AFRICA: STABILIZING DEMOCRACY IN THE COMMONWEALTH NATIONS
What is Common in the Commonwealth for Africa?
– Yusuf Yahaya O. & Paa Kwesi B. Inkumsah (2014)
There cannot be a better time and place to discuss this all important topic than now and here, for indeed, the commonwealth has come of age since it was established. History and geography are key to understanding difficulties in dealing with the factor of stabilizing democracy in anywhere around the world. The commonwealth as a collective institution has relationships that have numerous bilateral links and related priorities that each member has inherited. Great Britain, for example, has links with their former colonies and mandates.
What’s common in the Commonwealth of Nations?
First and foremost, the commonality of the commonwealth, that it’s a worldwide association of nations and their dependencies, whose members share a common commitment to promoting human rights, democracy, and economic development with member nations accepting the British monarch as the symbolic head of the Commonwealth, is not debatable. The commonwealth was formerly known as the British Commonwealth of Nations, but today is referred to simply as the Commonwealth.
There are 54 independent nations and more than 20 dependencies that make up the commonwealth. Commonwealth members share many customs and traditions as a result of their association with Britain. Many have parliamentary systems of government on the British model, and their judicial and educational institutions are often similar to those in Britain. English is an official language of many members of the commonwealth. Since 1977 the second Monday in March has been celebrated as commonwealth day; on that day the British monarch, as the head of the commonwealth, presents an annual message to all member countries1.
Nations and societies are embracing free and equal representation in the affairs of governance and leadership. More importantly many member nations of the commonwealth are fully practicing democracy in its experimental learning process. Scientifically, since democracy is about humans and the human behavior is both dynamic and unpredictable characterized by changes in thoughts and actions dependent on geographical location, historical antecedent, and resourcefulness, hence the need to stabilize the system upon which free and equal representation of the people is built upon cannot be underestimated. In the words of former American President Jimmy Carter, “Democracy is like the experience of life itself – always changing, infinite in its variety, sometimes turbulent and all the more valuable for having been tested for adversity.”2.
Hence, as member nations of the commonwealth become stronger and more democratic as seen in the 21st Century, this process could be tagged as a “four-legged stool” where government is one leg; a free market economy is the other, civil society is the third, and globalization it’s fourth. To put it more succinctly, you can’t make progress and have stability of democracy unless all four are working together, sharing equal responsibility for success.
Government and the governance structure are common in the commonwealth nations. Government as political organization comprising the individuals and institutions authorized to formulate public policies and conduct affairs of state. Governments of the commonwealth member nations are sovereign and independent empowered to establish and regulate the interrelationships of the people within their territorial confines, the relations of the people with the community as a whole, and the dealings of the community with other political entities. In the theory of political science, the function of government is to secure the common welfare of the members of the social aggregate over which it exercises control. Among more civilized peoples, governments assumed institutional forms; they rested on defined legal bases, imposing penalties on violators of the law and using force to establish themselves and discharge their functions. Government and good governance are inseparable twins for stabilizing democracy. More fundamentally is the issue of human rights, since the human is the central focus of government, good governance and democracy. In the lights of the above, human rights are commonly understood as inalienable fundamental rights to which a person is inherently entitled simply because she or he is a human being. These entitlements are to be protected and promoted by government for its people. Human rights were henceforth seen as elementary preconditions for an existence worthy of human dignity. These protection and promotion of human rights should be the cornerstone of every member nations of the commonwealth if really the ultimate is to stabilize democracy. The moment fundamental human rights in any democracy is trampled be assured that such a democracy cannot enjoy democratic stability.
“The main duties deriving from human rights fall on states (governments) and their authorities or agents, not on individuals. One important implication of these characteristics is that human rights must themselves be protected by law (‘the rule of law’). Again, its government(s) responsibility to ensure all of these, any disputes about these rights should be submitted for adjudication through a competent, impartial and independent tribunal, applying procedures which ensure full equality and fairness to all the parties, and determining the question in accordance with clear, specific and pre-existing laws, known to the public and openly declared”3.
Free market economy that is all inclusive in the commonwealth should and must be seen to be complimented by the governments of member nations. “Free-Market Economy, economic system in which individuals, rather than government, make the majority of decisions regarding economic activities and transactions. Individuals are free to make economic decisions concerning their employment, how to use or accumulate capital, what expenditures to make, and whether to use their resources now or to save them for later consumption. The principles underlying free-market economies are based on laissez-faire (non-intervention by government) economics and can be traced to the 18th-century Scottish economist Adam Smith. According to Smith, individuals acting in their own economic self-interest will maximize the economic situation of society as a whole, as if guided by an “invisible hand.”4.
More critically, civil society as the third of the four legged stool in ensuring stability of democracy we concentrate mainly on the non-governmental dimension that is so crucial to creating and consolidating strong and prosperous democratic states especially at a time when ethnic strife and turmoil looked as if they would delay and derail political process that would usher in democracy and by extension be a force for stabilizing democracy. There are many reasons for civil society in the commonwealth member nations to stand, be the voice of the voiceless majority, and be counted when it matters most…stabilizing democracy particularly at the times of upheavals and turmoil.
