The Prospects Of Western Liberal Democracy In Africa

The Prospects Of Western Liberal Democracy In Africa

Exorcizing The Ghost Of Colonialism And Back To Communal Tradition

By Professor Polycarp Ikuenobe (Kent State University)

September 13, 2016         Picture: Goran Tomasevic/Reuters.

This article is part of The Critique’s September/October 2016 Issue “The Bright Continent: Illuminating The Challenges, Opportunities & Promises Of A Rising Africa”.


Many Western political thinkers and leaders have argued that the idea of liberal democracy, or perhaps, as it is practiced in the West, represents the best form of government. As such, many Western countries believe that they have an obligation, as an aspect of their foreign policy, to spread this ideal to non-democratic African states, or require and pressure them to adopt liberal democratic principles. They argue that liberal democracy would solve many of the problems in African states, which include lack of economic development, corruption, and national integration, in terms of harmonizing the differences among various ethnic, religious, cultural, and interest groups. The liberal principle of freedom of choice would lead to entrepreneurship, free market economy, development, and prosperity. The principles of tolerance, neutrality, and freedom of religion, conscience, and association, would allow different ethnic, religious, and cultural groups to maintain their values and cultures, and still live together harmoniously.

Moreover, the rule of law, independent judiciary, and the respect for individual rights and freedoms will ensure accountability, in terms of prosecuting and punishing corrupt leaders. Freedom of speech and the press will provide transparency, checks on the government, and make it easy to inform people of policies and unearth corrupt practices. I accept in general that the ‘idea of democracy’ is theoretically a good system of organized social living and political governance, and that some Western liberal democratic institutions and principles have some merit. However, I do not believe that the liberal variant of democracy is workable in the context of multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and anomalous ‘post’-colonial African states without major modifications and adaptations to Africa’s communal values, ethos, and traditions. In this essay, I examine the historical colonial antecedents of the problems facing African states, and also why liberal democratic principles cannot address them.


African Condition, Problems, and Colonial Legacy

The justification for liberal democracy involves the idea of preserving individuals’ autonomy, and the right or freedom to make personal choices regarding how to lead their lives. As such, adopting liberal democracy is seen as a normative imperative, the hallmark and measure of civilization, modernization, and development for African states. However, liberal democracy and its justification are founded on the idea of extreme possessive individualism, which is expressed in the values of autonomy, individual rights, negative freedom, privacy, capitalism, and free market. The question is how this foundation might justify the adoption of liberal democracy in Africa. To address this, I might highlight that one unique feature of African states that has created problems for good democratic governance is the fact that they were colonized by Europe. African states are the patchwork of artificial creations, which consisted of groups of people that were put together during the Berlin Conference of 1884-85, for the scramble, partition, and colonization of Africa.

Prior to colonization, African people lived in communities of homogeneous cultural and ethnic groups. People identified with their respective native cultural or ethnic groups. But colonialism lumped together many incongruous cultures, religions, and ethnic groups of people into an amorphous country under a single colonial government. By dividing and mixing different cultures and ethnic groups into present day states, colonialism created anomalous states with the problem of now trying to integrate all the incongruous groups into a unified state with common normative, political, moral, and social structures. The differences in ethnicity and culture within these (post) colonial states have resulted in constant, and sometimes, irreconcilable conflicts in people’s needs and interests that sometimes reflect their ethnic allegiance and cultural or religious views or values.

This problem is illustrated by the violent ethnic/religious conflicts over the adoption of Sharia law in some states in Nigeria, the Boko Haram terrorism or insurgency in Nigeria, the ethnic/racial genocide of Black Sudanese in Darfur, Sudan, and the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic genocide in Rwanda. These issues involve elements of religious conflicts between Islam and Christianity, and between tradition and modernity or Westernization, and incongruent ethnic or group interests. The structure of these colonial states, in part, has also led to bad governance, economic underdevelopment, mass corruption, and class or hegemonic conflicts between the powerful rich, and disaffected poor who resort to crimes as a means to survival. This situation has made it difficult to have an effective central national government and good governance. This makes it difficult to formulate policies that can unify and adequately meet the common needs and interests of these different groups. Politics and policies have been motivated by and have reflected these different ethnic biases and interests, and not national interests. This is because many people owe allegiance to their ethnic cultural groups, but not ‘their’ colonially imposed countries: Cameroon, Congo, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and Rwanda, which are anomalous entities artificially created by Europe for colonial and imperialistic purposes.

It is against this background of difficulty with national integration, citizenship, and patriotism that P. P. Ekeh said that “Thomas Hodgkin was right when he reminded Biobaku: ‘Everyone recognizes that the notion of ‘being a Nigerian’ is a new kind of conception’”.[1] African states have not been able to forge the normative basis and social structures to achieve national integration, citizenship, and commonality of interest or values for the purpose of maintaining democracy and good governance. This is important because most liberal democratic theories specify the need for a liberal state to be a nation-state; that is, a state with one nationality, a homogeneous culture, commonly shared values, common history or heritage. J.S. Mill and Immanuel Kant argue that a commonality of nationality, culture, or heritage is necessary for social unity, citizenship, and solidarity in a liberal democratic state.[2] Some liberal theorists insist that if such a nation-state does not pre-exist, a state must create a common culture or value system by a process of integration and assimilation. However, if this is not possible, some groups must be allowed to secede.

