How good is African media for democracy?

by Aggrey Willis Otieno. Aggrey is a Communications and Development Ford Foundation International Fellow at Ohio University.

Seen Jacobs contends that the health of democracy in 21st century is associated to the health systems of communication. The dynamics of democracy are closely associated to the practices of communication, and societal communication increasingly takes place within the mass media. Concern for democracy therefore necessitates a concern about the press. Consequently, the role of the press in agitating for democratization should never be disregarded in any analysis. Unfortunately, discourses on democratization in Africa are usually presented by the western media as though they are entirely foreign to Africans and yet on the other hand the media in Africa has always turned a blind eye to the exigencies committed by the political elites to the masses.

Media development in Africa can be grouped into three epochs: colonial, transitional and post-transitional. During each era, the media exhibited editorial policies and norms that reflected the ideological and socio-political milieu of the continent.  In the colonial era, the media mirrored the settler-colonial philosophy of the state and social schism along racial lines. Its successor in the post-colonial transitional era depicted the revolutionary vehemence of the emergent black political regime whose stated ideology of socialism regimented African countries under an authoritarian state. In a dramatic turnaround from the nationalist campaign promises for a free press and free expression in independent African nations during this period, media was coerced to support the governments of the day. In this set-up the clarion call has been: You are either with us or against us. Within this breadth, one can analyze the segue of democracy within the African continent.

Despite the fact that in modern times the concept of democracy as it refers to Africa has been reduced to elections, multiparty system, and universal suffrage, pre-colonial Africa boasts of different concepts of participatory democratic governance which evolved and survived until the European invasion of Africa in the nineteenth century. Unfortunately, as this era falls outside of the realm of media development in Africa, little can be said about its relation to the concept of democracy. Nonetheless, this era helps us define democracy as it is understood by African communities.

This broader concept of democracy includes David Mailu’s cultural definition of democracy in which African democracy, like philosophy, had to be lived.  For him, African communities were socially and politically structured so that “everybody participated according to his ability, age, status, and wishes . . . everybody was invited to the democracy cooking pot”. African democracy, therefore, went beyond the realm of politics; to form an integral part of the peoples’ culture, which allowed everyone a sense of belonging. It was a “practical democracy as opposed to conjectural democracy,” which required people to be more sensitive and responsible for their neighbors’ well-being. Mailu’s definition of democracy has been echoed by leaders such as Mandela as well, who has constantly declared that he learnt about democracy from the manner in which his father ruled his chieftaincy in the village of Mvezo in the former Transkei in South Africa.

Scholars have indicated that in the period preceding colonial rule, Africans experimented with a variety of political systems ranging from direct and representative democracy to various forms of monarchical and decentralized systems. The indigenous political organization of the Igbo of southeastern Nigeria presents one of the most elaborate examples of participatory democracy in traditional Africa. Apart from a few centralized polities such as Nri, Onitsha, Oguta, and Osomari that were monarchical systems, the Igbo operated a decentralized political system.

Another example of participatory democracy is the pre-colonial political structure of Agikuyu in Kenya. Among the Agikuyu, as among the Igbo, there was no sole paramount ruler; eligible adults constituted the legislative assembly. “In the eyes of the Agikuyu people, as Jomo Kenyatta asserted in his book facing Mount Kenya, “the submission to a despotic rule of any particular man or group, white or black is the greatest humiliation to mankind. The genesis of Gikuyu democracy is personified in their historical-political legend. According to this legend, a tyrannical ruler who was ultimately overthrown by the people initially ruled Gikuyuland. After his overthrow, the leadership of the Agikuyu was at once changed from repression to a democracy which was in keeping with the wishes of the majority. This popular rebellion is known as itwika, derived from the twika, which signified the breaking away from dictatorship to democracy.

The Buganda Empire of Uganda is another good example of an “absolute king” whose powers were checked by parliament. While the Kabaka (the king) was, in principle, supreme, he governed the kingdom in conjunction with a prime minister (katikkiro) and a parliament (lukiiko) that not only ensured representation according to the notion of modern democracy but also limited the powers of the king to avoid tyranny. 

