The Reversal of African Democracy

November 24, 2017 Africa , Opinion , OPINION/NEWS

Albert Gonzalez Farran/UN photo



Hermann-Habib Kibangou


The numerous disputes over the outcome of the elections in Africa and the ensuing conflicts about the rejection of the results by one of the candidates of the presidential elections, call into question the sincerity of the proponents of power to work for the development of their respective peoples. Will Africa have its own version of democracy? By this term we mean a type of democracy that opposes the general interest to the partisan and ethnic interest of African citizens, a democracy that ignores Human Rights, etc.

Following the recent post-electoral socio-political situation in Gambia, there is a constant debate over African democracy, about how some leaders would end up. If they knew they would either be chased from power like Mobutu from former Zaïre (now Democratic Republic of Congo),(3) killed like Samuel Doe of Liberia, or Mouammar Kadhafi of Libya, many African Presidents would give up. Better, if one said that politics in Africa makes someone crazy, makes someone lose his head and therefore the capacity to reason, no doubt very few would venture there.



The meaning of “African democracy”


Cameroonian historian Achille Mbembe, remarked that in Africa, “the exit of authoritarianism is thwarted by the social crisis and the unpreparedness of the elites.” (4) This reflection raised a still topical debate on the articulation of the universal values of democracy, from one side, and African values and cultures, from the other side.

More than a decade later, Togolese lawyer Bileou Sakpane-Gbati took over in one of his articles. According to him, “At the school of democracy, African states have the sad reputation of being bad students. Building a genuine democracy is undermined by the persistence of tribal or ethnic considerations. It is therefore important to rethink democracy in Africa by first breaking away from the myth that, because of their traditional organizations, African societies are incompatible with democracy. (5) These analyses made by Bileou Sakpane-Gbati, says Jean-Didier Boukongou (6) are rejected by the thurifera of the African model of democracy.  Given the controversial political realities on the continent, is it possible to promote an African model of democracy in Africa that is peculiar to Africans, even if the methods seem at first sight to be anti-democratic?”(7), he asks.



The language of lies


To answer the question raised by Boukongou (8) and the question about African democracy, two observations are necessary. The first is that the problem of intellectuals is words. What understanding do we have of the words we use? When we talk about democracy, what do we want to say? The second observation concerns the lexicon used. In political life, we use two dictionaries, if not three: the dictionary of truth and that of lies, sometimes the third, which is the mixture of that of the first two. If, in everyday life, a Head of State is labeled as a tyrant or dictator, he would not recognize himself as such in the realm of power. These two observations would almost give this: history has an elephant’s memory, but some politicians, and those who support them, have a hard head. They easily forget the many lessons of history. (9) Why do they think that what happened to others would not happen to them? Hence the question: does power transform its holder into an animal, to the point of wanting to sacrifice with pertinacity human lives? Historical examples reinforce this, while others prove the contrary.

The leaders of the first group are those who exercise unlimited power. Called “supreme chiefs”, “immortals”, “lions”, “elephants”, “great masters”, “gods”, they call themselves democrats and they are democrats “in an African way”. African democracy, therefore, would, as Jean-Didier Boukongou put it, be thought of as a “democracy without virtues”(10) which can easily tilt towards tyranny. “A democracy of partisan and ethnic interests”, a “democracy that turns its back on the protection of human rights”, which hardly escapes the law of the strongest. But in West Africa, this “African democracy” seems to be contradicted by the alternation to power in some countries. In central Africa, however, we are still at speeches whose vocabulary is directly borrowed from the dictionary of lies (11).



The principle of respect for constitutional provisions


For lovers of the French game “Jeu de Dames”, one would think of the version “who loses wins”(12). Is this African democracy? Those in power have to answer with concrete and edifying examples. In such a case, one must have the courage to integrate into our Constitutions the right to cheat, the right to theft, the right to co-optation, the right to lie. If all this is done, our African elections would hardly be denounced; the winners would be elected without social tension, or any contestation; injustice will give way to justice. But as long as the dictionary of falsehood borrows its words from the lexicon of truth, it is to be feared that we will still be in the midst of these divisions which will only delay the development we wish for our countries.

