Rethinking the Form of Democracy in Africa – Odala Gracious Balamu


Democracy in its own right is the form of government offering a workable solution to the fundamental Political problem of reaching collective decisions by peaceful means. Abraham Lincoln defined democracy as “government of the people, by the people, and for the people”. This means that at the Centre of Democracy “there should be government by the people” which in turn implies that people should govern themselves in making the crucial decisions that structure their lives and determine the fate of their society. Most often it is assumed that what passes for democracy in Western societies is the only, or the legitimate form of democracy and it is forced on African countries. This form of Democracy came to Africa and distorted the meaning of all government structures that African people had like kingdoms, clans and so on. My view is that Africa needs a form of government that speaks to its culture and traditions. Western countries developed this democracy from Greek influences and have had hundreds of years to improve upon this system of government. This article has three sections, the first section introduces forms of democracy, the second discusses some of challenges of democracy in Africa, the fourth part introduces the role of Chiefs in Democracy and then conclusion follows.


Democracy was born in Ancient Athens between 461 and 322 BC. In its earlier and more radical phase, the Athenian city-community operated on the democratic principles that allowed all citizens to attend meetings of the Assembly, serve on the governing council and sit on citizens’ juries. In their form of government they emphasized on the principle of equality and rule of law. The importance of equality was underlined by the tradition of filling offices by lot, the rotation of offices and the adoption of very tenure as many people as possible to take at holding office. This is where we find the first form of democracy called direct democracy which is based on the direct, unmediated and continuous participation of citizens in the tasks of government. The second form is representative democracy, which is limited in the sense that popular participation in government is infrequent and brief. It is indirect because the public do not exercise power themselves; they merely select those who will rule on their behalf. The second form is practiced in today’s world.


In the first place, democracy is challenged because most African countries are Multi-ethnic and Multi-Cultural in nature. Among other factors this is what hinders many African countries to have free and fair elections. In representative democracy the legitimacy of government is derived from the consent of the governed through free and fair elections. Most African countries suffer pre or post elections violence because of ethnicity. Even in those African countries that have witnessed a peaceful transition of power through fair and free elections, the risk of political violence and other social and political upheavals are still quite and high. And after elections, this is also a challenge in development especially when it comes to allocation of resources. Most elected leaders favor people from their ethnic group and also their area when it comes to allocation of resources. This makes other people to resent and not effectively participate in developmental issues.

Another challenge is the conception of electoral outcome as a zero sum game. This is manifested in most African countries in which winners get everything while losers are denied not only access to state power and resources, but also their fundamental rights as human beings, including the right to earn a decent live hood and even face arrest. Because of this most leaders reject the verdict of ballot box even in elections that are seen as fair. Even if they agree to the results they spent their time in opposition trying as much as possible to suppress government projects so that the party in government should loose popularity and support from people. This in turn is a constraint to development.

The third challenge is the political culture in Africa in which opportunism takes precedence over principle. In this case, self-serving politicians can easily overturn decisions taken at democratic gatherings like the national conference behind closed doors. This can also be in such a way that the head of state or the president of a political party instructs Members of Parliament that belong to their political party what to do in Parliament instead of serving interests of their electorate. This poses a threat to representative democracy as well since those elected advance personal agendas and not that of the public.

These challenges in one way or the other post threat to socio-economic development hence they hinder people and countries to be economically free.


One of the necessary steps African states can do to remedy these challenges is to rethink or reconsider the role of Chiefs in governance. In most African States, elected politicians stand alongside more traditional forms of Authority, such as Chiefs, creating a complex system of governance and representation. It is now imperative to consider carefully the value of these structures and their potential to support political and socio-economic development. This is to say that, we have to develop our form of governance that will be unique to and compatible with Africa and its traditions. In this case, our form of governance has to include strongly the role of Chiefs.

Chieftaincy structures have a long history across the African continent. Before colonialism, people lived under the rule of chiefs whom they respected and honor. During the colonial period many chiefs were co-opted by European administrations and suffered a subsequent loss of legitimacy in the eyes of their own people, whilst others continued to represent the needs of their communities as effectively as might be managed. After independence, some African states did not abolish Chieftainship as an institution. But, most states stripped the powers of Chiefs; some were being given to the newly created land boards, district councils, and customary counts. This stripping of powers of chiefs meant that chiefs were gradually reduced to civil servants, and their powers formal regulated. In some countries like Malawi, Ghana, Republic of South Africa and Botswana chiefs are given some role to play, but they do not have enough powers to pass or approve government policies which affect their people. In Botswana they have House of Chiefs. According to the act, Paramount Chiefs of all “principal” tribes are members of the House of Chiefs who play an advisory role. In Malawi chiefs especially Traditional Authorities (TAs) have been given some powers by constitution let alone local government act. However such power are not enough for them to serve and protect interests of the people at large, hence this power is limited to Parliamentarians who in most case serve their own interests if not the interests of their political party leaders.

The view in this paper is that in order to have a free society in which people are economically empowered and have enough resources we have to develop the states. In order to initiate sustainable development in communities we have to change our political system by strengthening the role of chiefs who are in best position to serve the needs of people on the ground than Parliamentarians or councilors. In this sense I am talking of Paramount chiefs from each and every tribe so that one ethnic group may not feel unrepresented or threated in decision making chambers because these Chiefs will have equal powers. They are better than politicians since they might have no political ambitions like Councilors or Parliamentarians. In the same way they may not explicitly join any political party hence they cannot be tied to serve interests of their political leaders. In addition, they can work with every president of the time without prejudice, fear and favour. This alone suggests that development activities can continue even after the change of government. 


Africa is unique in that it has its unique background and experience. As such it needs political governance which will be compatible with its culture and traditions in order for development to take place. The form of Liberal Democracy which developed nations impose on Africa has failed and needs amendments in order to be effective. In its form it has been abused by politicians and benefits only a few not the whole nation. An example should be that of Middle Eastern States who resisted the tides of Liberal Democracy when a lot of African Countries followed it. They customized their political processes to meet developmental needs, even if doing so compromised democracy. Most of such states are developed and they are economically free in that they do not depend on donors as most African state do. This proves that democracy is not all there is. It has to be made, in the case as to suit African Traditions and communities. In such a way we will develop and have a free society.

Can Africa evolve its own democratic culture?