Before We Rethink Western Liberal Democracy in Africa


Professor Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò

By Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò

I would like to begin by congratulating His Ex-Excellency, General Olusegun Obasanjo, (Retired), on the convening of that fabulous group of sages, doctors, alhajis, other Ex-Excellencies, alhajas, and other notables, not to talk of the usual coterie of a-gbọ́-a-wá, “we need to rub shoulders with stars”, compatriots, ladies and gentlemen, on the absolutely fundamental theme of “Rethinking Western Liberal Democracy in Africa”. Given that I plan to write specifically on the very question of the relevance of “Western democracy in Africa” in another piece, I limit myself here to some preliminary steps that I am convinced must be taken before we get to the more crucial issue of the fate of “Western democracy” in our continent.

Let us be clear. I write this from the vantage point of someone who shares with all the attendees at the confab “African identity” and, with the sage convenor of the meeting, “Yorùbá identity”. I must point out, though, that the part dealing with the “Yorùbá identity” “get-as-e-be”—I am an Ìbàdàn mọn” and our leader is “Òwu” to the core. Those who know their history would catch my gist.

The primary charge against “Western liberal democracy” is that it is unworkable, has not worked, and is not working in Africa, no less! This failure is, according to our wise leader and his retinue, attributable to Western liberal democracy’s pedigree: it is not original to Africa, and it was not conceived with our needs and, more important, our culture, nay, our Africanness, in mind. The solution and the object of the rethinking? Work on homegrown modes of governance, nay, modes of social living, that originate in our culture, and derived from the centuries in which our civilization(s) has(have) been around. I cannot agree more!

As a student of the history of ideas, I have never come across any reference in the literature, better still, the annals of Western liberal democracy, any mention of its relevance to Africa. In fact, it was on the ascendance at the same time that those, today’s African Americans and most Diasporic Africans, that our revered African forebears, ancestors, sold to people whose ways of life they, initially, had no idea of and persisted even after they knew what horror they had been transported into, were turned into chattel, and their unpaid labour was used as the founding blocks of the stupendous wealth that is the inheritance of what is now called “the West”.

There is only one problem, though. If its provenance is the ground for the unworkability of liberal democracy in Africa, I am afraid that we have more than one culprit in this identity-driven, pedigree-hugging, choice-making in the business of improving African life and holding aloft the banner of our African civilization complete with appliques of the many and diverse member cultures that make it up.

Where this is concerned, people may have forgotten the sterling accomplishments of our dear leader when it comes to deploying homegrown African genius in solving African problems. I cite just two examples: (1) he inaugurated the subdiscipline of the study of “spiritual warfare” with a view to strengthening our military when the fight against apartheid was still raging back in the late 1970s of the last century. There is a reason why South Africans remain grateful to us for leading the charge for their liberation with the best “òmìnìgbọ̀n” [I hope my Edo friends do not mind my dragging them into this mess.] the African scientist could concoct! (2) And in his second term as civilian—am I permitted to call him “democratically elected”?—president of Nigeria, deploying the best minds from Òyìngbò and Balógun markets, he deregulated the telecommunications market in Nigeria and the rest, as they say, is history! Why would anyone harbour any doubt that there is more where those came from?

It is now time to declare my aim in this piece. I would like to direct our conferees to other Western-derived contraptions—ideas, processes, institutions, practices and just stuff!—the deployment of which in our lives and societies we need to rethink to celebrate our identity, show pride in our heritage and, just once and for all, end our dependence on anything Western with all their severe implications for our place in the world and the gathering of civilizations. What I list below are one and all of Western provenance and can be shown to be not working for us in Africa. We should rethink them yesterday!

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Please permit me to itemize them.
1. Time. When it comes to this, our conferees should chuck the framework they have used for their programme, their scheduling of time allotted to each speaker, and when each session should hold and for how long. For instance, they may not put start time at “10:00 a.m.”, sessions at “11:00 a.m. – 12:00 noon”, and so on. “Àárọ̀”—“kùtù”, ìdákọmu”, “ìyálẹ̀ta”; “ọ̀sán”, “ọj̣́ọ́rọ̀” should suffice for delineating temporal frames for different sections of the programme. That would be the homegrown, African thing to do. Of course, it should not be my business to make the translations for other members of the African family.

2. The Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library, the physical structure—struts, beams, pillars, concrete, tiles, window and door frames—the very design—pardon me if it was built in the best architectural design inspired by Òwu—remember “Òwu la kọ́ dá”, it is the original—motifs, engineering designs, and presentation, and so on. The very idea must be jettisoned; it must be scrapped. There is absolutely nothing “African” either about the idea or its execution: the conception, the funding, the operation, etc. And we don’t need any reminder that that idea is not working well in Africa, either. Has anyone forgotten the roaring success of the Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding located in Òṣogbo that was originally going to be appended to the Library? We can see how those Western-derived ideas continue to unravel in our soil. Ṣé mo wiíre?

3. When in the early 1970s of the last century, IBM threw to Bill Gates, Jr. and Paul Allen the bone of coming up with a Disk Operating System (DOS) for the mini-computer, the ancestor of all the miniaturized gadgets that most Africans cannot live without today, the duo may have fantasized about creating a museum dedicated to rock n roll and Black music, and eventually paying humongous sums to vaccinate African children against all sorts of affliction. One thing I am sure they never averted their minds to was how the DOS and its successors would work in Africa. In other words, we neither created the material requisites—computers, silicon chips, conductors, microphones, headphones, electric cables, lightbulbs, upholstery—that made the Abẹ́òkúta gathering possible nor did their creators ever have Africa at the front of their minds when they were putting them together. Only our lack of shame would make us think that they are working in Africa, either. Where that is concerned, we are a continent of consumers, no producers!

4. The last time I looked, all the billowing boubous, the felt hats, the jewellery stacks that adorn our necks, hands, mouths, heads, and ankles, mostly have external provenance. The dresses we wear are the most notable for this lack. Neither Ankara nor Guinea Brocade, nor the machines with which they are made fit for our royalty, our eminent personalities, all our conferees without exception, are all externally sourced! Do you need any more evidence that the Western-derived textile industry needs to be rethought in Africa, too? Just imagine how much the economies of Ìsẹ́yìn, Abẹ́òkúta, Ìbàdàn, not to talk of Kano and Akwanga, would benefit were we to reengage our inheritance when it comes to matters of clothing! Need I say more!

5. What part of Bells University is African-inspired, forget-derived?

I apologize that I cannot put more here. I can only hope that this piece inspires us all to follow the lead of our esteemed ex-Excellency—Is that out of Òwu? I don’t know any equivalent in Ìbàdàn—and get on with the business not only of rethinking all the stuff that the evil Westerners have saddled us with but, more important, also of setting a date when we shall be rid of such never-worked, unworking, and unworkable encumbrances like “Western liberal democracy”.

*Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò is Professor of African Political Thought and Chair of the Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, USA.

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