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Democracy Isn’t The Issue

Democracy has probably seen better days in Africa. Coming on the heels of an ill-advised and fraudulent election in the Congo, Senegal is conducting its own presidential elections on February 26 that have already been plagued by undemocratic developments. Those elections will probably be more organized and better administered than Congo’s—since that’s not hard to achieve—but opposition to incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade has intensified in the last two weeks. The Economist reports:

The rioting started on January 27th, when the constitutional court decreed that Abdoulaye Wade, the incumbent president who has ruled for 12 years, could stand in the upcoming election. He is finishing his second term in office but the court ruled that the constitution’s two-term limit does not apply to him, since it only came into force after his first election win in 2000. The rule change was written into the constitution by Mr. Wade himself.

Senegalese democracy such as it is may survive this abuse of power on the president’s part and lack of backbone on the judiciary’s, but as riots throughout the country have shown, citizens there are not happy with the way things are working.

Western observers tend to see these events through ideological spectacles and interpret the riots as motivated by support for democracy.  No doubt there are some who feel that way, but many of those rioting against a new term for Wade would not be unhappy if their own favored candidate could stay in office forever. They are rioting about the prospect that a leader they don’t like will cling to power, rather than rioting out of an aroused sense of outraged constitutional propriety.

Regional, tribal and religious issues generally loom larger in African politics than the issues western NGOs care about. It’s less about what the constitution says (constitutions and laws aren’t often strictly enforced in weakly governed countries with sketchy institutions), than about who gets what and who rules whom.

Turning the Africa news into a morality play about democracy makes little sense. If we want to help Africa, the first thing we have to do is to understand it on its own terms. Right now, on the whole, the western media isn’t doing this well.

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  • Charles R. Williams

    In 1967 I asked Nicholas Katzenbach why we were boycotting and sanctioning Rhodesia when democracy everywhere in Africa was failing. He disputed my premise. Well times have changed. The people of Zimbabwe are starving but at least they have a home-grown tyrant. Apartheid is gone but democracy in South Africa is shakier every day.

    Some things don’t change. Katzenbach must be in the grave by now but his successors are just as addicted to politically correct lies – even some of the same lies.

  • Anthony

    To quote Peter Thiel WRM: “we always have this question of how to build a society in which important problems can be thought through and tackled.” In Africa, given its history, incipient democracy and rules of law are just a few of many important problems yet to be thoroughly tackled and viewed in their native terms – but time is getting late.

  • JM Hanes

    “[M]any of those rioting against a new term for Wade would not be unhappy if their own favored candidate could stay in office forever.”

    I’m not sure what’s particularly African about that. Democrats reviled Unitary Executive Bush, for putative incursions on the Constitution. Imperial President Obama? Not so much.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    “If we want to help Africa, the first thing we have to do is to understand it on its own terms.”
    The problem is not with American or the West’s understanding, and we should not in anyway accommodate the backward African cultures. It is they who must change their culture’s to more resemble the successful American and Western cultures, not we that need to understand and tolerate their ignorant and backward African cultures.
    I am pleased to see the rioting because of the constitutional violation of term limits. It indicates significant cultural progress, and I hope it gets as violent as necessary to end the rule of a dictator, and reinforce the Rule of Law.

  • Luke Lea

    “If we want to help Africa, the first thing we have to do is to understand it on its own terms.”

    And just what would those be? And how would they help? Help me. I don’t have a clue.

  • Walter Grumpius

    “…who gets what and who rules whom.”

    You don’t say! Good heavens, you’ll discover steam next.

    “If we want to help Africa…”

    Who d’ye mean by “we,” Kemosabe?

  • Lorenz Gude

    The reason it is important to understand how AfricN cultues work is becUse they operate by cultural rules that don’t play well with democracy. For example Mugabe is president in Zimbabwe despite losing the last election and probably the one before that. To oversimplify he is still in power because he is the king in local terms and you can’t unelect him and since he owns everything by definition he can’t steal. Etc. This says noting about Senagal and Wade. That is it’s own situation.

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