The Nexus of African Civil Society and Democracy
Although democracy has been a very controversial concept since it emerged in ancient Greece, today, it has become the most desirable form of government (Mueller, D.C.) According to Robert Dahl, who is famous with his work on the core concept of democracy, only a democratic government can ensure fundamental rights, a comprehensive freedom, equivalence, human development, self-determination, and prosperity to people in real terms (Mengesha, R., 2013) and as it is based on the will of citizens, democracy has the most effective tools to meet the needs of people. Also, in the international system, democratic countries are recognized as rational actors which are predictable in their actions (Mueller, D.C.). Thus, democracy is essential to have a peaceful international area since it is reassuring for countries. Therefore, the promotion of democracy to non-democratic countries is required for both internal and external reasons. However, and unfortunately, the democratization process has mostly failed in Africa. Although the continent receives enormous amounts of foreign aid for its democratization, it is not enough for the formation and consolidation of democracy because it cannot provide a genuine transformation.
During the colonial period in Africa, the movements that aimed democracy and self-determination were stimulated by the African civil society. Although this civil society was consisting of small organizations in that time, with the help of mass media, these small organizations became a quite active voice of the anti-colonialist movement. In the post-colonial period, the pressure for democracy and human rights continued to be demanded by again mostly labor and student movements. However, after the rise of neoliberalism in the 1980s, civil society in Africa has lost its capability to keep these demands because the leaders of civic organizations have begun to seek for their own interests due to the nature of the system. Also, as the governments are highly corrupted, it has become harder for associations to maintain their independence from the state, and also receive enough support for their collective actions. Such obstacles to democratization process have been tried to be overcome by the external forces like international NGOs and a huge amount of foreign aids. However, the real transition to democracy only happens if one community requested that by itself. Hence, civil societies play a crucial role in the democratization process and the failure of promotion of democracy in Africa lays down in the failure of understanding of civil societies in African countries (Mengesha, R., 2013).
Civil society is a complex concept that has various meanings, but it is not surprising that the Western view of ‘conventional notion of civil society’ is dominantly referenced. In the framework of this concept, only formal civic organizations are encompassed and their basic characteristic is their independence from the state (Mengesha, R., 2013). Indeed, they act as a bridge between the state and its citizens; work for the accountability of government’s works and in general, balance the power of government. Another feature of conventional notion of civil society is its ability to create a collective action that aims to reach a common interest such as human rights, rule of law etc. However, their acts must be anti-violence that base on pluralism and mutual respect, and stay within the legal framework. It is also important to note that since they are not considered democratic enough, the organizations with strict hierarchy cannot be civil associations (Mengesha, R., 2013). In general terms, this is the ‘ideal’ type of civil society that is desired to be created in Africa by the West. However, there are some problems related to this attempt.
First of all, it is problematic to analyze African societies with the concepts which are based on Western values, beliefs and, criteria. If we take into consideration of all of these features, it is hard to talk about the existence of a ‘real civil society’ in Africa because kinship, traditions, and cultural laws are still in the heart of the life in the continent (Gumede, W., 2016). For instance, the kinship that does play a crucial role in the African societies is ignored by the Western civil society approach because human is basically considered in a universal way which is beyond her blood connections. In this case, which associations can be eligible for the promotion of democracy, and on what basis will they be chosen? Furthermore, as traditional organizations are not qualified to be civic organizations, the most of the existing associations’ in Africa representing a significant proportion of the population seem as excluded from the civil society and that makes harder to understand the structure of the African societies (Mengesha, R., 2013). In this point, a paradoxical situation emerges since how can we talk about democracy, if it refuses to represent everybody in the society? And if people think their interests are not represented in the political, economic and social areas, how can we expect them to involve in the democratization process? As it is well-known, the Africans have already tired of their long-standing, highly corrupted governments that have no intention to consider the interests of their people. Therefore, if we want them to take part in the promotion of democracy, we have to offer something which will make them believe that ‘something will be different this time’. We can start forming this difference by adopting our concept of civil society according to the real conditions of the non-democratic countries. In this regard, ‘sociological conception of civil society’ can be a useful tool since it makes civil society more comprehensive by taking into account of all kind of organizations like labor and student union’s associations, NGOs, communal, cultural and professional associations etc. (Mengesha, R., 2013). In this way, it is more capable to understand the structure of the African civil society that consists of both the traditional-primordial and the modern-civic organizations.