· First and foremost, civil society groups must ensure unity amongst its ranks and not be divided along selfish lines to reflect different interests – but be seen to be working together to uphold the broader universal values of freedom and democracy.
· Secondly, civil society groups must played a crucial role in helping the society to move forward, their ability to work well during demanding times when democratic principles are threatened; to seize opportunities and perform well despite many obstacles.
· Thirdly, in the member nations of the commonwealth, civil society stood for the values of pluralism and tolerance, for the rule of law and democratic elections. Playing important roles in stabilizing the society for democracy, and making sure that the election process are free, fair, and credible.
· Fourthly, helping the governments in their respective countries to govern, providing input into budgeting and budgetary systems, and most importantly as non-state actors playing the role of checks and balance to government actions and inactions.
What about globalization and the commonwealth? “Globalization has come to stay and the commonwealth nations cannot afford to be left behind. Globalization is often used to refer to economic globalization that is, integration of national economies into the international economy through trade, foreign investment, capital flows, migration and the spread of technology. In other words, globalization is also about connectivity”4.
Impact of globalization on Commonwealth nations:
Globalization is the accelerating interdependence of nations in a world system linked economically through the mass media and modern information systems. Globalization refers to all those processes by which the peoples of the world are incorporated into a single society. This process is a combination of economic, technological, socio-cultural and political forces. The forces of globalization which the commonwealth nations can take advantage of include international commerce, travel and tourism, transnational migration, the media and various high-tech information flows. Therefore the Impact of globalization are
Increased foreign investment, creates employment, and repatriates profits back to the commonwealth nations. Others are innovativeness in solving global problems, and emergency of democratic forms of political governance, Industrial technology has spread from the core nations of the commonwealth to developing countries especially in Africa. Also, ICT technology is contributing to space compression, and has revolutionized communication (internet, email, teleconferencing).
Ingredients for stabilizing democracy in the Commonwealth
If democratic stability must be attained and sustained in the Commonwealth of Nations, then common ingredients for stabilizing democracy must be enshrined, observed, practiced and maintained. This is not far-fetched as democracy begins with the concept that government exists to serve the people and that as the source of governmental authority; the people have the right to change the government if it does not serve them justly. The people are sovereign. From that pivotal idea flow a number of complementary common ingredients:
· Commitment to majority rule,
· Protection of the rights of the minority,
· Acceptance of a rule of law, and
· Equality of all citizens before the law.
· Safeguarding liberties such as the free exchange of ideas and opinions,
· Freedom of religion,
· Freedom to assemble, and
· The right to be tried by a competent judicial system.
African Nations of Commonwealth and Democratic Stability
The Commonwealth of Nations must take into cognizance the question “what wealth is common in the commonwealth for African nations”? Therefore, if democratic peace and stability in the commonwealth depends upon some member nations having developed economies, simply encouraging democracy in poor countries will fail to secure the peace and stability; instead, efforts must also be made to promote equity and economic development between and amongst member nations of the commonwealth by bridging the inequality gap in trade, economics, globalization, technology know-how, justice, and human capacity building.
Factors unique to Africa
“In stabilizing democracy in commonwealth nations particularly of African nations, a number of factors unique to Africa contribute to the challenges of democracy building on the continent. For example, the population is increasing in most African nations, which contributes to a greater number of jobseekers, some with poor education, entering limited labour markets. Urbanization is taking place at an alarming rate, and is exacerbated by the perceived urban/rural divide which favours urban areas in the utilization of development resources. The lack of sustainable management of the various demographic imperatives, including the non-provision of opportunities for young people and the rural population and limited action to address the socio-economic realities of underdevelopment, lie at the heart of the challenges of supporting democracy building, poverty eradication and sustainable development in Africa”.
The alleviation of extreme poverty is Africa’s biggest challenge. Social and economic underdevelopment, in particular food security, poor education and lack of affordable and accessible health services, contributes to the perception that democracy has not improved the livelihood of people in Africa. The provision and supply of basic needs are still the uppermost preoccupations of many African governments and their people, despite the obvious advantages that democracy building could bring to the promotion of sustainable development. Democracy alone cannot address the multitude of Africa’s challenges, most notably corruption. Holistic and multi-stakeholder approaches are not always pursued to address the development challenges of the continent.
There is the urgent need for the African Union (AU) to lead and represent Africa in the quest for sustainable development for which stable democracy is key. Africa is in the process of empowering an institutional body (in this case the AU) that can represent the continent, and articulate its needs, views and positions on important issues with a ‘single voice’. Furthermore, the African Union Commission should make advances and could play a similar role for African states to that played by the European Commission in the EU. However, democracy in Africa is still young, and integration on the continent is still in its infancy compared with the EU. In addition to low capacity and institutional deficits, these processes are slow due to the unwillingness of states to cede aspects of national sovereignty to the AU, and a perceived lack of political will to allow for enhanced continental integration, increased coherence in policy formulation, and empowerment of continental and regional organizations and institutions as well as the subsequent exercise of supranational powers. The existence of many overlapping regional integration organizations does not contribute to the establishment of a ‘unified and single voice’ for Africa, or to enhance continental integration.
