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From L to R: Agbor, Obongo, Samb, and Okechukwu

From L to R: Agbor, Obongo, Samb, and Okechukwu

Today I attended a talk at SAIS sponsored by that school’s Africa Association and Afrimind (with which I was not familiar) on “Is Democracy the Best Form of Governance in Africa?”  The event provided an entertaining forum to debate this topic, but specific examples were rare and lots of generalizations were made.

Julius Agbor, an economist of Cameroonian origin who is currently a Research Fellow with Stellenbosch University in South Africa (previously of the Brookings Institution) answered the question begged by the event’s title with both a yes and no, adding that he does not believe that democracy has really been implemented in Africa.

Dhanojak Obongo, Deputy Chief of Mission at the South Sudanese embassy gave a less equivocal yes.  He noted that ‘democracy is a good thing for any human being.’  He added that most traditional African societies, aside from kingdoms, utilized aspects of a participatory democracy.  He went on to debate the merits of a presidential vs. parliamentary democracy and it appeared that he favored the latter.

Pape Samb, a native Senegalese of what I understand is the now somewhat disgraced (I cannot find that they have a functioning website and their last tweet was in November 2012), but long running Phelps Stokes Fund, articulated the negative view.  He noted that the ‘execution of democracy is thoroughly aristocratic’.  He added that democracy, where the 51% can determine the fate of the 49% is inherently negative, particularly in diverse countries like Africa.  His concluding comments were much more bizarre, as he noted that African presidents should only be allowed to serve one 4-5 year term (elected by at least 75% of electorate) and that if they did not perform, they should be jailed.

As mentioned, most observations were general.  Pape Samb went off on a tangent (inspired by what I have no clue) regarding Chinese engagement in Africa.  He added that foreign aid, such as the Millenium Challenge Corporation, is ‘leverage for [the] West to control the Africans’ and his remarks seemed to indicate that he felt the same about China.  Also, in a flagrant attack on the hundreds of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood who have lost their lives in recent weeks in Egypt, he noted that little has been to protect that country’s recently overthrown elected government.

Agbor cited Lesotho’s monarchy as an example of a non-democratic state that shows the need for democracy to ensure good governance.  Continuing the southern African foray, he noted (incorrectly) that there were no monitors of Zimbabwe’s recent elections.  In response, DCM Obongo (can’t remember if he’s the one I heard speak at a YAP event), asked why ‘Uncle Mugabe’ would not invite observers if he was confident of fair elections and had nothing to hide.

Amaka Okechukwu of Afrimind did a good job moderating, but I wish more specifics had come out in the discussion.  Unfortunately, per my usual disclaimer, I left at the beginning of the audience Q&A (which may have been the venue to hear such specifics).