The implication is that liberal democracy cannot, or is unlikely to succeed in multi-ethnic, multinational, multi-religious, and multi-cultural states, because the feelings of national identity and social unity can derive only from the possession of a common history, heritage, culture, values, and recollection of their collective pride. Kant insists that liberal democracy must involve a patriotic government, where all the citizens view the state or commonwealth as their collective mother’s womb or father’s land from which they came, which they have an obligation to leave to their descendants as a treasured legacy.[3] This requires citizens to see themselves as having a stake in the state and acting dutifully to preserve it as a legacy. It appears that these liberal democratic principles do not appreciate the role that differences in ethnic identities and group interests play in political choices, interests, or formulation of public policies, and the problems that such differences could create for a state.

As Kymlicka indicates, Europeans learned liberal principles and theories, and then went to the colonies with the hope of transplanting those principles, but they “were faced with a set of issues regarding minority rights that they were unprepared to deal with.”[4] Colonialists realized that the problem of national integration in African multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious states cannot be addressed by the imported and transplanted colonial social structures of liberal democracy and statehood. As Kymlicka observed,

“liberals who went to administer or study British colonies found that the liberalism they learned in England simply did not address some of the issues of cultural diversity they faced. … English liberals were constantly confronted with the fact that liberal institutions which worked in England did not work in multination states. It quickly became clear that many English liberal institutions were as much English as liberal—that is, they were only appropriate for a (relatively) ethnically and racially homogeneous society such as England.”[5]

Colonialists made efforts to forcibly integrate or assimilate different groups or undermine their ethnic or cultural identities and sentiments to create unified colonial states. Such efforts failed and this has created the problem of national integration and other issues that we see in African states today.

This problem is manifested in the domination or undermining of the minority cultural and ethnic groups by the majority groups, which has culminated in ethnic conflicts, civil wars, revolutions, corruption, and prevented the proper formulation and execution of public policies. This raises the question of whether liberal democracy is the best form of government that can adequately address the problems of divergent interests and views that multi-cultural and multi-ethnic groups pose for African states. Since their ‘supposed’ independence, African states have been making futile efforts to forge national integration as a basis for democratic and good governance. Some states have had an endless circle of ‘attempted’ democratic governance and failures, which have precipitated, or have been caused by, military coups. One reason for the failures of these attempts at democracy and incessant coups is that when a person from one ethnic group is a leader, people in other groups may frustrate his efforts and use various means, including military coup, to overthrow him to enable someone in their own ethnic group(s) to take over power. As such, the history of democracy in Africa has been tenuous; it has not taken a firm hold in any meaningful sense.

Apart from the military interventions that have prevented the firm hold of democracy, African states have not been able to articulate an adequate theory of democratic governance that is best suited to their conditions, values, and social-cultural structures. Current social and political structures in Africa are ill equipped to accommodate and sustain liberal democratic principles and structures, partly because colonialism has had enduring and overwhelming social structures. They have modified or destroyed the preexisting traditional African social and political structures, and bastardized the attitudes and values of many African people toward the government. However, one might argue that it is unreasonable to blame colonialism for the problem of bad governance in African today because colonialism disappeared from Africa more than fifty years ago. African states and people have been independent and have ruled themselves for that long; they have had abundant opportunity and time to change the effects of colonialism, and institute good governance that will help their economic and political fortunes.

However, this argument fails to appreciate the following: first, that the independence of African states has been nominal, because their politics and economy, in terms of policies, principles, and institutions are tied to the West and operate in their behest; and second, the real nature of colonialism, its enduring structures and ethos, and their overwhelming effects on people’s mentality and attitudes. According to Ekeh, colonialism must be seen, not as a passing event, but a situation that came into existence by the confrontational and incompatible relationships “between the elements of European culture and of indigenous culture.”[6] What exists in Africa today is an anomalous hybrid ethos of the conflicting European colonial individualistic and African communal values that have not been able to provide the normative basis for a state. This colonial situation engendered social formations, constructs, structures, ‘alienated’ psyches, mentality and attitudes, which have had enduring significance beyond the life span of the actual colonial period, and are still active today.

Colonialism did not terminate abruptly in one year and its structures never disappeared; their effects have been enduring and overpowering. So, the notion of ‘post- or neo-colonialism’ does not make sense. I am not suggesting that colonialism is the only cause of Africa’s problems, or that colonialism justifies Africans’ attitudes, such that they are not blameworthy. However, this factor must be taken into consideration in order to explain or understand the behavior of Africans and to address their problems. Obviously, Africans must be blamed for not appreciating these colonial factors in order to take the proper steps to eliminate them, or attenuate or obviate their negative effects. These factors have been analyzed by Ekeh, in terms of the three social structures of colonialism: emergent, transformed, and migrated..[7]

The emergent social structures are those structures that were not indigenous to Africa, and were not brought from Europe. They were generated by the colonial situation and may be analogous to some structures in the West. They have a logic of their own that makes them peculiar to the situation created by colonialism; thus these structures have their own distinct and unique social and political identities. Ethnic sentiments in state affairs are one example; they did not exist prior to colonialism because statehood did not exist. The transformed social structures are the indigenous pre-colonial institutions that were transformed to operate within the context of colonialism and the new social structures it created. Such transformation resulted in the destruction of the moral and social order within which the indigenous institutions operated. For instance, traditional rulers had new powers that were incongruent with or not anchored in the original pre-existing traditional moral, social, and cultural strictures that engendered accountability. Wiredu, among others, observes that African traditional systems of governance were, for the most part, consensus democracies with accountability.[8] Such systems and their underlying social-cultural communal norms, moral values, and attitudes were destroyed or significantly modified, and stripped of their efficacy.