“What use is it for man to win the world if he should lose his soul?”(13) This sentence can be paraphrased in the following words: “What use is it for man to take power if in the end he would end up losing his reason, even his soul?” Jean-Didier Boukongou, through his article highlights the conditions of a true democracy for Africa: the refusal of cultural bargaining of democracy, the rejection of an African democracy without universal virtues, the non- acceptance of the parodies of democracy to the African one and finally the renunciation of the African pseudo-values (14). A democracy that goes against these principles would unquestionably resemble the game “Qui perd gagne (the loser wins)”(15). Once African leaders accepted the results of the real ballot boxes, not those of stuffed ballot boxes, then there will be democracy. As long as these rulers leave power only under threat of military forces, it will be difficult to have a strong cultural democracy in Africa.

It is also up to the citizens to translate into reality the use of the dictionary of justice, peace, fair play, courage and sincerity. It is only under these conditions that African political life will no longer borrow its vocabulary from the “loser wins” perspective (the fact that those in power, usually dictators, reject the results of the elections and are tempted to remain in power by force; ignoring the choice made by the majority of the population).

Fortunately, democracy in Africa also offers us edifying examples where the real losers refuse to yield to the temptation of the “loser wins” one. Those at least know that power and honors are at the service of the people and not at the service of the false. Barack Obama, who left power (after two well-deserved terms, recalled in his speech in Accra: “History is on the side of these courageous Africans, not in the camp of those who use coup d’états or modify the Constitutions to remain in power. Africa does not need strong men but strong institutions.”





This article was originally published by The Zambakari Advisory and is reproduced with their kind permission




Hermann-Habib Kibangou

Hermann-Habib KIBANGOU is a Research Officer at Centre d’Etudes et de Formation pour le Developpement (CEFOD) in N’djamena (Chad)







1 This article is inspired by the recent Presidential Election in Gambia where the former President Yaya Jameh accepted the results of the Elections before rejecting them. It was published in French in Chad and Culture Number 354 – February 2017)

2 Hermann-Habib KIBANGOU is a Research Officer at Centre d’Etudes et de Formation pour le Developpement (CEFOD) in N’djamena (Chad)

3 In Africa, some presidents have been chased from power like Ange-Félix Patassé and François Bozizé for CAR. Others killed like Ibrahim Barré Maïnasara of Niger, Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso, Marien Ngouabi of Congo

4  Achille Mbembe, “Esquisses d’une démocratie à l’africaine”. Le Monde diplomatique, Octobre 2000.

5 This quote has been translated from French into English. See Sakpane-Gbati, “Démocratie à l’africaine”. (Ethique Publique Public Ethics), [Online], Vol. 13, number 2/2011)

6 A Congolese (Congo-Brazzaville) expert in International Law (PhD).

7 Jean-Didier Boukongou, « Démocratie sans vertus ». No reference.

8 Jean-Didier Boukongou, « Démocratie sans vertus ». No reference.

9 We have in mind the different Presidents who by refusing to resign, or in situations of conflict, finished whether chased or killed. Some of them were considered as dictators.

10 Jean-Didier Boukongou wrote an article entitled: « Démocratie sans vertus », in English « Democraty without virtues ». Boukongou owns a PHD in International Law and is the founder of APDHAC (Association pour la Promotion des Droits de l’Homme en Afrique Centrale) at the Catholic University of Central Africa (UCAC) in Yaoundé (Cameroon). The MacMillan English Dictionary describes virtue as “a good quality or habit that a person has, especially a moral one, such as honesty or loyalty.”

11 Firstly, the dictionary of lies make people not to respect the Constitution and secondly, they want to remain in power even when they are not legitimately elected. The recent elections in Congo-Brazzaville, Chad and Gabon reflect this situation. According to me, the dictionary of lies is measured by the respect of the Constitution in every country and the capacity to respect the results of the Elections. There are also situations when we notice that dead people have cards to vote in a village, young men who don’t have the age to vote, do so. Or, the number of the people who have voted is superior to the number of the people who are allowed to vote (age).

12 In French « Qui perd, gagne ».

13 Matthew 16:26 (English Standard Version). Oct. 13, 2017. Accessed from Bible Hub<>

14 Jean-Didier Boukongou, « Démocratie sans vertus ».

15 Part of the problem is that those who crave power don’t really care about values or virtues the same way I suspect most of us do, which is part of the reason the strength of the institutions is so important.


Works Cited

Mbembe, Achille. 2000“Esquisses d’une démocratie à l’africaine”. In Le Monde diplomatique, Octobre 2000.

Sakpane-Gbati, Bileou. 2011. “Démocratie à l’africaine”. In Ethique Publique, [Online], Vol. 13, number 2/2011)

Jean-Didier Boukongou, Démocratie sans vertus. No reference

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