With the European occupation of Africa, we see the development of a media that reflects Europena ideologies concerning Africa. European colonial occupation and the ensuing colonial rule disrupted these political systems. The existing indigenous democratic values were destabilized and replaced with the dictatorship of the colonial governors. Unfortunately, the totalitarianism and wanton brutality of the colonial governors was adopted by African nationalists and later aped by African post independence leaders such as Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Idi Amin of Uganda, Sekou Toure of Guinea, Mobutu Seseseko of Congo, and Daniel Moi of Kenya. Akin to colonial rulers, these leaders became very imperious and viewed almost all forms of criticism and disagreement against their policies as treason. Hence, the fundamental principle of African traditional government, that is, rule by consent of the ruled was all but shattered by the imposition of colonial rule and was scathingly mangled when the one-party state allowed the emergence of ambitious, corrupt, and tyrannical African leaders, many in military uniform, after independence. So far the multi-party democracy has only worsened the situation.

As evidenced in Zimbabwe, Equatorial Guinea and Eritrea have taken deliberate steps to limit media scrutiny. Rwanda, Kenya, Gabon and Ethiopia have demonstrated similar tendencies. This calls for a more viable and sustainable key to the problem of democracy and democratization in the continent, as Basil Davidson posits, that lie in forging a new practical synthesis that derives “firmly from the African past, yet fully accepts the challenges of the African present”.  The task of the African media therefore is to claim their space as the fourth estate. It’s the duty of the media to remind African leadership and the world at large about their deep democratic tradition that African governance emerges from without of course glossing over the tragic legacy of colonialism.

It is thus crucial to note a number of developments have given rise to a new generation, albeit a minority, of more assertive, independent journalists. Free and efficient media can play a vital role in improving democracy in Africa. Lessons can be learnt from the experience of Al-Jazeera satellite Television. Though it went on air in 1996, it has improved transparency and accountability across the Middle –East.  However, is the African media- the fourth estate in Africa up to the task given that they are mostly owned and controlled by the African political elites? How can it be strengthened to effectively play its role as the watch dog and agenda setter? What alternatives do we have with the advancements in information and communication technologies? What about the Face book/twitter generation? Is there space for community media? Is it possible for us too to have a Pan-African broadcaster with similar consequences as Al Jazeera?

This media and democracy series by the Bokamoso Leadership Forum will explore in detail some of the themes introduced here. 


2 Responses to How good is African media for democracy?

  1. A cogent argument Aggrey! I am already looking forward to the series. I do believe that no discussion about Africa is complete without the mention of colonialism and its shaping of the 'development' trends across the continent. As it has already been demonstrated, there is no way we can move forward without knowing what lies behind us and what lessons can be learnt.
    Nonetheless, we do need to acknowledge our own individual part in the process, and for many of us this is our lack of action. Many times we watch as the "minority, independent and more assertive journalists" are butchered by governments for simply telling the truth. Instead of supporting them, we, like the media, turn a blind eye or hold small gatherings in the comfort of our our houses to discuss how bad the political elites are.
    Unfortunately, I do not have an answer to what type of action can be taken, and thus I hope that as we continue with the series we will move from 'theory based discussions' to more practical and active solutions.

  2. I agree with Aggrey on his analysis. Its unfortunate that we define democracy as going to the polls to give a certain group of people called political parties a mandate to govern our nations. In Africa we have structures that are more democratic than those of the western world. Another example is the Kingdom of Swaziland where people elect representatives straight to parliament and can recall them in any case they are not performing. The King rule through different structures set up by different chiefdoms and emabandla (forums). The challenge with this structure is the people surrounding the King ending up being the gods of the constituencies as they see themselves as messengers to the king, then nepotism kick in.
    We cannot dispute that political parties are very exclusive in nature. The problem with some of the indigenous system in the continent is the establishment of norms. The media is always looking at the bad side of our system, instead of bringing the good side too. Especially the local media is doing a lot of disservice about the structures we have there. I guess because everything is benchmarked against western standards, and the western world brings bread on their table.
    The other challenge is those who hold on to power till their sons are ready to take over…Media in such environments is limited on what it can report as people fear for their lives. In fact we know what is going on behind us we just decide not to acknowledge those shortcomings. Sometimes is because of our affiliation with certain ethnic groups…in fact we hold those gatherings and continue to elect those people in power. Its a shame how dishonest we are…

Leave a reply