The OBJ of Illiberalism

BY Ebenezer Obadare

In recent times, Nigerian statesman Olusegun Obasanjo has spoken repeatedly of his conviction that Nigeria and other African countries “made a mistake” by adopting “Western liberal democracy,” a system that, being a unique product of “Western history, culture, and way of life” is poorly suited for African conditions.
In the same breath, Obasanjo has canvassed for “a model of democracy that is true to the African heritage,” a model that, in his telling, “encompasses our culture, our traditional ways of life.”

Obasanjo’s pedigree is one reason his assaults on liberal democracy have continued to attract attention. One of two individuals (Muhammadu Buhari is the other) to have ruled Nigeria in both military and civilian capacities, Obasanjo, far from just another citizen, can lay claim to having been in the thick of things and hence endowed with the kind of knowledge and perspective not vouchsafed to the average individual. Another reason is the political moment. The Nigerian statesman’s repeated attacks are music to the ears of many at a period when skepticism about liberal democracy and associated Western values is on the ascendance, especially across the Western world.      

Due to the latter coincidence, it is tempting to conclude that Obasanjo and critics of liberal democracy across the West are united by the same grievances, and to some extent they are, especially as far as there is mutual concern about the failure of liberal democracy to deliver tangible material benefits to the most disadvantaged. To be fair to Obasanjo, even in his least lucid moments, one observes what appears to be a genuine and constant solicitude for “the welfare and the well-being of the people: all the people.”    

But this is where the comparison stops. While much of the concern for the fate of liberal democracy across the Western world is animated by a desire to deepen it and make it work for all sectors of society, or at least all of those who are willing to submit to the rules of liberalism, Obasanjo seems motivated by a contrary desire: to abolish liberal democracy in toto and replace it with a “homegrown” system ostensibly hewn out of Africa’s specific culture and history.
The distinction is not trivial: unlike most Western critics of liberal democracy, Obasanjo does not want an improved version of liberal democracy; to paraphrase the inimitable Groucho Marx, whatever liberal democracy is, he is against it.

To be sure, Obasanjo is not a recent convert to this tradition-bound “Afro-democracy.” On the contrary, he has written consistently, if vaguely, about allowing “the wisdom of a linkage with our traditional political praxis to chart a progressive future for us;” his desire for a single-party system whereby “the party shall be the only legal party until such a time that national integration and cohesion would have been sufficiently achieved;” “the urgent need to create a political machine, a self-made (sic) indigenous institution that would destroy the ‘alien institution’ conception of government;” and last but not least, his opposition to “the systemic practice of the institutionalized opposition,” an idea that, as he sees it, is incongruent with an African political past when “in arriving at political decisions our fore-fathers disagreed to agree and agree to disagree.”

To the extent that he has been consistent in his avowals of them, the foregoing must be accepted as the basic elements of Obasanjo’s weltanschauung, which means that, in order to do justice to it, one must apply pressure to its cornerstone assumptions, the better to see whether they pass the smell test and are worthy of the attention—and in some intellectual circles, uncritical approval—that is being accorded them.

The first question to ask is whether Obasanjo is in fact correct in claiming that African countries have adopted Western liberal democracy. While there is no doubt that liberal democracy is, with few notable exceptions, the coin of the political realm across Africa, upon closer inspection, one discovers that the real problem facing Africa is not that it has imported Western democracy, but that, as a matter of fact, it has not. If there is one overarching sentiment from the typically rancorous relationship between political and civil societies in a majority of African states, it is that the latter have been democracies only in name, and that many of them (Nigeria and South Africa jump to mind) in fact stand out on account of being characterized by the very sensibilities that are the exact antithesis of Western liberal democracy. It would thus appear that, for reasons that are not entirely clear, Obasanjo has failed to distinguish between the appearance of democracy and its substance.

The second question is whether Obasanjo is right in his assessment and understanding of African history as an essentially friction-free paradise of political unanimity. As even the most casual acquaintance will disclose, not only is the African past as depicted by Obasanjo a pure fantasy, there is considerable evidence that it was, in many cases, stolidly hierarchical and in egalitarian. Contra the unsubstantiated mythology that Obasanjo has become strangely enamored of, modern African history is in fact mostly an account of ordinary Africans struggling against tremendous odds to relieve themselves of the burden of custom and tradition; in other words, to cast off the fetters of the very history that Obasanjo would have them return to. It is hardly a coincidence that (1) contemporary African leaders who share Obasanjo’s tendentious understanding of African history are unrepentant dictators and (2) that Obasanjo has failed to show specific examples of eras and or regimes that he would have ordinary Africans revert to.

If Obasanjo is a poor student of African history, his grasp of contemporary African politics seems even more dubious. For instance, his avid recommendation of the virtues of a single-party system does not take into account the ugly record of actual one-party states in Africa, whether de jure one-party states like Tanzania under the late Julius Nyerere, or the invariable mean into which many post-independence African states (among other examples, Cameroon, Rwanda, Equatorial Guinea, and Uganda jump to mind) have tended to regress. Even when they have managed to attain a modicum of political stability and economic prosperity as is undeniably the case with Rwanda under Paul Kagame, the ossification of civil society that is a concomitant of the personalization of political power under one-party systems raises important questions as to their long-term costs to the country as a whole.  

Finally, the fact seems to have escaped Obasanjo that he owes his freedom to criticize and propose political alternatives to the fact that he lives in an admittedly imperfect liberal democracy, one with a foundational commitment to individual freedoms (among them the freedom to express oneself freely); and that a single-party state and suchlike authoritarian cousins invariably culminate in the abrogation of such freedoms.
Granted, Obasanjo may be earnest in his espousal of alternatives to liberal democracy, but ultimately, his advocacy amounts to nothing more than an avoidance of the real causes of Africa’s underdevelopment and a far from subtle incitement to autocracy. The Nigerian statesman may be excused for exploring alternatives, but he should not escape censure for resurrecting ideas that have been tried and found wanting, and now belong, for good reason, in the museum of political ideas.  

•Reina Patel contributed to the research for this article

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