Why Western-style democracy is not suitable for
By George Ayittey, Special to CNN
Editor's note (CNN):
George Ayittey is a Ghanaian economist and the
author of several books on Africa, including "Africa
Unchained" and the forthcoming "Defeating Dictators
in Africa and Around The World." In 2008, Ayittey
was listed by Foreign Policy magazine as one of the
"Top 100 Public Intellectuals" of our time. He
writes for CNN as part of Africa 50, a special
coverage looking at 17 African nations marking 50
years of independence this year.
There are two forms of democracy.
Democratic decisions can be taken by majority vote,
which is the Western form. It has the advantage of
being transparent, fast and efficient. But the
downside is that it ignores minority positions.
The alternative is to take decisions by consensus.
This has the advantage of taking all minority
positions into account.
However, the demerit is that it can take an awfully
long time to reach a consensus the larger the number
of people involved. Nevertheless, the Nobel Peace
Committee and the World Trade Organization (WTO) all
take decisions by consensus.
So too do many traditional African societies. Just
because a group does not take its decisions by
voting does not mean they have no understanding of
the essence of democracy.
In the early 1990s, following the collapse of the
former Soviet Union, the winds of change swept
across Africa, toppling long-standing autocrats.
In our haste to democratize -- and also as a
condition for Western aid -- we copied and adopted
the Western form of democracy and neglected to build
upon our own democratic tradition.
The Western model allowed an elected leader to use
power and the state machinery to advance the
economic interests of his ethnic group and exclude
all others: Kenyatta of Kenya and the Gikuyu, Moi of
Kenya and the Kalenjin, Biya of Cameroon and the
Beti, Eyadema of Togo and the Kabye, to name a few.
Virtually all of Africa's civil wars were started by
politically marginalized or excluded groups.
In the West, the basic economic and social unit is
the individual; in Africa, it is the extended family
or the collective.
At Africa's traditional village level, a chief is
chosen by the Queen Mother of the royal family to
rule for life. His appointment must be ratified by
the Council of Elders, which consists of heads of
extended families in the village.
In governance, the chief must consult with the
Council on all important matters. Without this
council, the chief is powerless. If the chief and
the Council cannot reach unanimous decision on an
important issue, a village meeting is called and the
issue put before the people, who will debate it
until they reach a consensus.
The village assemblies exist among various African
tribes including: the Ashanti of Ghana, the Igbo of
Nigeria, the Somali, the Tswana of Botswana, the
Shona of Zimbabwe, the Xhosa and the Zulu of South
If the chief is "bad" he can be recalled by the
Queen Mother, removed by the Council of Elders, or
abandoned by the people, who will vote with their
feet to settle somewhere else.
Traditionally, African kings had no political
function. Their role was spiritual or supernatural
-- to mediate between the cosmological forces: the
sky, the earth and the world, each of which is
represented by a god.
The king's role is to propitiate these gods and
maintain harmony among them. If the sky god is
"angry" there will be thunder, heavy downpour,
floods, etc. That would mean the king had failed to
perform his function and off went his head
Africans could have built upon this system. In the
West, the basic economic and social unit is the
individual; in Africa, it is the extended family or
The American says, "I am because I am." The African
says, "I am because we are." The "we" denotes the
So let each group choose their leaders and place
them in a National Assembly. Next, let each province
or state choose their leaders and place them in a
Choose the president from this National Council and
avoid the huge expenditures on election campaigning
that comes with Western-style democracy. Those
resources can be better put to development in poor
Next, let the president and National Council take
their decisions by consensus. If there is a
deadlock, refer the issue to the National Assembly.
This type of democracy is in consonance with our own
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely
those of George Ayittey's.
Dr. Ayittey, the author of "Africa Unchained," is
the head of the Free Africa Foundation in