“Ethnic sentiments in state affairs did not exist prior to colonialism because statehood did not exist”.


Migrated social structures are those structures that were brought wholesale in their original forms from imperial Europe to, and juxtaposed on, the colonized countries of Africa. Examples of such structures are majoritarian democracy, party system, statehood, the rule of law, the press, liberalism, and state bureaucracy, all with their peculiar Western connotations and features. These structures came without their moral and social foundations to a totally different African context and then acquired unique forms of social existence. As Ekeh indicates, “the European organizational pieces that came to us were virtually disembodied of their moral contents, of their substratum of implicating ethics. And yet the imported models were never engrafted onto any existing indigenous morality.”[9] The imported structures of statehood and liberal democracy have had organizational immobility, in that they cannot, and have not, thus far, been adaptable to the African communal situation. The indigenous morality, which is fundamentally communal, is opposed to the fundamentally Western liberal morality, which is based on the sanctity of individual autonomy, freedom, and rights.


African Communal Traditions and Liberal Democratic Principles

Traditional African communal principles, values, and ethos are rooted in the fact of a people with common cultural or ethnic identity, values, aspirations, and beliefs, living together and organizing aspects of their lives cooperatively. This idea emphasizes the priority of the community as the foundation for individual goals and interests; it stresses the priority of responsibility over rights, and it emphasizes the need for caring and concern for others. It implies that individuals have the obligation to internalize, rely on, and acquire communal virtues that are manifested in their character and behaviors. Such behaviors seek to promote the values of harmonious living, supportive and friendly relationships, positive sense of identity, solidarity, and mutuality. These values create the conditions that help individuals to develop the virtues that make it possible for them to choose a reasonable life plan that will lead to their well-being within the communal context of harmonious living.

It is a commonplace view that African traditions are communal, but there are issues regarding what communalism involves. It involves a social-political, moral, epistemological, and metaphysical idea involving how to live harmoniously and cooperatively based on shared kinship, aspirations, identity, culture, values, beliefs, and interests. Menkiti’s ideas of and distinction between constituted and collectivist community might illuminate the idea of communalism.[10] A collectivist community is a random collection of individuals who choose voluntarily to be part of a state. A constituted community is a complex organic group of people, relationships, values, cultural traditions, interests, and obligations that transcend individuals or their simple collectivity. It is not reducible simply to the individuals and elements that make it up, because it is not the simple addition of the individuals and institutions. It has transcendent social and moral values and relationships that mold individuals’ identity, character, conception of good, preferences, choices, and actions. These values provide the basis for integrating and constituting individuals into communal harmonious living for individuals’ well-being.

This idea of a constituted community, which involves integrating people into a community, is instructive for the efforts by African states to achieve national integration. The moral, social, and political dimensions of communalism or a constituted idea of community imply that the interests, needs, well-being, and policies of a community or state have some degree of dependence on and support for those of individuals, and vice versa. Notably, communal well-being and interests do not supersede or undermine those of individuals or their autonomy, rather, they are coextensive and mutually supportive. The community provides the options of goods, life plans, and opportunities from among which one can choose freely. Thus, the community enhances and expands the scope of substantive choices and also makes them meaningful or valuable. It is pertinent to indicate that my use of ‘communalism’ is not meant to be a monolithic anthropological description of African cultures. It may not be descriptively true of all African cultures, but it is true of a significant many. Where it is true of some, it does not have the same manifested features; usually, they are manifested differently and in various degrees. However, these features or practices would have ‘family resemblances’.

Moreover, my use of ‘African communalism’ is an attempt to reconstruct, philosophically, an idea that captures the resemblances among beliefs, values, and ways of life in traditional societies. It is a plausible philosophical normative position regarding how African thoughts, beliefs, values, and practices ought to be understood. It is a normative prescription for how African states ought to organize their lives socially and politically, and a standard for evaluating the quality of social and political life or organization. This standard recognizes that individuals’ well-being, lives, and free choices depend on communal caring, common good, solidarity, and harmony, and vice versa. In fact, the idea of the need for communal living for persons is represented linguistically in different African cultural groups. In Bantu, it is Ubuntu; it is Unhu in Shona in Zimbabwe, Botho in Tswana of Botswana, and it is captured in Kiswahili’s by the concept of Harambee, and Nyerere captures it by using the idea of Ujamaa.

Metz (among others) articulates the ethics of Ubuntu as the following principle:

“An action is right just insofar as it promotes shared identity among people grounded on good-will; an act is wrong to the extent that it fails to do so and tends to encourage the opposite of division and ill-will.”[11]

This is a responsibility-based ethics that is predicated on the value of promoting common good and harmony in communal relationships and living, as opposed to a liberal right-based ethics that is predicated on the principles of individualism, rights, and autonomy. These liberal principles and values imply that there are only individual rights and they emphasize the priority of individual choices, needs, interests, and identity as atomic individuals who are independent of their cultural, ethnic or religious groups.