One conservative challenge in this regard is that democratization and democracy building are still too often seen in many African states as just elections and electoral processes. A deepened understanding of democratization and democracy building by the people of Africa is not being promoted through education, and this prevents an acceleration of stable democracy building and sustainable development in many African states. Education offers the potential to develop in the citizens of African countries a better understanding of democratization and democracy building and the likely impact on poverty alleviation and the promotion of sustainable development.
People need to know that they have the right and duty to hold their governments accountable in order to contribute to the establishment of effective democracies in Africa. A deficit of people’s power to hold leaders accountable, weak and fractured opposition parties and effective one-party states in some African states impede democracy building which in return impedes the stabilization of democracy.
Other fundamental factors
In addition, a number of other factors contribute to the challenges of stabilizing democracy in many African nations of the Commonwealth which invariably threatens democracy building in Africa.
*Crisis in the financial system
*Food security and climate change
*Sustainable and clean energy
*Rising population of youth unemployment in Africa
The economic and financial crises will inevitably lead to a reduction in development assistance from the developed world, but the global nature of the crises makes it imperative to maintain support for political reform in and the democratic development of African states. Recent global crises in the financial system, food security and the energy sectors pose potential threats to stabilizing democracy and democracy building. These events could lead to discontent and political instability in African states, even though it is commonly understood that African states are victims rather than perpetrators of these crises. These crises have significant implications for democracy and the democracy building efforts. African states are, and will continue to be, challenged to manage economies in distress, and many will face new risks to democracy and the stability of fragile states (Lewis 2009).
The idea of stability is often invoked in all parts of the world. You often hear political leaders speak about stability as well as peace, justice and all those good things …. Of course, it is a good thing to have stability, but often, it is counter-posed as the opposite to democracy, as if stability and democracy are two incompatible states. This is an area which I hope the conference will explore to determine that stability and democracy are not mutually exclusive, but that in fact they reinforce one another and are both needed equally if a society like the commonwealth is to make progress.
There is false stability, which is based on the idea that leaders must control any part of the society that looks as if it may be independent or where they see potential opposition. And then there is true stability, which is much stronger since it comes out of a recognition that a state is stronger if its various constituencies are represented and there is a consensus of many different forces working together for the good of everyone. False stability comes out of a lack of trust of the citizens, when political leaders believe they know best what is good for the people and try to impose it by controlling the media, controlling the outcome of elections, and controlling the judicial system. But this kind of rigid control cannot ensure the stability of democracy of a country if the people’s will is not represented and if that huge resource of civic activism is being undermined and restricted. The more rigid a political system gets, the weaker it will eventually become and more subject to sudden cracks and splintering.
True stability is based on a sense of trust between the various parts of a political system and society. The government trusts civil society and the citizens to support its executive decisions which are in turn informed by, carried out on behalf of, and expressed as the will of civil society and the people. There is a partnership that lies at the base of democratic development that is the foundation of a healthy and prosperous state. And there are no short cuts to stabilization. This relationship between free market economy, civil society, government, and globalization needs time to mature and become effective.
You might hear political leaders say that they need to “impose” stability, for example, to attract foreign investment. Well this also is a false understanding of stability. No foreign investors will feel their investments are safe in a country where there is no protection of property and assets under the rule of law, and where citizens cannot gain a fair trial under a corrupt judicial system. Corruption is more likely to thrive where there is no free press and no investigative journalists to shine the light of truth on shady deals.
Stability is based on openness and engagement with the outside world, where not only the government has relationships with other governments but civil society also engages through public diplomacy with other nongovernmental actors in the international community. This openness when explored by the commonwealth will strengthen democracy and by extension bringing factors for stabilizing democracy in the Commonwealth of Nations.
Yusuf Yahaya – Snr. Broadcast Engineer (Nigerian Television Authority), Nat. Resource Person @ MDGs/SDGs/NYSC Advocacy Program (Presidency-Nigeria) and Research-Student @ Estam University (Dept. of Mechanical Engineering & Computer-Integrated Manufacturing.
Paa Kwesi B. Inkumsah – Snr. Associate @ Spark Global Business, President-The African Leadership Agenda (TALA) & Fmr UN Affairs Commissioner for Africa @ JCI, and Coordinator – Africa Unbound Inc (Ghana-Chapter).
1. “Commonwealth of Nations.” Microsoft® Encarta® 2009 [DVD]. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corporation, 2008.
2. Jimmy Carter’s Speech to Parliament of India June 2, 1978
3. The concept of Human Rights: An introduction (Icelandic Human rights Center)
4. “Free-Market Economy.” Microsoft® Encarta® 2009 [DVD]. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corporation, 2008.
5. Chapra, O. (2006), Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddima: an Introduction to History of the Rise and Fall of Nations.
6. Bala, O.A., Globalization a challenge to democracy. A speech delivered at the 50th independence anniversary of Nigeria, October – 2010. (Organized by I4IDEAS – Nigeria)