How does one construct a skyscraper that endures like the ancient Egyptian pyramids?
In an era of engineering advancement, the fatal collapse of Seoul’s Sampoong department store in 1995 due to structural failure remains a cautionary tale of compromising tried and tested principles in the interest of accelerating projects of any kind – be it a high-rise, or democracy.
The Egyptian pyramids were constructed with eternity in mind. Built over decades, with stones weighing millions of tons, they have withstood the worst natural disasters.
By contrast, modern architectural feats like Dubai’s Burj Khalifa were constructed with far lighter materials, over fewer years and with state of the art tools. Yet, they too are designed to survive the most catastrophic elements. Like pyramids, their structural soundness is uncompromising, and their foundations have to be rock solid to balance the superstructure soaring from their bases.
Likewise, the sunny uplands of democracy, however defined, and in whatever era, cannot be attained without a solid foundation of timeless values such as the rule of law, credible elections, robust and independent institutions, respect for human rights, and so on.
All African countries have subscribed to these values in one form or another. Many constitutions reflect Africa’s obligations under international, regional and continental commitments such as the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance. Adherence to and implementation of these remain, in most cases, a work in progress.
The constant sharpening of these good old tools, however, should not necessarily exclude the need to refashion them in response to emerging challenges and opportunities.
Democracy too must respond to the times in order to strengthen its resilience.
A confident Africa should embrace new ways of governance that bolster its democracy, without jeopardising the fundamental principles that underpin them. With a young demography, penetration of mobile phone technology, increasing access to internet, and ever active radio stations, expectations and agitations for better democratic governance in Africa are unstoppable in any case.
And young people, Africa’s greatest asset, are yearning for these changes across the continent. The Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s 2017 Forum Report, Africa at a Tipping Point finds that while “free and fair elections” have multiplied over the last decade, young people, in particular, are becoming disenchanted with democracy.
This finding corroborates those of the 2016 Commonwealth Youth Development Index (YDI) Report, which cautioned that:
youth participation in formal politics is declining, underscoring growing frustration amid unmet aspirations, although digital activism, protests and volunteering are growing.
Yet, irrespective of age, as a November 2016 Afrobarometer study found, many Africans still choose democracy over other forms of governance. And they want one that delivers on development and eliminates corruption: ask any voter.
Challenges & opportunities
Four ‘modern tools’ are proving their value in meeting these challenges and opportunities:
Inclusivity and participation: Gender equality, youth involvement, and the participation of minority and vulnerable groups, are critical in refreshing and embedding a democratic culture: and tokenism just doesn’t cut it.
Political dialogue mechanisms: Whether they are inter-party dialogue mechanisms convened by the election management body, such as the models in Ghana, South Africa or Nigeria, or multi-stakeholder fora with civil society and others present, the return of the old African way of talking about issues can contribute to peaceful resolutions.
Data and democracy: For citizens to effectively engage their governments, whether through their parliamentarians or through civil society, they must be informed. While calls for ‘open public data’ are laudable, they cannot be met unless African countries address their fundamental data deficits. If democracy is to deliver on the SDGs, data will be an important factor in tracking and monitoring progress.
Technology: Biometric voter registration, electronic voting and results transmission applications, are just a few examples of how technology is transforming the way Africa chooses its leaders. If deployed in an atmosphere of trust, implemented transparently and in good time, technology can enhance the efficiency and even accessibility of democratic processes: for instance, cutting voting queues.
The introduction of any modern ways of delivering democracy, like building skyscrapers, must be based on a solid foundation of the old principles. And whether it’s the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Shard, or the Empire State Building, all buildings require constant maintenance. No democracy, however shiny, is perfect.