Power and Culture; How Culture Influence people in political office (democratic presidents) in Africa

by Komba Lamina, Summer 20132 Intern

Many in the West have often wondered whether non-western countries, especially African countries are culturally woven for democracy to survive. They often point to the repeated number of military coup d’états that have taken place across Africa when they make this inference. This query is in fact legitimate, because if we look at Africa in the 70’s, 80's, 90's and even today, to some extent, we see that majority of African countries have gone through a wave of military coups. For instance, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Gambia, Congo, Kenya etc. have all had their elected government toppled more than once. There are many reasons for this of course; starting with coups orchestrated by the U.S., corrupt local government, structural adjustment programs (austerity), incompetent governments etc. have all been contributing factors as to why military personnel have left their barracks for the State House.

 These factors have all been looked at by many academics, but so far not much focus has been placed on the effect of culture; culture as a contributing factor as to why elected officials outstay their welcome, which in some instances is the reason why the military come to power, has not been given much attention. And no, I am not buying into the idea that Sub-Sahara African countries, or developing countries in general are not culturally woven for democracy to survive.

However, I do think that culture plays some role in causing political officials in these parts of the world to cling to power. Again, a quick look at Sub-Sahara Africa as well as North Africa to some extent, we see that a good number of presidents have held onto power for awfully long periods of time: Congo, President Mobutu Sese Seko, held onto power for thirty two years; Ghana, former President Flt. Lt. Rawlings held onto power for over a dozen years; Senegal’s former President, Abdoulaye Wade, held unto power for twelve years; Gambian President, Yahya Jammeh has been in office for nineteen years; Egypt, former President Mubarak held onto power for thirty years so on and so forth (these are not all democratically elected presidents. Some came to power through a coup and later became civilian that ran for office). After looking at all of these leaders and the amount of time the held power, I began thinking about culture as a contributing factor.

One of my professors of international politics once said that if you go to China, for instance, and ask a local how their government official was doing? Their likely response would fall along the lines of ‘they are good, s/he knows what they’re doing.’ Ask the same question to any local American on the street, their likely response would be – ‘government officials don't know what they're doing – put me there, I can do a much better job.’ If similar question had been asked of Africans or folks in the Middle East few years ago, their likely response would resemble the local from China. Why is that you might ask? I think the answer to that question is culture.

Culture dictates in these parts of the world (many non-western countries) an unquestionable respect for authority. Failure to do such is gross disrespect! Leaders and elders are aware of this fact; as such unquestionable respect is expected. What they fail to realize is that the people are increasing expecting results, and democracy in particular requires the citizens to hold government officials accountable. When leaders fail to deliver, you ask them to change course; if it’s a parliamentary system, you ask them to hold early elections.

But since unquestionable respect is expected from locals, leaders in these parts of the world find it extremely difficult to heed demands of the people. Yes, this sound just like what happened recently in Turkey with the Gezi Park protest, and in Egypt, which ultimately resulted in a military coup. Assad’s Syria could also be thrown in the mix (even though President Assad was not democratically elected). The point is, culture dictates respect for elders and persons in authority – period (leaders have paid their dues and the want it back in return).

Here is what I want you to take away

If any president or potential president is reading this piece, what I want you to take away is this: times are changing and you must adapt. If the people ask you to change course, heed the warning early-on and make concessions when it count. Otherwise there would be another wave of elected officials being deposed from office like we have now with President Morsi.