In this sense, liberal principles seem to ignore the existence of collective, ethnic, cultural or group rights. They also fail to appreciate how individuals’ identity and choices are defined and shaped by their communal groups, into which individuals are integrated and constituted. The focus on individual rights, autonomy, and freedom, involves a negative conception requiring non-interference and being left alone. This view also implies the negative attitude of tolerance, which is prescribed by liberalism as a way for individuals to maintain non-interference in their relationships, and to preserve individual freedom and autonomy. Based on this focus, liberalism ignores positive freedom, which involves the social-cultural conditions and facilities that will enable one to make substantive choices for one’s life and well-being. The problem with the negative idea of freedom is that it does not appreciate that it is the culture, community, and group that one belongs to that provide the positive conditions for one’s meaningful choices and ability to achieve one’s well-being. Ethnic identity, solidarity, and group interests indicate a positive freedom that shapes African people’s attitudes, preferences, and interests.

The relevant question now is, which liberal democratic principle can address the problem of cultural, ethnic, and religions differences? Let me examine one approach suggested by liberalism, which is the idea or practice of tolerance. It involves the following:


(1) X (the tolerator) finds Y’s (the tolerated) belief or view to be objectionable.

(2) X has the power to repress Y’s belief or view.

(3) X refrains from doing so, but instead, puts up with Y’s belief or view.


This idea of tolerance involves both the negative attitude of disapproval and the passive attitude of restraint. In a political sense, it is sometimes couched in terms of neutrality, which means that the state should not favor, support, or repress any religious, cultural or ethnic group or their beliefs or values. This implies that individuals must not use state’s power to repress what they find objectionable or to impose any value, view, or belief on people. Political neutrality is seen as one essential condition for tolerance, in that if a state indicates that there are no state’s favored values or beliefs, and that state’s power cannot be used to impose any belief, then people are more likely to be tolerant of or put up with other people’s values or beliefs. How plausible is this attitude of tolerance for addressing the problems of religious, ethnic, and cultural differences and conflicts in Africa?

Perhaps, not plausible! This is because tolerance involves how people can coexist with each other in their differences within a generally accepted set of values or principles. This requires a conscious and voluntary decision to disapprove of, but to, within generally accepted principles, put up with and refrain from repressing disliked ideas, values or beliefs. The idea of tolerance gives priority to the value of the tolerator, in terms of what to disapprove of and tolerate. As such, tolerance does not engender horizontal relationships of equality, and the positive and active attitudes of mutuality and solidarity. It also does not require the critical examination of the tolerator’s own beliefs, values or views, on the basis of which she disapproves, and the rational engagement of those of the people or groups that are tolerated. Tolerance does not require a tolerator to take seriously, understand, and appreciate the perspectives of the tolerated or consider the reasonableness or adequacy of these perspectives. As such, it cannot engender democratic competition among plurality of values, views, or beliefs and their critical examination, in order to achieve some consensus regarding what is acceptable and unacceptable.

In the absence of rational engagement and critical examination, both the tolerator and tolerated are given the false impression that their values are, in some sense, acceptable. The idea of tolerance allows people to be ‘stuck in their beliefs’ instead of critical reflection and change, as long as their beliefs are tolerated and they are tolerant of others. Moreover, the tolerated is supposed to be satisfied or soothed by being merely tolerated. The tolerator’s attitude of forbearance is deemed praiseworthy only because there is a misplaced emphasis on the passive restraint from acting on one’s disapproval. This passive attitude of restraint requires one to see the other’s idea, value or belief, at best, as something that one may simply put up with, ignore, and at the very worst, something that should be quietly dominated, repressed, or done away with.

Perhaps, the better attitudes might be mutual acceptance, respect, and recognition, which involve giving equal and full participation to all in the competition among beliefs, ideas, and values in order to achieve a synthesis or consensus regarding ideas and views that could engender and sustain national integration. The fact that one has forbearance or has not acted on one’s disapproval does not vitiate the force of the disapproval or what is sometimes an illegitimate reason for disapproving. The perceived honorific idea of tolerance is used as an excuse for not adopting the proper attitudes of (1) respect, acceptance, and recognition, and (2) the positive, active, rational, and critical attitudes of engagement.

Liberal theories justify and bolster the idea and attitude of tolerance by making the distinction between the public realm and private realm. They argue that the practice of tolerance applies to individual relationships and interactions involving religious and cultural issues in the private realm. However, the state’s neutrality applies to these issues in the public realm; state power does not apply in the private realm to activities and issues involving family, ethnicity, religion, community, and cultural beliefs and values. This distinction characterizes the nature, limits, and scope of state power or the applicable principles in each realm. As Okin indicates, “Distinctions between public and private have played a crucial role especially in liberal theory, ‘the private’ being used to refer to a sphere or spheres of social life in which intrusion or interference with freedom requires special justification, and ‘the public’ to refer to a sphere or spheres regarded as more generally or more justifiably accessible.”[12]

This distinction has descriptive and normative connotations.[13] In a descriptive sense, these spheres indicate the different ontological spaces and dimensions of people’s lives that indicate what people have access to, what interests they may pursue, and where. The normative connotation involves the set of principles or values that prescribe how people ought to behave in different realms, spaces, and dimensions. Based on this distinction, liberal theories suggest that communal values apply in the private realm, while liberal values apply in the public realm. Such liberal values and attitudes include justice, equality, sense of fairness, reasonableness, public opinion, mutual respect, tolerance, willingness to negotiate, compromise, and provide acceptable justification. The public realm is political and characterized by the exclusive use of force; it is the realm that constitutes the affairs of the state.

