Troubled African Democracies

To travel Kenya to Mali, one has to apply for a visa at the French consulate in Kenya. Conversely, to travel from Senegal to Kenya, the visa has to be issued through the British consulate in Senegal. This is a perfect metaphor of Africa in today’s age of globalization.


Yes, we have come a long way, red carpets, state houses and countries we call our own. But still, the relationships among individual African countries are still mediated by the West: As is the relationship between Africa and other areas of the world.


To participate in the global economy, African nations have to pay exorbitant fees in the form of cheap labor, raw materials and high consumption in order to be allowed into the "free" market. The free competition promised by global capitalism only applies to rich and powerful countries. African leaders also have to make commitments to pro-Western standards of democracy measured by good governance, accountability and transparency. Standards that Western countries themselves do not meet.


In order to subvert new forms of exploitation built on old forms, we have to reexamine how national and international politics have shifted in the last fifty or so years. For example, the relationship of the Western state to capitalism has flipped. From the age of slavery to colonialism the accumulation of capital was undertaken for the state; that is capitalism was seen as serving the nation. Today the western state serves global capitalism. 


Today, state institutions such as the judiciary, the executive, and legislature that were previously so sacred to western democracy serve and protect global capital. Domestic policy is shaped to meet trade needs of the West and is therefore manufactured, guided and sold by the needs of capital. Take the US Iraq war and occupation – it is now understood that it was not in the defense of the US as a nation, but rather a capitalist war – for oil, to feed the military-industrial complex and American corporations.


Because Africa is in a predatory relationship with the West the African state is slowly being pushed to become subservient to capital interests. But not to serve African capitalism; rather the African state is being gutted out to better serve Western capitalism. 


And without control of national economies, splintered and voiceless, holding out begging bowls, and pegging national laws to western security needs, African democracies are becoming caricatures of Western democracies. They look like them, they mimic them but they do not have the economic, political or military might to be an equal partner in the plunder of the world. African capitalism, to recall the words of racist Albert Schweitzer, is seen as a "junior brother" in the world economy, and African leaders, the junior presidents in the UN.


But we are also complicit in the charade. At different points in its development, capitalism creates room for political ideologies and leaders who work within its consensus.   It allows for ideologies that appear to be challenging it but in real terms ends up prolonging its existence. So neocolonialism for example found a home in the African socialism created by Leopold Senghor. Senghor’s African socialism did not challenge the fundamentals of capitalism where profit is maximized at the direct expense of another. Instead it mystified that relationship by arguing that because Africans were communal by nature, surplus would be distributed along same communal path. Equality and justice were encoded in the African gene. This has not turned out to be the case. 


In today’s global capitalism, we find African leaders appearing to be against it but really are working within its consensus.   A good example is Thabo Mbeki’s African renaissance that appears to be recommitting Africans to resistance; only it has instead embraced global capitalism. It succeeds only in giving cover to unequal and exploitative relationships within and amongst nations.


The danger is that because viciously unequal national and international relationships continue to siphon resources from the poor, and African leaders lack the political will and imagination to subvert them, they are content to let ethnicity take the place of class. The tussle for power between Jacob Zuma and Thabo Mbeki, unless it moves along class and anti-global capital lines, will eventually pit amaXhosa against amaZulu. We saw the same polarization in Kenya break out into ethnic cleansing, with the poor killing other poor.


Part of our tragedy is that in the 1960’s and 1970’s the Idi Amins of the continent were busy assassinating the future Sankaras and Steve Bikos. By the time it was time to cast a democratic vote in the 1990’s, the voices which might have offered an alternate vision of change as opposed to working within a consensus of western capitalism had been silenced.


But nevertheless we cannot afford to give up on the African state. If we do, we will be giving international non-governmental organizations, philanthropists and international corporations and capital a permanent place at our dinner table – and they are always hungry. Rather than give up on our states we have to demand more out of them. Through a revival of people-powered movements, trade unions, farmer and women organizations, we can challenge our states into having a little more spine.


Otherwise the alternative is not only economic and political dependence on Western capitalism, but leaders who are also psychologically beholden to their Western counter-parts.   Nigeria‘s Umaru Yar’Adua humbled himself in front of George Bush recently and gushed "I feel highly honored and privileged to be here. This is a moment that I’ll never forget in my life." Tell me, what demands could a prostrate Yar’ Adua make of Bush? 


Mukoma Wa Ngugi is a political columnist for the BBC Focus on Africa Magazine where this article first appeared. He is the author of Hurling Words at Consciousness (AWP, 2006) and co-editor of Pambazuka News ( 

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