Why traditional governance systems won’t solve Africa’s democratic challenges

The ceremonial set-ups do not represent the will of the majority

December 30, 2020

Long way to go: Hundreds of South Africans stand in line to cast their votes in the Sixth General Election at the Cottanlands Primary School, 45 kilometers north of Durban, on Wednesday, May 8, 2019. PHOTO | AFP | RAJESH JANTILAL


By Adam Musa

Tranquility news reporter, North America

Boston – Democracy is not the law of the majority, but the protection of the minority according to Albert Camus, a French philosopher.

I was reading an article dated 6 November 2019 in the open Democracy website by Damola Adejumo-Ayibiowu, a scholar whose research focuses on generating African solutions for African problems, she notes: “Western style ‘democracy’ in Africa is just a way of pushing the neo-liberal agenda. The region has its own rich democratic traditions to draw from.”

According to Ms. Ayibiowu, many African traditional governance systems are democratic. She explains how the Yoruba traditional governance system and the traditional governance of Akan in Ghana are exemplary democracies, even though these kingdoms are monarchical.  She insists that because of representation, participation in monarchial duties; including checks and balances; it should be called a cultural democracy.

Voters turnout during Nigerian polls in 2019. PHOTO | COMMONWEALTH SECRETARIAT

It is hard to determine whether the African continent has its own rich democratic traditions to draw from before understanding the meaning of democracy in its true essence.

For one to grasp what kind of democracy is in Africa, it is imperative to trace and understand its origin. Yes, by definition, it is a Greek word: ‘demo’ meaning people and ‘kratos’ meaning power. In simple terms, democracy is the will of the people by simple majority through elected representation.

Historians have claimed that the oldest democracies started in ancient Greece; it invoked the rights of all citizens –a category that excluded women, children, slaves and foreigners to participate in political decision making by then.

However, the popular definition of democracy is based on Abraham Lincoln’s declarative statement after the battle of Gettysburg in 1863: a government of the people, by the people and for the people.  

James T. Kloppenburg a Harvard professor of history, and author of  ‘Toward Democracy’ expounds how the promise of democracy depends on individuals’ internalising limits on the freedom that democracy gives them. 

To Mr Kloppenburg, that is the meaning of autonomy. It depends on citizens willingly interrogating their own preferences rather than taking for granted their legitimacy, and that requires restraint.

Normally, the first step for any nation that is on a trend of democratic roadmap — is to nurture a government of the people, by the people and for the people through strong institutions like political parties and different organs that make up a state like legislature, judiciary and the executive. 

For instance, in Philip Parker’s book of ‘World Histories’: ancient Greece, magistrate Cleisthenes, divided Athens in to 140 voting districts, which were grouped together into 10 tribes.  Each of these supplied 50 members annually to a council of 500, and this group supplied the 50-member group of council leaders to administer the government’s daily affairs. 

Back on the African continent, almost all the 55 countries have monarchies or cultural leaders; who are mostly ceremonial. 

In East Africa: Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania are multi-party dispensation of politics, where there is a clear demarcation on the roles of  cultural leaders and political leaders. Cultural leaders and their governments tend to be ceremonial with no participation in national politics. 

In Kenya: the biggest tribe, Kikuyu, has different clans with representatives as clan elders who sit in the council of elders meetings to further the interests of the tribe. Some clans don’t even have clan leaders. This traditional system cannot be a democracy because it is not elected by the simple will of the majority.

Women from the Turkana tribe line up outside a polling station in the town of Loyangalani, in northwestern Kenya. The number of voters overwhelmed some stations, but there were only a few problems, and no violence was reported.

It is quite different in Uganda because the biggest tribe — Buganda — have a king who inherits power, thus monarchial; the title is merely ceremonial, and his term of office is indefinite, so the people have no stake in electing their tribal leader. But the king appoints a prime minister katikiro as he wishes to act as a political mediator between the kingdom’s interests and the central government.

Voters queue behind their preferred candidate for village/zone women executive council posts in Uganda on July 3, 2017. The elections held across the country marked the return of the queue system in voting after more than 20 years. PHOTO | NMG

Almost every African country has a similar pattern of cultural or monarchial micro representation based on the size of a particular tribe and political tolerance of that nation. But the gist of the matter is that these leaders/representatives are merely ceremonial and therefore don’t represent the will of the majority through elections/votes as democracy demands, even though they serve people’s interest.


Most governments on the African continent exercise democracy in both unique and similar ways to Western civilisation.

In theory, some African governments claim to exercise democracy through one party system or multiparty dispensation of politics. But most political parties in the opposition have no capacity to represent citizens effectively, or to provide policy choices that demonstrate their ability to govern for the public. 

There is a huge deficit in the democratic ability of most opposition political parties on the African continent to challenge incumbents because of the strongman mentality exhibited through the dominance of the central governments or the executive arms of the governments by monopolisation of presidency. A ruling party cannot be detached from state machinery, thus making it hard to have fair competition.

Philip Howard, author of  ‘the rule of nobody’ noted: public choices should be made pursuant to clear rules, set in advance, whatever the consequences.

Ms Ayibiowu assertion that Africa has its own democracy in the form of cultural democracy may be socially and morally acceptable; but a political landmine of what democracy really means for the continent. 

“The right to vote is not a privilege. In the twenty-first century, the presumption in a democratic state must be in favour of inclusion. Any departure from the principle of universal suffrage risks undermining the democratic validity of the legislature thus elected and the laws which it promulgates.” A statement issued by Judgement of the European Court (Hirst v. UK)

Democracy is the simple will of the majority; it is the government of the people by the people for the people as Lincoln said. 

Camus added more layer on the meaning of democracy by reminding the world that it is not the law of the majority, but the protection of the minority. 

Show More

Related Articles

Back to top button

Adblock Detected

Please consider supporting us by disabling your ad blocker