This distinction is captured by John Locke’s characterization of ‘paternal’ and ‘political’ power, and their spheres of reference.[14] Paternal power is utilized by a man in the private realm of his household or family as: father, husband, and master. Political power is utilized by a ruler of a commonwealth with respect to his relations with citizens regarding state affairs; such power cannot be used in the private realm. Because this distinction specifies the private realm as the space where state’s intrusion either is forbidden or requires special justification, it is used to argue against state’s interference with certain individual freedoms and rights. It is pertinent to indicate that the problem of the conflicts between various multi-ethnic groups and religions in African states is not how one ethnic or religious group can tolerate the other in the context of existing principles that separate and operate in the public and private realms. Rather, the problem is that such principles do not exist in African states.

The liberal idea of religious tolerance was easy among Christian denominations in the homogeneous European Christian cultural, ethnic, nation-states. It is more difficult for the Christian majority to be tolerant of some Islamic religious practice of, say, polygamy, and other different religious practices, beliefs, or values. In response to this issue of polygamy, many Western liberal democracies have legally forbidden polygamy and imposed monogamy on everyone including the minorities who practice other religions and forms of marriage. Similarly, some Muslim minorities in Europe have problems tolerating some Christian and European cultural and liberal principles. However, they don’t have the political power to legally impose any practice on the majority.

In some African states, the majority Muslims have tried to impose their Islamic religion on other minorities. This is illustrated by the efforts of some Northern Nigerian states to adopt Sharia law or Nigeria’s attempt to join the Organization of Islamic states (OIC). With this problem, it is not feasible for some ethnic, cultural, or religious groups in African states to secede and form independent states, because, among other things, they are not economically viable. Moreover, the structures left behind by colonialism do not provide the appropriate means for addressing secession. Efforts to secede have led to civil wars, such as the Nigerian-Biafra war, and political instability. For various reasons, it has been impossible for states to assimilate, integrate, dominate or repress different ethnic groups. It is the effort by one ethnic group to try to dominate or get rid of another that led to the Rwanda Tutsi-Hutu genocide [See Kassner for more on the philosophical lessons of the Rwandan genocide]. The conflicting demands and needs of different cultural and ethnic groups in African states have made horizontal integration or mutual coexistence elusive.

The application of the distinction between the private and public realms in African states has, in part, culminated in various problems, such as corruption. This kind of distinction, according to Ekeh, created the phenomenon of ‘two publics’: the civic public and primordial public and two different corresponding moral attitudes or values [15]. Africans see communal values and morality as applicable only in the primordial public of cultural and ethnic affairs, but not in the civic public of state and political affairs. People do not think that morality applies at all in the civic public, partly because they do not have any interest in, or allegiance to, the perceived colonial states. Hence, government officials can embezzle public funds with impunity, and people accept such behaviors, which will rarely be accepted in the primordial public. When politicians steal public funds and use them to help their communities, they are applauded. This situation raises the issue of the prospects of liberal democracy in Africa. In this regard, the question is not which of the cultural values individuals should adopt in the private realm, or whether people are tolerant of others’ ethnic, cultural, or religious differences. Rather, the question is whether elements of communalism can be adopted in the political public realm as the normative basis for democracy.


Blending Liberal Democracy and African Communal Principles

Some African political philosophers have addressed the issue of the nature of the communal values that African states should adopt as the basis for state, government institutions and structures, political culture, policies, and laws. Perhaps, they might be able to borrow from the views of some liberal theories that argue that liberal democratic values and principles are applicable to multi-religious, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural states. These theories suggest that democratic principles can be used as a basis for creating democratic citizenship, democratic inclusion, and national integration. Will Kymlicka and Charles Taylor argue that liberal democratic theory can accommodate multi-ethnic and multi-religious values and preserve group rights.[16] They argue that individual rights or interests are meaningful only if liberal democracy is able to achieve peace and harmony by recognizing and preserving certain group or ethnic rights and interests. According to Kymlicka’s characterizations, many African states are multi-national, in that they consist of groups of people that have a national or ethnic homeland, but become involuntarily part of an artificial larger state by colonial imposition or conquest.

Kymlicka identifies two kinds of rights that such national or ethnic groups can reasonably have in a liberal democracy. They are: (1) the right of special or adequate representation, and (2) the rights to political autonomy, territorial jurisdiction, self-governance, and self-determination.[17] The first provides a special system that allows minorities to be represented such that their interests, cultures, values, and beliefs are protected and promoted. The second allows different groups to independently govern themselves and have territorial autonomy that will help them to develop and maintain their cultural identities, traditions, values, beliefs, and interests. One way to ensure this is some kind of confederation or federation. Its efficacy depends on how it is adopted, the nature of the democratic or representational formula, who holds power, the nature, and amount of power in the central government. In many African states, federalism has not worked because of the unsatisfactory formula of revenue allocation, the majoritarianism in central government and inadequate representation that allows the minority to be outvoted by the majority, and the fact that some ethnic groups have dominated power in central government.

