of the people explicit in real and concrete terms. In the nations of the Western world such institutions as the multiparty system, periodic elections, parliaments or congresses, constitutions containing a bill of rights, and an independent judiciary, have been created to give expression to the will of the people and to guard against the violation of their political and civil rights. How does this compare with traditional chieftaincies?

The institution of the chieftainship was definitely the lynchpin of the democratic system in the Akan political system. For the nature of the political authority of the chief determines the character of the political process. The hereditary character of the chieftainship may be said to impose a limitation on the choice of rulers, though not on other public post holders. However, and firstly, unlike with the European monarchy, there is no obvious incumbent. Second, just as the will of the people is crucial in the selection process, so is their influence on the continuance of his regime. The third is that limits to his powers are set both by custom and injunction. A political contract sets a moral and legal tone to the chieftainship. Fourthly, nobody is restricted from participating in the assemblies and constitutional bodies. Finally, the chief is unable to dispose of any of the land in his domain without the agreement of the council of elders. So what Gyekye here describes accords with what we previously heard from Williams.

Because of the non-existence of political parties, some scholars have supposed that traditional African politics and culture, as such, lacks the concept of an opposition. But the existence of divisions and groupings amongst the deliberations of traditional councils and assemblies, for Gyekye, belies this. Consensus logically presupposed dissensus. Whether or not such an Akan system could have evolved, in time, its own version of a multi-party system, no one can say. Colonialism slammed the door on such an eventuality. Consensus meanwhile, as a procedure for arriving at political decisions, is born of the pursuit of a social ideal of solidarity – itself inspired by the ideal of the interests of all members of the community, and of the recognition of political and moral values of equality, reciprocity and a respect for others.

The search for democracy, overall then in post-colonial Africa, has been an odyssey, a long and arduous journey whose end is not yet in sight. Perhaps resorting to indigenous values and ideas of politics could be a redemptive approach. As Gyekye has shown, ideas and values such as popular will, free expression of opinion, consensus and conciliation, consultation and conferring, and trusteeship – all ingredients of the democratic idea – are to be found in African traditions of government.

The fact is, though, that these values and practices have never been allowed to shape the contours of modern African politics. The consequences have not been palatable – authoritarian politics and illegitimate seizure of political power are the order of the day. These features of modern African politics can hardly be said to derive from its social and political traditions. There is therefore a need to bring those traditions to bear upon modern political life. But to say this is not to be oblivious to the limitations of applying traditions of smaller and more homogeneous political communities to larger, complex and heterogeneous societies.

 
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