The incompatibility of African culture and the hyper-liberalism of democracy

By Raymond Mugisha

Traditional Africa was monarchical. Pre-colonial Africa therefore developed its socio-cultural fabric within the structure of systems that recognize the sovereignty of monarchies and strict, almost inflexible rules. Many of our traditions and practices have been encouraged, nurtured and promoted within systems of this nature.

Some of our social and cultural beliefs today still draw much from the ancient seeds of these systems. It is for this reason that many Africans feel even more passionate and emotional about their cultures and associated institutions, even more than the modern state formation to which they belong.

Their relationship with the state is sort of transactional, while their relationship with their cultural institutions is at their heart, if you can. It is thus common to encounter immense contradictions in an African who is attached to the gospel of democracy, while also being strongly attached to the edicts of his traditions. The continuum of authority and control places monarchical rule and democracy at almost extreme oppositions, for the latter form of governance espouses rule by the people.

While some African cultures may cite scattered examples of how their societies exhibited a range of mass decisions and choices by citizens or a level of their representation, African monarchies were generally all sovereign. In these ancient societies, citizens were not free to do what they wanted. They had to conform to cultural expectations, implemented through the form of governance that then existed. The culturally anchored conformity mentality of yesteryear still influences many Africans in their conduct, their choices and their general approach to life.

Democracy promotes the rights and freedoms of citizens, at extreme levels. For example, people are free to demonstrate publicly as long as it is done in a peaceful manner, in what is sometimes called the right to associate with others and to assemble for a common purpose.

Today, many Africans believe in this right to protest, and indeed several intense protests have taken place in African countries since independence. However, most Africans will aggressively defend the right to protest peacefully until the protesters are advocates for gay rights and related groups.


At this point, the right to protest is quickly sidelined, and the non-acceptance of sexual liberalism in our society is cited even by supporters of universal rights and freedoms, including the very freedom to protest. As such, our cultural wiring is thicker than our commitment to universal rights and freedoms.

Logically however, if one decides to unconditionally adopt the rights and freedoms as prescribed by democracy, one must be ready to accept even what grits the teeth. Perhaps the freedom of expression enshrined in the precepts of democracy is even more foreign to Africa. In most, if not all African societies, you were not free to say what you wanted, how you wanted to say, or when you wanted to.

In part, our ancestors even devised many proverbs to facilitate the assault of words on the ears of listeners. Young people were cautious in speaking to people older than themselves. Freedom of expression, in its current form, therefore appears to be a peak of improvement over our traditional ways. Such seemingly simple contradictions between our culture and the democracy we aspire to actually underlie some of the challenges we encounter along the way.

They determine how we interact with each other and the problems we create for ourselves while trying to reconcile the script of democracy with our cultural and subconscious selves. These contradictions form differences in expectations between different age groups, cultural enclaves and other social categories of the population. This can cause a lot of distress in our governance frameworks.

While traditional Africa operated on a system of beliefs and norms which to a large extent met unconditional respect for indigenous people, except in documented cases which led to fractures and divisions which to some extent mimic societal distress today, today’s system is open to questioning by all.

Today’s system of governance, formed for democracy, encourages everyone to question everything. The impact of such a contrast between the two deserves analysis so that we can say whether it contributes to the reasons why Africans continue to question their achievement of democracy after sixty years of effort.

It is possible that the shortcomings in Africa’s attempt to embrace democracy lie in part in our cultural foundations. While democracy is largely permissive, our culture was largely a conception of unconditional control and compliance. We are not yet completely free from the culture, beliefs and practices of our ancestors. Likewise, we are not yet fully engaged in the almost unlimited liberalism of democracy. The happy medium we find ourselves in today can present a lot of doubts, contradictions and errors.

Raymond is a Chartered Risk Analyst and Risk Management Consultant

[email protected]

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