Taylor articulates the idea of a ‘politics of recognition’, which allows liberal democratic states to recognize, politically, in the public realm, forms of identity, as well as cultural or ethnic differences.[18] He argues that such recognition is important because it enhances people’s identity, how people understand who they are, and their interests, which are based on their values, religious beliefs, cultural or ethnic affiliation. One’s feeling of well-being depends on whether one is appropriately recognized; non-recognition or mis-recognition can inflict harm, constitute a form of oppression, and give one a false, distorted, and diminished sense of self and well-being. This implies that personhood or identity is not just, according to the liberal view, based on an atomic self that is removed from his ethnicity, and his communal, culture, values, beliefs, interests, and relationships. Rather, it is embedded in the material conditions of one’s community, ethnicity, and culture. Recognizing this embedded personhood or identity and one’s material conditions is a plausible way to create a sense of harmony, national integration, and common good in a liberal democratic state. Adequate recognition of ethnic, religious, and cultural groups has been lacking in many African states partly because no proper normative structures exist for it. The issue is how to adapt and adopt these ideas to African states.

Some African philosophers argue that the traditional idea of communalism might provide the normative foundation for the democratic structures that could engender the prospects of good democratic governance in Africa. African communal values could also engender adequate democratic representation of cultures and groups, and territorial autonomy. This might engender the recognition of individuals and their cultural and ethnic identity, which could enhance one’s sense of self-worth, identity, solidarity, and one’s ability to make choices, and lead good lives in harmony. Communal principles, values, and practices might provide the practical normative bases for states to build democratic political, legal, and social institutions that could promote the spirit or values of caring, mutuality, consensus, and the sharing of political and economic power. This communal idea would provide the basis for unifying the different groups and helping them to live together harmoniously with a common interest. The process of integrating different people to accepting common interests and values is necessary for forging social unity and good democratic governance. This will help African states to achieve national integration within a (multi)ethnic, cultural, religious framework, without one group dominating the others or denying them their fundamental group rights.

The central idea is that in order for democracy to succeed in African states, it must be strongly engrafted to the communal norms, values, culture, and structures that people are familiar with and attitudes they already have. It is pertinent to note that significant elements of traditional communal values and attitudes still exist today and have powerful sway in people’s thinking. This point is bolstered as follows by Sogolo:

“Some of the social and political ideals, freedom, democracy, equality, justice, etc., which we [Africans] now seek to attain are intrinsically part of our traditional African social structures and that what we need are suitable institutions for realizing these virtues. This consideration seems to guide the minds of African thinkers in their search for viable social and political frameworks”.[19]

What is the nature of these traditional African social and political structures? Are they still viable today to sustain the ideals and practice of democratic governance? Moreover, which system(s), institutions, or features of democracy are best suited for the African situation? Is it liberal, libertarian, republican, communitarian (communal), social welfare, egalitarian, or socialist democracy? What is the best or feasible decision-making procedure: majority rule, consensus, or unanimous democracy? What is the best mechanism for acquiring power or organizing and slating candidates in a democracy: one-party, two-party, multi-party, or non-party democracy, or some hybrid?

One must distinguish theoretically between the idea of ‘democracy’ and a system of ‘political parties’. Political parties are only a handy mechanism for organizing and providing slates of candidates from which citizens may choose. A democratic government can function without political parties; the democracies in Greek city-states did not have political parties. It is difficult to say, intuitively, whether one system of political parties is better than another, or whether a democracy necessarily needs a political party. This is a practical issue that depends on a society’s political structures and values. Some democracies have a one-party, two-party, multi-party, or plausibly, a non-party system.


“In order for democracy to succeed in African states, it must be strongly engrafted to the communal norms, values, culture, and structures that people are familiar with and attitudes they already have”. 


African philosophers such as Ani (2014) and Ramose (1999) have argued that African states cannot achieve its desired democratic outcomes based on the Western liberal democratic decision-making procedures of majority rule and multi-party system.[20] They argue that one plausible procedure for achieving these outcomes is consensual democracy. Wiredu has argued in favor of a non-party system as the most reasonable condition for consensual decision-making that will achieve the relevant democratic outcomes in Africa.[21] He indicates that the African communal traditional system of decision-making was not only a consensual democracy, but it also had a non-party system and other relevant structures, values, and attitudes that supported the practice. In a consensual democracy, those who oppose a policy are willing to negotiate and make comprises. They are willing to take the proverbial attitude of ‘not allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good’, in that they are able to accept a policy as reasonable even when it is not the best that they would have wanted.

In Wiredu’s view, communalism indicates that, “ultimately all individuals share a common interest, and this constitutes that natural basis for the possibility of conflict resolution” and that such “resolution will usually be achieved through the mutual pruning down of interests for the sake of harmony.”[22] Such decision-making procedure that is based on the communal tradition will enable states to prune down divergent interests and views in order to achieve the democratic outcomes of harmony and national integration. The harmony that derives from the molding of consensus can be achieved only if and when there are no political parties. This is essential for a non-acrimonious democratic sharing of political power and policy-making. When the party system is juxtaposed on the liberal democratic principles of individual rights and freedom, it engenders individualized and divergent interests, feelings, and attitudes. In Wiredu’s view, such “divergent interests arising out of individualized thought and feeling will lead to conflict in society.”[23] Wiredu criticizes the adversarial and divisive multi-party system as lacking the mechanism for pruning down divergent interests and converging them into a harmonious consensus.

