July 22, 2024

This article is from a special report on the Athens Democracy Forum, which gathered experts last week in the Greek capital to discuss global issues.


Moderator: Steven Erlanger, chief diplomatic correspondent, Europe, The New York Times

Participants: Caroline Gaita, executive director, Mzalendo Trust; Adama Sanneh, co-founder and chief executive, Moleskine Foundation; and Namatai Kwekweza, founder and director, WeLead Trust

Excerpts from the panel The Future Is African by 2050 have been edited and condensed.

STEVEN ERLANGER Caroline, what are the generalizations about Africa that annoy you the most?

CAROLINE GAITA One is that — and you have seen it — we are not a country; we are 54 countries, with two countries whose independence is contentious. So 56 countries in total. We are diverse, different languages, different cultures, different religions, different political systems. And so our democracy is defined differently within the 54 countries.

ERLANGER Could you talk a bit more about that? Perhaps your own country?And what are the models for the rest of Africa, you think?

GAITA I’m from Kenya, and Kenya really has been one of the bastions of hope. Despite some challenges we’ve had in the past, we are a country that has respected term limits, that has a progressive constitution, that talks about the inclusion of women and youth. Whether that’s achievable or has been achieved is a bit debatable. But again, when you look at the 54 countries, you have presidents who’ve been in power for 40 years plus. You have others who’ve been in power for eight years plus who have been removed in military coups recently. And still you have others like ours. So it’s really a mixed bag, right? You have countries where women are leading.

Rwanda is an example of a country that despite its past challenges has the highest number of women parliamentarians across the world. And so to then look at the current issues, military coups, is to ask ourselves why do we suddenly have an increase in this? And you’d be surprised to know that there are other emerging issues around how democracy is working for African citizens and what democracy actors need to do to make sure that democracy really means what it should for the African continent.

ADAMA SANNEH Being mixed — my father was from Senegal in the Gambia, my mom is Italian — I had the two perspectives growing up. It hit me in different ways. On one side the reduction of the African continent to one single story — it’s always astonishing, even in 2023, how poor the language is when we talk about the continent. And one of the crazy things is that you have incredible minds, especially from the West, that are some of the most articulate people in their own field. And the moment that they’re talking about the African continent it’s almost like their intelligence shuts down. And I wonder what is that mechanism that happened in the mind? That arrogance that makes you feel that you are at the center of the world?

ERLANGER Do you think it stems from colonialism? And just to push you further on the question of democratization, is there any feeling that this, too, is an importation from old colonial powers?

SANNEH The question of deconstructing the colonial infrastructure, especially culturally, is an extremely hard task. Because the African continent is a space that has always been somebody else’s object.

And it’s extremely hard to shake it out.

ERLANGER Namatai, I don’t know how old you are, but you’re a Kofi Annan prize winner, you’re working with young people, you’re trying to get them to lead. You’re a generation that grew up in the sense post colonial. Does that make a big difference?

NAMATAI KWEKWEZA I am 24 years old this year. I grew up in Zimbabwe, and I was born in 1998. And 1997 really was the peak of things going downhill. So I’ve never seen a functional society where there’s proper sanitation, there’s just basic things that are essential in terms of human rights.

And I think the critical conversation for me as an activist has always been when we are putting pressure on the government and we are demanding that they deliver, they have often taken this position where they blame it all on the West, and they say, “Oh, the West gave us sanctions, and we are part of a very ugly geopolitical infrastructure,” be it financially, be it politically. And at some point it almost felt as if it was rhetoric on their part, because there is a lot of corruption. No one can deny that Covid-19 funds were looted. No one can deny the dilapidation in our hospitals. No one can deny the issues around the lack of freedom of expression.

But when you do listen to some of the arguments that some of those leaders are presenting, it is true. And I think that for us as African citizens, and particularly as a young African, we are basically stuck between a rock and a hard place. So the idea is not to blame and point fingers. It’s not to say, “They are wrong, we are right.” It’s actually to have a critical reflection around where do we bear the responsibility as locals within Africa, but also as the international system?

ERLANGER Just to press you for a second, a lot of these leaders were the fighters against colonialism. They won the wars of independence. There’s a claim to leadership from the past, which somehow is used to excuse lots of problems in the present. Does your generation find that a particular burden or how do you deal with that?

KWEKWEZA What I will say is that the entitlement is real. But I think for me — I always tell people that I’m unapologetically Pan-African. And the ideology of Pan-Africanism, which subsequently was one of the fueling drives of the wars of liberation, is the idea that centralized is the concept of human dignity. It is the dignity of the African.

If you are liberators and you went to war to ensure that the African would get equal status, would be healthy, would be fed, would have education, would have access to opportunity, to breathe, to be, to live like any other person in any other civilization, deserved the dignity of being recognized as a human being — and you are directly or indirectly participating and creating architecture and infrastructure and systems that inadvertently lead to the misery and suffering of an African — then you have absolutely no legitimacy to say that. The promise of the Pan-African dream must be delivered in our lifetime.

We young people will continue to fight. And this is exactly the tension between older generations and younger generations.

GAITASo the biggest challenge for democracy in Africa is that democracy does not seem to be working for the citizens. And so the citizens are then saying, “Look, we want democracy to work.” They support military intervention in certain ways, which is not a good sign for the continent. So we posit then that the biggest challenge to democracy is not so much the military rulers who are overthrowing governments, but actually the democratically elected leaders who are not working for their people.

What Namatai talks about, the attachment to the past, their attachment to the corruption, the insecurity, the rising cost of living. And so for democracy to work we really must define and begin to ask ourselves how it’s paying for the citizens.

So it’s something that we must address.

ERLANGER Adama, is this wave of coups a temporary response to something, or do you see it as more an augury of the future?

SANNEH When we see some of these coups, that are very much apparently against some principle of democracy, we cannot ignore that they’re coming from existing injustices. You know, some of the people who are at war — they’re at war because there are specific reasons. So I think we’ve moved from the era of information where everything was about access of information to the knowledge society, where the point of information was how do you transform it into knowledge. Now we know that whatever we knew yesterday is obsolete tomorrow. So now the question is how could we use knowledge in a dynamic way? And this is particularly important in the space of democracy. I strongly believe that we live in a poly-crisis moment, but the deepest crisis is the crisis of language.

GAITA I think you’re absolutely right. I think the thing that changed is that now — we’re not only in a poly-crisis world, we are in a multivoices world.

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