A panel of experts on African politics squared off with students, teachers, civil servants, activists and politicians in a debate hosted by the BBC in Accra on Friday. The panel consisted of Ghanaian economist and author Dr. George Ayittey, Ugandan activist Anne Mugashi, South African political activist Kuseni Dlamini, and fellow Dr. Michael Whyte Kpessa from the University of Ghana. A year following the beginning of North Africa’s “Arab Spring” revolutions, the debate focused on the possibility of similar uprisings in sub-Saharan Africa.
Ghana is one of only six sub-Saharan African countries where elections are considered to be free and fair. However, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, Sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and the Middle East are the only regions in the world where democracy improved in 2011.
Dr. George Ayittey argued that Sub-Saharan Africa has already had its version of an Arab Spring in the 1990s. “If anything it is the Arab Spring that has to learn something from [Sub-Saharan] Africa,” he said.
Anne Mugashi, who coordinated Uganda’s “walk to work” protests, pointed out that a key difference between the Arab Spring and Sub-Saharan Africa’s revolutions of the 1990s is that the latter were led by a small group of self-proclaimed revolutionaries. “My understanding of the Arab Spring over a Spring for Africa is [that] the people themselves are responsible for the change rather than a set of people calling themselves revolutionaries,” she said.
Audience polls at both the beginning and end of the debate showed a majority believed an African Spring is unnecessary, a view that remained unchanged throughout the debate. This sentiment was echoed by the comments of lawyer and lecturer from the African University College of Communications Mr. Ogochukwu C. Nweke, who questioned if the goal of higher levels of democracy sought by such revolutions is even right for sub-Saharan Africa.
“At what point are we going to discuss if democracy is the way for us to go? We need to figure out what works for us,” Nweke said. “What is the problem with people leading for 30 years or 40 years?”
Ayittey argued that the traditional monarchy system of tribal chiefs is a form of democracy itself. “We have our own type of participatory democracy based on consensus in traditional Africa. You don’t have to vote to have a system of democracy,” he said.
However, Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees that the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government, and that this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.
The number of elections in Sub-Saharan Africa has been on the rise since the 1990’s, but many of them are rigged and defeated incumbents often refuse to accept defeat. Dr. Michael Whyte Kpessa from the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana cautioned that democracy and nation building are not an event but a process. “You cannot begin and end these processes in a matter of two or three decades,” he said.
BBC host Alex Jakarta called Ghana “a country hailed as a model of democracy in Africa, a democracy that demonstrators across North Africa saw are sorely lacking in their own countries.” While Ghana’s elections may be considered free and fair, there are significant weaknesses in other aspects of their democracy, such as accountable governance and low levels of political participation. Because of these shortcomings Ghana is categorized as a “Flawed Democracy” by the Economist Intelligence Unit, and ranked 78th by their 2011 Democracy Index.
Earlier in the week, political demonstrations held by the Alliance for Accountable Government in Accra called for the resignation of President John Atta Mills. The current administration has been criticized for the recent increases in fuel prices, the falling value of the cedi, and the ongoing Woyome contract scandal.