What African intellectuals owe the continent in the New Cold War era

Uhuru Kenyatta

President Uhuru Kenyatta (second right) and African leaders follow proceedings during the opening ceremony of the 26th African Union Heads of State and Government Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. 

Photo credit: File | AFP

What you need to know:

  • Metaphorically, in the ongoing global debate on democracy African scholars must distinguish between a dog and a hot dog.
  • In Africa, democracy must be aligned to the Nobel Prize-winning idea that ‘development is freedom”.

My read this week was Ronald J Daniels’s new title, What Universities Owe Democracy (2021), which my vendor, Njoroge Waweru, insisted was “a must-read for scholars of democracy”. The gist of the book by the President of Johns Hopkins University is that American colleges and universities are being tested like never before in the new “contest between liberal and illiberal ways of thought”.

The book is, no doubt, a compelling read, particularly on the critical link between the academy and democracy. Beyond this, it is no more than a shrill war cry in the “New Cold War Era” in the 21st century. It is a call to American colleges and universities to “re-establish their place in democracy” at a moment “when liberal democracy is endangered and more countries are heading towards autocracy than at any other time in generations”.

The book heralds the return of the US policy of containment, previously used against the Soviet Union, and now against China. It hits shelves at a time when Africa is hosting the eighth edition of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in Dakar, Senegal, from 29-30 themed ‘Deepening China-Africa Partnership and Promoting Sustainable Development to Build a China-Africa Community with a Shared Future in the New Era’.

In Africa, inquiry and dialogue on democracy must diligently cut through the maze of ideological struggles for supremacy that has characterised debate on the “democratic retreat” and “the authoritarian surge” in the New Cold War politics.

Metaphorically, in the ongoing global debate on democracy African scholars must distinguish between a dog – a dangerous canine – and a hot dog; a quick snack. In this context, the African academy should make a clear distinction between two concepts of democracy that provide the fault line in the new Cold War.

Liberal democracy

One is liberal democracy – and related ‘human rights’ fundamentalism. Since it emerged over two centuries ago, liberal democracy has taken the form of a creed or dogma that is beloved by the ideological prompters of the hegemony of the modern metropolitan Western world over rest of humanity. Signifying intellectual responses to democracy as a creed is the work of the renowned Palestinian scholar, Edward Said, particularly his Orientalism (1978) and Culture and Imperialism (1993), which describe general hegemonic trends of relations between the West and the rest. 

Democracy as a creed is contrasted to humanity’s quest for a universal system that guarantees, maintains and reinforces equality, fairness and justice in a wholistic sense. Suffice it to say that conceived in this universalist sense, democracy is everywhere still work in progress – and humanity’s collective enterprise.

Two successful models of democracy are jostling for influence in the New Cold War Era. One is ‘liberal democracy’, rooted in Judeo-Christian heritage – and now in decline. As Daniels’s book shows, in this vision of democracy, America is hyped as the ‘shining light on the hill’. Globally, liberal democracy is evangelised as part of imperial doctrine of “manifest destiny” – a modern variant of the 19th-century doctrine that America’s expansion is both justified and inevitable. Today, the doctrine of manifest destiny is propelling ‘democracy promotion’ programmes where the liberal hue of democracy is advocated as an antidote for festering conflict in Africa as elsewhere. “Democracies”, we are told, “seldom go to war with each other.”

Two decades since American scholar Francis Fukuyama published The End of History and The Last Man (1992), liberal democracy is experiencing its worst setback since the 1930s. This setback prompted the Foreign Affairs Journal to publish a special issue: ‘Is Democray is Dying?’ (May/June 2018). Liberal democracy is collapsing under the weight of centralisation of power in the executive, politicisation of the judiciary, attacks on independent media and the use of public office for private gain in Western democracies.

Model of democracy

Optimists believe liberalism’s continued retreat can be halted if rich countries find ways to reduce inequality and manage the information revolution. But pessimists fear democracy’s game is already over, and its dominance gone with the wind, for good. As such, the future of democracy does not look like Fukuyama’s end of history. It is a return of the old struggles for global ideological supremacy. Its internal contradictions aside, externally the odds are stacked against liberal democracy. Western scholars are pointing to the economic might of ‘authoritarian powers’ that now outweighs that of advanced liberal democracies.

The second vision is ‘democratic centralism’. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Communist Party of China has constantly refined this Leninist concept to suit China’s complex civilisational state. Philosophically, it has been attuned to the Confucian idea of harmony in diversity – a sharp contrast to the Hegelian concept of dialectics or inevitable conflict or tension between ideas as the motor of change and source of solutions. Like liberal democracy, political decisions in democratic centralism are reached by voting. China’s national and local assemblies (the National People's Congress and the local people's Congresses) are instituted through democratic elections.

In the Western liberal democracy, power is organised around three arms of government – executive, judiciary and legislature. In democratic centralism, power rests squarely with an elected national parliament (the National People's Congress) as the supreme body that exercises legislative authority on the people’s behalf. Even the power to appoint the head of state and head of government are also vested in the National Assembly.

In the West, policy is debated and contested, which has given rise to the concept of “opposition” to the government, its policies and power. In democratic centralism, decisions once made are binding upon all members of the political party and society. Here, policy is generated through a bottom-up democratic process. But it is implemented through a top-down process under the unified leadership of the central authorities.

In Africa, democracy must be aligned to the Nobel Prize-winning idea that ‘development is freedom”. Beyond the hubristic noises and struggles for global ideological supremacy in the New Cold War era, the historic mission of African intellectuals is to bequeath Africa with a model of democracy that guarantees long-term stability to underpin development and poverty eradication.

Professor Peter Kagwanja is Chief Executive at the Africa Policy Institute and Adjunct Scholar at the University of Nairobi and the National Defence University.

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