When such mechanisms are lacking, we end up with a “system characterized by an organized and highly competitive struggle for power or in the interests of power.”[24] Political parties are inherently divisive and meant to be adversarial because they are based on different, and sometimes, opposing political interests and views on how to govern. Each party wants to convince citizens regarding why its views ought to be adopted, as opposed to the other party’s view. This creates rancor, hostility, and acrimony between the winning and losing party, and the alienation and exclusion of the losing party. This problem is acute in Africa because the moral and social foundations for democracy such as “those finely designed parliamentary palliatives, which in the United States or the United Kingdom, for instance do mollify the opposition to some extent are in Africa often nonexistent, or equivalently, existent only on paper.”[25] Usually, the moral basis, attitudes, and regulatory structures such as the rule of law, independent judiciary, and free press that enhance accountability in the West are nonexistent in Africa.

The consequence is that people lack the moral foundation to guide their political attitudes and formulate policies that will match the expectations of good democratic governance. In general, people do not have a sense of what good democratic governance involves and why there is a need for it in a supposedly anomalous state that they have no allegiance to or patriotism towards. Sadly, political leaders do not have the correct motivation for holding office or an idea of what ‘service’ means normatively in ‘public service’. They go into public service for their own selfish interests, and they do not feel they have a stake in or have a sense of responsibility or accountability towards the state or citizens. Because of a lack of political and democratic education, citizens do not know what to expect and require of their political leaders in terms of accountability, or what their rights and responsibilities are.

Although Western systems of liberal, party, and majoritarian democracy are alien to Africa, democratic and good democratic governance are not. They existed in some forms in various kingdoms and communities that now make up current African states. Wiredu indicates that the political systems in many traditional African societies were democratic because “the government was by the consent, and subject of the control, of the people as expressed through their representatives.”[26] Moreover, he says that, “in principle citizens have a say, first in the question of who would exercise power over them, and the second, in the issue of what specific policies were to be implemented in the town, and derivatively, in the state and nation.”[27] Many African traditional governments required people’s participation or involvement in the process of decision-making, either directly or indirectly.

However, in response to this view, some argue that African traditional governance system was authoritarian and theocratic. This is debatable. Maybe some were, but it is a matter of degree. These traditional systems were not absolutely authoritarian because the leaders were sensitive to the will of the people, common good, and communal harmony. For instance, the King had a governing council that consisted of representatives or chiefs from different communities or villages, many of whom were elected or selected by the villagers. The chiefs usually sought the input of their village kinfolks. In some societies, the King’s or chief’s position was hereditary; but in spite of the heredity, they were accountable because many thought that their positions were held in trust for the people. When rulers lost their people’s trust and confidence, either they abdicated their positions voluntarily or were exiled. In extreme cases, some committed suicide to atone for their betrayal of their people’s trust. Such system of governance and the underlying moral structures, which indicated the practice of good governance were not, or have not been, carried over to the current African states.

This traditional African system met the normative criteria of good democratic governance because it relied on the will and consent of the people, its policies were for the common good, and the rulers had accountability, and checks and balance. As Sogolo indicates, even if it was the case that the African traditional systems were authoritarian, he insists that, “the past of African politics was far more decent than what exists today.”[28] Apparently, African political past or traditional system required rulers to be responsible, accountable, and to make policies or decisions that were sensitive to communal harmony, the needs and interests of the people, and the common good. However, the politics and governments in Africa today have not satisfied the standards of good governance. The pertinent issue now is, whether these traditional African structures are (1) retrievable from the past, and (2) transferable to current African states. Many African philosophers say, ‘yes’ to both questions.

However, this idea of retrieving traditional African governance and communal political structures in the form of non-party system and consensual democracy has been criticized. For instance, Emmanuel Eze argues that many dictatorial rulers flourished under these traditional African structures and still flourish today in the guise of seeking unity and consensus. This idea of consensus has been exploited by many African leaders to justify their totalitarian rule.[29] Wiredu also suggests that many African leaders were aware of the divisiveness, hostility, and acrimony that a multi-party competition would generate. As such, they used this in the sixties and seventies as the ground for advocating a one-party system of government that eventually led to autocratic rule.[30] I must indicate, however, that any system can be misappropriated. The idea of democratic election has been misused by some authoritarian leaders like Putin in Russia, among others. Was this the case with African leaders that became authoritarian? Does the apparent misappropriation of African traditions by leaders have anything to do with the system itself or was it simply abused and then used as an excuse for bad or totalitarian governance?

Regarding the suggestion to adapt traditional African structures in the form of a non-party and consensual democratic system, Metz quipped critically by asking: “What would that look like?”[31] One might respond to this critical jab by saying that a political party is not logically necessary for good democratic government, although it has practical usefulness in some cases. Moreover, the idea of not voting for political parties is not new. This is similar to the idea of a single transferable vote or preferential voting. It involves two ideas: (1) voting directly for individuals instead of political parties or their slate of candidates, thus avoiding the need for political parties, and (2) electing candidates for the purpose of proportional or adequate representation of all interests and constituencies. This idea is worth exploring and adapting to the African situation because of the problems of corrupt parties, adversarial and acrimonious multi-party system, and inadequate proportional representations of various group interests.



