The illusions of electoral democracy in French speaking Africa

By Béni Bobanga Wawa

The mild democratic fever has reached almost all French-speaking African States. These States have struggled to free themselves of their former colonisers but have nevertheless, out of habit or choice, maintained their former coloniser’s political system, institutions  and laws. Democracy is that system whose infallibility, but above all indispensability, has been sold to Africans who, up to this day, endeavour to apply it as they have received it without the slightest care to adapt it to their own realities.. All in all, why take the lead when it can be as simple as copy and paste! Always young for more than half a century, African democracies are aging but not mature. The reasons are proportional to the diversity of authors who have written on the subject.

The most sensitive issues of democracy in Africa revolve around elections. At a time when other states in the world are concerned about economic development, climate change and technological development, the “African democracies” are more oriented towards constitutional adjustments and rearrangements, debates about the number and duration of presidential terms, the holding – or not – of elections within the constitutional deadlines. . Are elections synonymous with democracy? Is it limited to the choice of political leaders? Yes ! For many African states, democracy is electoral. However, the electoral democracy is a double illusion: on one hand because it makes one think that a democratic state is one in which elections are held, especially presidential and on the other hand because it may lead to the belief that in the results of these elections lie the will of the people (II).

  1. Democracy goes beyond elections

Without wishing to be misguided by academic definitions, let us remember the initial conception of the Greeks: Demos means people and Kratos means power. It is in the simplicity of this “power of the people” that we can hope to find, if not what democracy really is, at least what it can consist of. But before take-off, let us add to Greek thought, the conception of Abraham Lincoln in his famous “government of the people, by the people and for the people”.

The power of the people would undoubtedly mean that the people are the main source of power in a democracy, which they delegate to one or more individuals to lead society. Elections are therefore, in a democratic system, the way in which this delegation is realised. But what does the people actually do during an election? It chooses its leaders, so much is clear. But what is a leader? It is undoubtedly the one who is called upon to oversee the organisation of society and the interests of the individuals who compose it. He is therefore bestowed ,through elections, with a duty and / or a mission. It is precisely for this reason that he then receives the power which is nothing but a means to enable him to accomplish his arduous task. Is this enough to qualify such a system as a democracy? Certainly not.

Indeed, limiting democracy to elections means that the people lose the power they delegate. Which, of course, would tarnish the very meaning of democracy. And it is here that “by the people” seems to have all its interest. It is the people who continue to exercise their power by various means put before them. Vincent Hugeux clearly states “the election does not make democracy”. Which presupposes an effective educational system, an independent judiciary, an impartial administration, a free press, respect for minority rights and a minimum of security (physical and food). When the belly is empty, the urn rings hollow”.

Moreover, “The finality and the reason of being of democracy, is freedom”. Thus a certain number of freedoms need to be guaranteed to the people. These freedoms are the freedom to express themselves freely, to associate, to manifest and press freedom . In other words, a people whose fundamental rights are neither guaranteed nor protected, are not living in democracy.

Unfortunately, the elections have become the decision that legitimises in advance all the other decisions that occur during the exercise of elected representatives. Referendums are a rare occurrence , popular consultations on issues such as environmental issues do not exist, and at the most decentralised level, the people do not have enough space for expression or decision-making. “By the people also means” that the latter must participate in the exercise of power and this participation – should not be limited to the higher echelons of power- is essential for a “sustainable democracy”. Any democratic head of state must thus be accompanied by local representatives. When power, acquired through the ballot box, is exercised not for the good of the people but in self-interest, it is not about democracy. In principle, this must have the consequence-which at the beginning is also a goal-of the development and well-being of the country. Elections are certainly one of the fundamentals of democracy, but they are not enough to realise a democratic system. Moreover, in Africa, is votes and ballot outcome is more often than not, not a synonym.

  1. The “magic of electoral figures”

Almost all African elections held in recent years have been contested . The “truth of the ballot box” has never ceased to be demanded here and there. It is illusory to assume the ballot outcome truly reflects the will of the people.. The recent protests in the streets of Kinshasa and elsewhere in the Democratic Republic of Congo and litigation at the Congolese  Constitutional Court may be evidence of the gap between the actual choice of the people and the official ballot outcome.

Elections in Africa are often the source of violence and loss of life. Post-election violence is recorded everywhere in French-speaking Africa. In the Democratic Republic of Congo in particular, elections have always resulted in deaths and injuries. One of the biggest crises facing the continent is  the crisis of legitimacy. How can one explain that leaders elected by the people lack legitimacy in the eyes of their same people? Who holds the truth of the ballot boxes but the ballot boxes themselves? Unfortunately the ballot boxes cannot speak.

The institution of electoral commissions for the organisation of elections seemed to be a brilliant idea that would provide the solution to electoral problems. It was thought that an institution independent of the government would bring transparent and regular elections. However, these commissions are considered as being dependent on the executive power. Their transparency and neutrality is questioned. All this must lead us to re-think African democracy.

To conclude, democracy is not the magic solution to all the problems of Africa; in any case not in the form it is currently apply. Elections are not democracy. It’s an illusion to think so. Democracy carries with it an ideology of respect for the human person, first in his rights and choices, but also in his dignity. However, in Africa its use by the conservative forces seems to lead to the invention of what could be called “democratism”, that is to say “an ideology that should allow the preservation of the dominant positions acquired, in a new context, marked by the distortion of international pressure for democratic openness”. This sad reality could help – thankfully – to deepen reflection on the issue and to establish a real “education for democracy” that would teach African citizens to take an active part in the management of society and do so on a permanent basis. It must be realised that participation in the management of the city is not limited to the choice of the managers but extends much further and supposes concrete, concrete and permanent actions of the governed.

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