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Statement By Former President Alhaji Dr Ahmad Tejan Kabbah In A Symposium On ďDeepening Of Democracy In AfricaĒ At The Kwame Nkrumah University Of Ghana, Saturday 25 April 2009
By Dr. Ahmad Tejan Kabbah
May 1, 2009, 15:51
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Deepening Of Democracy In Africa

Your Majesty,
Distinguished Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen:

I am delighted for the invitation to participate in a symposium at this prestigious institution; one that remains a shining symbol of the legacy of a great African patriot and visionary, the late Dr. Kwame Nkrumah. I would like to express sincere thanks to Your Majesty (the Otumfuo Asantehene), my revered friend, for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts and experience with this gathering on ways of deepening or strengthening democracy in our Continent. I recall His Majestyís five-day visit to Sierra Leone four years ago and the benefits we derived from his insights about the efficacy of African traditional leadership.

Chair, let me preface my remarks with a brief comment on the term "democracy" or what is defined as "government of the people, by the people and for the people." Every country on planet Earth claims to be democratic. Democracy is often regarded as the best form of government. The renowned British statesman, the late Sir Winston Churchill put it obliquely, and I quote: "No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those forms that have not been tried." Unquote. However, the reality is that there are several types of democracies. There are republics of all types, monarchies, kingdoms, federations and dominions Ė all claiming to be democracies. There is a school of thought that the type of democracy a nation chooses to practice depends to a large extent on its history, culture and particular circumstances. In other words, countries could be "differently democratic." So, one is not surprised to hear of "Western democracy" or even "African democracy."

This, notwithstanding, no one can deny that in our inter-dependent world today, however (by whichever means) democracy is defined or practiced, there are certain features that are common to all democracies. These include:

  • A system of representation, with functioning political parties and interest groups or organizations.
  • An electoral system that guarantees periodic, free and fair elections based on universal adult suffrage.
  • A system of checks and balances anchored on the principle of separation of powers, with independent judicial and legislative branches.
  • A freely-organized civil society to provide alternative forms of political participation, and
  • A system that ensures the safety and promotes the economic and social well-being of the people.

Using these common features or denominators of democracy as a guide, I believe that we in Africa have come a long way. We have witnessed a transition from the era of civilian and military dictatorships that characterized the period of the 1970s and 80s, to the bourgeoning of new democratic governments in many parts of the Continent. However, a careful examination of the situation as a whole, especially in the context of some recent developments, would reveal that much more remains to be done.

The question is how then do we deepen, strengthen and sustain democracy in Africa? I donít have all the answers, but I do have a few (actually five) suggestions.

The first is in the area of good governance.

(1) Promotion of good governance

I believe that good governance is one of the core principles of democracy. In Sierra Leone under my administration we tried as hard as possible to deepen or strengthen democracy by initiating processes, guidelines and legislation, and by establishing appropriate statutory bodies and other regulatory/enforcement and monitoring mechanisms for the promotion of good governance. These include:

  • Judicial and Legal reforms
  • Public Sector and Civil Service reforms
  • Constitutional and Institutional reforms
  • Decentralization and Local Government reform
  • Promotion of human rights
  • Promotion of accountability

Reduction of the incidence of corruption and abuse of power; and

Provision of space to civil society so that they can operate freely and fully within the law.

Of course there are many challenges not only in developing the elements of good governance, but more importantly in implementing them. For instance some of the Commissions that we established could not become fully operational in a timely manner because of financial and related constraints. I know from personal experience that this can be extremely difficult. However, we recognized, and I believe African countries should also recognize, that such institutions are absolutely necessary for the effective governance of the nation.

(2) The Judiciary

And speaking about institutions brings me to the second, and a related suggestion about deepening democracy in Africa.

The one institution that is perhaps most easily prone to manipulation by unscrupulous politicians, apart from electoral commissions, is the Judiciary. We Africans should ensure that the Judiciary which is an important arm of democracies, must be seen to be independent and impartial. As the saying goes, "the law is no respecter of persons." One of the advantages of having a judiciary that is independent and respected is that the citizens will have faith in the system. Accordingly, they would be less inclined to resort to extra-judicial means to seek redress. Another advantage is that the incidence of conflict would be reduced.

In one of my recent engagements as leader of an election observer team in an African country, I advised some opposition politicians who felt that they had been cheated in the elections, to refer their grievances to the courts for arbitration. They rejected my suggestion outright, pointing out that they had no faith in the judiciary in their country. They further claimed that the courts had been incapable of adjudicating even disputes arising from the previous general elections. If this assertion is true, then it is bad for democracy in Africa, since justice delayed is justice denied. Judges must be firm in order to maintain their integrity, and where there is undue political influence, they should be courageous enough to resign and say why. I have no doubt that such bold action would discourage future interference in the judicial system. The same advice holds for senior officials of commissions, especially National Electoral Commissions.