Given that the value of individual autonomy is the normative basis for liberal democracy, one may argue that liberal democracy is not applicable to current African states with the existing multi-ethnic, cultural, and religious groups. Moreover, liberal democratic institutions and practices have been adopted in some African states in their skeletal forms in a ‘disembodied state’ without their necessary ‘flesh and blood’, in term of the normative, social, and moral structures and values which sustain them in the West. As such, African philosophers and leaders must seek to adopt a democratic system that is suited for Africa’s unique problems and conditions. Such a system in my view, must meet the following adequacy conditions: (1) its principles, structures, and practices must be based on values and ethos that are consistent with traditional African communal values. Such structures and values will provide the foundation onto which democratic institutions and practices can be engrafted. (2) It must address the problems of economic development, ethnic and religious differences, and national integration.

Footnotes & References

[1.] P. P. Ekeh, Colonialism and Social Structure. An Inaugural Lecture (Ibadan: University of Ibadan Press, 1983), 20.

[2.] J. S. Mill, Utilitarianism, Liberty, Representative Government, ed. H. Acton (London: J.M. Dent, 1972), pp. 230-233, 360. Immanuel Kant, Kant’s Political Writings, edited by Hans Reiss and translated by H. B. Nisbett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 73-74.

[3.] Kant, op. cit., 73-74.

[4.] Will Kymlick, Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 55.

[5.] Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship, op. cit., 54-55.

[6.] Ekeh, Colonialism and Social Structure, op. cit., 4.

[7.] Ekeh, Colonialism and Social Structure, op. cit., 11-13.

[8.] Kwasi Wiredu, Cultural Universals and Particulars: An African Perspective (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 173.

[9.] Ekeh, Colonialism and Social Structure, op. cit., 17

[10.] Ifeanyi Menkiti, “Person and Community in African Traditional Thought,” in African Philosophy: An Introduction, ed. Richard A. Wright (New York: University Press of America 1984) 179-180.

[11.] Thaddeus Metz, “Toward an African Moral Theory,” The Journal of Political Philosophy, vol. 15 (3), 2007, 338.

[12.] Susan Moller Okin, Justice, Gender, and the Family (New York: Basic Books, Inc, 1989), 8.

[13.] For a discussion of the descriptive and normative or prescriptive senses of the ‘private’ and ‘public’, see Stanley I. Benn and Gerald F. Gaus, “The Public and the Private: Concepts and Actions,” Public and Private in Social Life, eds. Stanley I. Benn and Gerald F. Gaus (New York: St. Martin Press, 1983), 11-13.

[14.] John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, ed. C. B. Macpherson (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1980), 7.

[15.] Ekeh, Colonialism and Social Structure, op. cit., 14.

[16.] Kymlick, Multicultural Citizenship, op. cit. Charles Taylor “The Politics of Recognition,” in Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition, ed. Amy Gutmann (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 25-73.

[17.] Kymlick, Multicultural Citizenship, 27-33.

[18.] Taylor, “The Politics of Recognition,” op. cit., 25-73.

[19.] Godwin Sogolo, Foundations of African Philosophy (Ibadan, Nigeria: University of Ibadan Press, 1993), 193.

[20.] Emmanuel Ani, “On Traditional Consensus Rationality,” Journal of Political Philosophy, Vol. 22, 2014, 342-65. Mogobe Ramose, African Philosophy Through Ubuntu (Harare: Mond Books, 1999).

[21.] Wiredu, Cultural Universals and Particulars, op. cit., 173.

[22.] Wiredu, Cultural Universals and Particulars, op. cit., 179.

[23.] Wiredu, Cultural Universals and Particulars, op. cit., 173.

[24.] Wiredu, Cultural Universals and Particulars, op. cit., 178.

[25.] Wiredu, Cultural Universals and Particulars, op. cit., 177.

[26.] Wiredu, Cultural Universals and Particulars, op. cit., 187.

[27.] Wiredu, Cultural Universals and Particulars, op. cit., 163.

[28.] Godwin Sogolo, “The Futures of Democracy & Participation in Everyday Life: The African Experience,” in Advancing Democracy and Participation Challenges For the Future, eds. B. Van Steenbergen, R. Nakarada, F. Marti, and J. Dator, eds. (Barcelona, Spain: Centre UNESCO De Catalunya, 1991), 55-59.

[29.] Emmanuel Eze, “Democracy or consensus? Response to Wiredu,” in Postcolonial African philosophy: A Critical Reader, ed. Emmmanuel Eze (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 312-315.

[30.] Wiredu, Cultural Universals and Particulars,178-179.

[31.] Thaddeus Metz, “African Political Philosophy,” in The International Encyclopedia of Ethics, ed. Hugh LaFollette (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2015), 3.

Polycarp Ikuenobe
Polycarp Ikuenobe
Polycarp Ikuenobe is a Professor of Philosophy at Kent State University. He obtained his Ph.D in philosophy at Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan, USA. He has more than thirty years of University teaching experience in Nigeria, Botswana, and the United States. His areas of teaching and research are African philosophy, Philosophy of Law, Social and Political philosophy, Moral philosophy, Informal Logic, and Critical Thinking. He has published in all these areas extensively in reputable philosophy journals and book chapters. Notably, he is the editor of six books and author of Philosophical Perspectives on Communalism and Morality in African Traditions, Lexington Books, 2006.
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