In Defence of African Democracy



Africans are waking up


One of the first things this modern media age teaches you, is to be self-conscious, but often in a conceited way. Africans are reading and consuming Western media but they don’t often like how they are portrayed. African voices are very few in the Western media, the ones that are in Western press are often dislocated from the Continent, mentally or geographically in the Diaspora. Journalists used to be embedded in nations, to make connections, to understand local culture and nuances of political discourse. Bureaus were shut down, and now you have an Africa and Middle-east editor covering 1.6 billion people and 65 countries. How can you even begin to understand the events? So we have templates for nations “Pakistan – Most Corrupt nation on Earth” or “Rwanda – Germophobic Autocratic Dictatorship with clean streets.” The Swedish Ambassador recently tweeted “if more Rwandans wrote their stories outside of the “Rwanda is Paradise/Hell” narrative. People would want to read it.” Rwanda is a country like any else, we wake up, brush our teeth and go to work like anywhere else. What is remarkable is overcoming the immense tragedies we had. Everything has to fit in this narrative of Good or Bad, we have our daily stories to tell, we don’t need Western journalists to give us a voice. The danger of a single story, like Chimamanda Adichie said, not wanting to see the shades of grey, and knowing your readers don’t know anything about Africa.


Inherent bias is the editorial line

The Washington post wrote a couple of articles that turned heads here in Rwanda, one by a Western academic and one attributed to a Rwandan. I only discovered the inherent bias at the Post recently, by analysing their coverage of Bernie Sanders. To read the Post, one would think he is the Devil-incarnate. Irrational, intransigent, irrelevant, anarchist, lunatic, demagogue, misogynist, and those are the kind ones. There is nothing Bernie can say or do that can garner praise from them, he is demonized for wanting Healthcare for all, free education, a livable wage, fair taxation, corporate responsibility, everything the Establishment at Wapo hates. I had a friend who was a reporter at a major US newspaper, one day he wrote a beautiful piece about some blind girls that had opened a fruit-selling business. Heart-wrenching stuff, overcoming personal adversity….. blah blah blah. He warned me as I read it “it won’t make it past the sub-editor.” When it came back, it had been slashed to bits, and “context” was added. HRW reports say… in an nation racked with ethnic tension… climate of fear… Congo minerals… and it bore no resemblance to the original piece about two blind girls selling mangoes. In the absence of local embedded reporters, instead of turning to local Africans, they turn to the White Academic corps to fill the void. PHD students, professors of African studies (who are never African) and the Human Right advocates – who often have an interest in painting a dark picture.


Exceptions prove the rule

So this “Scholar on Africa” Klaas writes a sweeping obituary to African democracy “Kick the Bums Out.” Firstly Africa is too big to have an expert, it is 54 countries, each is unique, and you cannot learn enough about all of them. So they are reduced to soundbites. Firstly, many Africans took exception to a white man calling their leaders bums. We have a familial perspective to our leaders, we disagree, we want change, but we also want respect. It is like you are arguing with your relative, then an outsider joins your side and insults your kin “That’s why you’re a useless piece of shit!!” Now it is a dilemma, I might disagree with my kin but you insulting him is also wrong. Africans online are always looking for Western media to reinforce our negative opinions of ourselves. African democracy is as vibrant as ever, when I was young I barely could point to a Democracy on the map of Africa. Today, around 48 out of 54 have democracy and regular handover of power. The ones that remain are ironically, Western-backed, every single one. Niger is a military government maintained by France to keep the uranium yellow-cake flowing. Cameroon, Rep of Congo, Angola, Equatorial Guinea are patronized by Big Oil. Mugabe and Zimbabwe are unique but cannot be understood without understanding colonial history and land rights. Museveni is seen as lynchpin of American policy, acting as a proxy in South Sudan, Somalia, CAR, DRC, so the West ignores a rigged election if it means status quo for their economic interests.



A Knight’s tale


There once was a righteous leader, blessed by God with a magic sword that made him invincible, he vanquished his enemies and founded a new kingdom. He founded this Kingdom on Truth and Honour, he invited all the chiefs to join him in ruling in a roundtable where all matters were resolved peacefully. King Arthur would not survive Human Rights Watch today, he’d be a despot, a dictator, and his roundtable would be a Cabal, or a Junta, or tyranny! The age of Heroes is dead,  now it is hard to mythologize yourself. Africans created these Democracies from scratch, all under the crushing burden of Structural adjustment and crippling debt. We found a way to find consensus, and this is the African way. There is this idea that our democracies should reflect capitalism, a market of ideas, competition creates a balance of power, and voters are customers buying your message. Africans need another way, a way that includes all, not one that excludes one group and they rotate. In Ubuntu everyone gets a voice, even children get a say because decision will impact them in the long term. The idea of winner-takes-all works badly in African politics, it impacts minorities and the most vulnerable, it also creates resentment and future conflict. So we need Roundtable politics, 20 years of infrastructure building and education to make our economies viable so we can have real democracy.


Many of the Western articles published on Africa are cringe-worthy, unconsciously racist, using shorthand and clichés to pigeon-hole people into neat little boxes. Africans are not the intended audience, it is the PME elites of the West, the Professional Managerial Elite. These editors went to the same schools are the academics they choose to quote, they have the same outlook, and expect the same clichés. Nevertheless, Africans do read Western pieces about their continent, we bemoan “the Africa they never show you.” A BBC correspondent once talked of filing a video report from a plush suburb of Nairobi, he was told to do it again, this time standing in front of the biggest slum in Nairobi with flies buzzing around his mouth. No one would believe it was Africa on the first report. That is the image they want to portray, flies on dung buzzing around starving kids with ET shaped heads and big bellies. This narrative of a quaint paradise or living hell is jarring. They cannot say nice things about Africa without qualifying it first. We speak of Africa like a handicapped kid, the smallest progress is amazing, and expectations of us are so low. We autocorrect all the micro-aggressions and ignore them but they become part of our psyche.  We still live in the “Heart of Darkness” but we have more sunshine than anywhere. This is a call to Western media to include more African voices, not just the ones that agree with you. We are now literate, we can tell our stories, we don’t need a white man to parachute down to say what we think. Also be aware that we read now and can see what you write about us, we want respect as people. Lastly, we are consumers, not accidental readers, advertise to us, make content for us.

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2 Responses to In Defence of African Democracy

  1. Anne says:

    Using that same analogy of one being annoyed when a family member is insulted by an outsider despite being cross with them yourself!

    I think we need to do more internal reflecting on how things can improve for many more than it is in many countries..fair look back and strategic look forward..

  2. Rose says:

    Hilariously accurate. Thanks for writing this piece

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