Democracy or … ?

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A billboard in Accra 

In the countless passionate conversations I’ve had with peers in Ghana, one particular topic has come up quite often: democracy, and Africa’s relationship with it. Because I am an African Studies certificate at Georgetown, my courses had given me a good amount exposure to Ghanian politics before arrival. In African Studies, Ghana is often hailed as a beacon of hope for democracy in Africa and is a favorite for Western scholars, donors, and investors. The country has witnessed peaceful elections and transitions and has experienced a general stability and peace in the midst of other African nations which are still struggling with mutinies and coups. Thus, I came to Ghana with this narrow understanding: Ghana has been successful because it has been implementing democracy and its peer-nations have been struggling with development because they haven’t.

I quickly came to learn from local Ghanians that this view of western democracy as the best political system was not shared by everyone. I have even met Africans from other countries who contrary to common thought in the US and to western scholars, adore Paul Kagame and admire the development he has managed to bring to his country. Then there was one friend who tried to explain to me why he had no problem with Mugabe and his decades of rule. “I would rather have a president for 100 years who is good for my country than a different one every few years with no development and with instability” he explained. Leadership, not democracy, is what’s important he stressed. Another friend, a Ghanian student studying sociology, questioned my rush to commend Ghana’s peaceful elections. “What if both parties were in on some deal to hold peaceful elections and get more money from international organizations and then split the funds? What if that’s why so much of rural Ghana is still poor?” Granted he was playing devil’s advocate, but his questions got me thinking.

Since being in Ghana and speaking with Africans I have become more aware of my biases from growing up and attending university in the West. Democracy is emphasized to the point where you become an ambassador for this system without fully understanding what it means for people around the world. Lesson number three hundred something from Ghana, stop telling Africans what political system is best for them. Listen to what they want and consider the fact that successful political systems existed before colonialism and there are alternatives to democracy. Be willing to hear and understand that for some, democracy has and continues to be an absolute nightmare. This doesn’t mean being completely and utterly against democracy or any and all ideals which come from the West, but it does means thinking critically about them and what they look like in African contexts.

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