UN Speeches Raise Critical Questions for African Democracy

Obama and Mahama. The two presidents’ names overlap phonetically as did their message to the 71st gathering of UN General Assembly this week: The road to democracy, however bumpy, is the only path to take.

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama likely directed his affirmation of democracy to Africa’s current and aspiring “presidents for life.”

“In countries held together by borders drawn by colonial powers, with ethnic enclaves and tribal divisions, politics and elections can sometimes appear to be a zero-sum game. And so, given the difficulty in forging true democracy in the face of these pressures, it’s no surprise that some argue the future favors the strongman, a top-down model, rather than strong, democratic institutions,” he said. “But I believe this thinking is wrong. I believe the road of true democracy remains the better path.”

The next day, President John Mahama of Ghana offered what might have sounded like a mild rebuke of Obama. “Democracy is not a one size fits all system. Different countries are at different stages of the democratic journey. Democracy evolves and cannot be forced. It doesn’t help for bigger powers to go proselytizing democracy.”

In fact, the two presidents’ assessments of reality were remarkably similar. It was Obama who said on Tuesday, “I recognize not every country in this hall is going to follow the same model of governance. I do not think that America can — or should — impose our system of government on other countries.”

At the same time, surveying what he sees as the growing contest between authoritarianism and liberalism, Obama assured the assembly, “I am not neutral in that contest. I believe in a liberal political order — an order built not just through elections and representative government, but also through respect for human rights and civil society, and independent judiciaries and the rule of law.”

Similarly, Mahama spoke with pride over the fact that Ghana has adhered to its constitution for over 25 years and is widely hailed as the “model of democracy” in Africa or the “beacon of democracy.” He even invoked President Obama’s speech in his historic visit to Ghana last year in which Obama said, “Africa needs is strong institutions, not strongmen.” Mahama agreed, adding, “We must ingrain transparency and integrity more and more in our governance systems.”

This week in New York, leaders from Senegal, Malawi, Uganda and Nigeria reminded the world that climate change, falling commodity prices and other factors can have an especially profound impact on the often fragile institutions and limited resources of the 54 countries in Africa. Sectarian division and terrorism make the work of African leaders who are earnestly trying to tackle urgent problems of food and health care even harder. Mahama was candid in calling for the world to be patient as African leaders find the balance between battlefield triage and long-term rehab.

“Human progress is not a seamless movement forward. It encompasses periods of reversal, mistakes, fumbling and falling. All parts of the world have been through this, learnt from their mistakes, picked themselves up after a fall and continued moving,” he said. “Africa must be allowed the same latitude.”

Obama readily acknowledged the vast differences in individual countries’ cultures, histories and current realities and conceded that democracy is not without its flaws. Importantly though, he added, “… the cure for what ails our democracies is greater engagement by our citizens — not less.”

“I believe that in the 21st century, economies can only grow to a certain point until they need to open up — because entrepreneurs need to access information in order to invent; young people need a global education in order to thrive; independent media needs to check the abuses of power,” Obama said. “Without this evolution, ultimately expectations of people will not be met; suppression and stagnation will set in. And history shows that strongmen are then left with two paths — permanent crackdown, which sparks strife at home, or scapegoating enemies abroad, which can lead to war.”

The subtle differences in their phrasing aside, this week an American president of Kenyan heritage named Obama and a Ghanaian president named Mahama reminded the community of nations that democracy, in its many forms and stages of development, is essential to global peace and prosperity.