(3) Respect for the Constitution and the Rule of Law

Chair, ladies and gentlemen, in my view respect for National Constitutions and other legal instruments is another effective way of deepening democracy in our Continent. The Constitution is a sacred document and the supreme law of the land. As a rule, for example, the constitution contains clauses relating to the fundamental rights of the individual. It also has provisions stipulating the tenure of the Head of State or Head of Government. Sadly, some of our political leaders in Africa have little regard for these provisions. They sometimes go to great lengths, with the assistance of their cronies, to maintain themselves in power indefinitely. Some others demonstrate total disregard for the time limit of their tenure by instituting measures to prolong their stay beyond the constitutional stipulation. This, in my view seriously undermines democracy.

For its part, the Sierra Leone Constitution clearly stipulates that a President can only serve no more than two five-year consecutive terms. When I was re-elected for a second term in 2002, I immediately made it known that I had no intention of manipulating the Constitution in order to seek another term. True to my word, I respected the Constitution and gracefully bowed out of the Presidency after the 2007 elections.

Africa should also deepen democracy by discouraging the ĎPresident-for-lifeí syndrome. To my fellow African political leaders, and particularly the sitting Presidents, my advice is that there is life (and I mean good life) after the presidency. Do not overstay your constitutionally stipulated time in office. Take your exit when you are required by law to do so.

(4) Civilian control of the armed forces

A fourth suggestion I have pertains to civil-military relations. Exercising effective civilian control over the military and other security forces of the country is yet another means of deepening and strengthening democracy in Africa. I speak here from my own experience. It will be recalled that in 1996 I assumed the presidency of my country from a military regime, and in the course of a debilitating rebel war. In 1992, the military, whose sacred and constitutional duty was to safeguard the territorial integrity of the State and the security of its people, had abandoned its responsibility. It overthrew the civilian administration and took over the reins of government.

During my administration there were elements of the previous regime within the army who were averse to civilian control over the military. This manifested itself clearly in the area of accountability in the allocation and management of resources including ration. Within fourteen months, renegade officers of a so-called Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) staged a coup against my democratically elected government. Once again democracy was at bay. However, the people of Sierra Leone were determined to uphold democratic principles, values and practices. With the support of ECOMOG and the international community we were able to resist the unlawful military interference in the governance of the country and successfully pressed for the restoration of my administration.

A major challenge we faced in Sierra Leone was to significantly improve civil-military relations to ensure stability and sustain our fledging democracy. We also took measures to establish a modern, professionally trained, well-equipped, highly-motivated and dependable army that was capable of defending the nation from external aggression. The restructured army was placed under civil control, a process that was difficult at first, from the point of view of the military. Gradually, however, the rank and file of the armed forces began to appreciate and adapt to the change.

(5) Raising the living standards of the people

Chair, ladies and gentlemen, you and I, and every individual have political and civil rights. But we also have economic and social rights which must also be promoted and safeguarded. And this brings me to the fifth and final point concerning ways of deepening democracy in Africa.

Democracy is a political concept. However, democracy is deeper, much deeper than the right to vote and the holding of free, fair and periodic elections. It transcends political ideologies and party politics. Democracy is about politics and about political empowerment. It is also about economic and social empowerment. If we politicians expect people to stand in a queue for hours, sometimes in inclement weather Ė rain or extreme heat Ė and perhaps with an empty stomach, waiting to exercise their right to vote, surely, we must do everything possible to ensure that subsequently they see and enjoy the benefits of that political exercise in their daily lives Ė adequate food, potable water, basic health care and other social services.

In my opinion, democracy without strategies to ensure a discernable improvement in the standard of living of the people is absolutely meaningless. This is why, and notwithstanding the deliberate efforts by a military junta and a military/rebel regime to disrupt or torpedo my national agenda of peace, security, reconciliation, poverty reduction and sustainable development, my administration embarked on a number of programmes to implement that agenda.

For instance, initially and based on the reality that Sierra Leone was entering a post-conflict era, we devised a Poverty Reduction Strategy focusing on support for the transition from peacekeeping to peacebuilding, and from relief to equitable and sustainable development. Later, it was directed at such critical issues as food security and job creation. I launched a food security strategy around the objective of ensuring that no Sierra Leonean went to bed hungry by 2007, the end of my second term in office. In spite of cynicism from certain sections of the media and other detractors, the food security programme yielded positive results. Our Vision 2025 was set within the context of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and incorporated targets for reducing poverty by 2015.

We tried, against all odds to expand our social services and channel more resources to the health and education sectors. We rehabilitated, built and equipped a large number of schools including in areas devastated by the eleven-year rebel war. I should mention the modest but effective Sababu (Explain) education programme; essentially a pilot initiative to benefit the girl child. We also established a novel scheme Ė a National Social Security and Insurance Trust (NASSIT). It marked a major milestone in Sierra Leoneís pension system. It is based on the objective that every individual has a human right to social protection. It guarantees to working and retired Sierra Leoneans who contribute to the scheme income stability, and provides a safety net to cater for the basic needs of persons aged 60 and over who have no social security or source of income from assets or family support.

Such a scheme could help to reduce extreme pressure that is often put on our politicians and senior civil servants by friends, family and others who expect these public officials to solve all their financial problems, a major cause of the high incidence of corruption in Africa today.

Ladies and gentlemen, these are some examples of democracy at work. These are some of the ways I believe we can deepen democracy in Africa Ė translating into reality the true meaning of "government of the people, by the people and for the people."

I thank you for your attention.


© Copyright by Awareness Times Newspaper in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

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