Jibrin Ibrahim delivers ERIS Annual Democracy Lecture

December 2011

Citizen action has been central to the opening up of democratic space in Africa over the past twenty years and is the key to further progress.  But across the continent those with power are abusing the advantages of their incumbency to distort the democratic playing field and to entrench their rule.

That was the message from the Director of Nigeria’s Centre for Democracy and Development and Chair of the West African Civil Society Forum Dr Jibrin Ibrahim when he delivered this year’s ERIS Annual Democracy Lecture on 9 November 2011.  Dr Ibrahim, who spoke on the theme of ‘Democracy and Development’, also drew parallels between the austerity measures adopted in Africa in previous decades under IMF schemes and the current situation in parts of Western Europe and the impact of both on democracy.

Listen to the lecture by Dr Ibrahim (begins after 14:15 minutes)

The Lecture was held at London’s Guildhall and organised in partnership with the City of London Corporation.  The first Annual Democracy Lecture was held in 2010 at the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies and was delivered by former Chair of the Pakistan Human Rights Commission, Ms Asma Jahangir. Full text of Asma Jahangir's speech

 Good evening,
It is really a pleasure and a great honour for me to be invited to give this lecture. In Nigeria we have this phrase which allows us to acknowledge all the important people present – “all protocols observed.” While abiding with the protocol, I want to express my sincere appreciation to the City of London Corporation and ERIS for providing this opportunity for me to engage in a conversation with you on a topic that is extremely broad and difficult to address in twenty minutes, as I am supposed to. The strategy I will adopt is just to raise a few broad trends that I think can provoke a useful conversation.

I was quite excited this afternoon to see students from British universities demonstrating in the streets and the police looking very anxious with their horses, dogs and very smart looking gadgets to protect themselves from the unarmed students who appear to be in a peaceful demonstration. This type of massive show of force is something we in Africa are very familiar with and has been our lives. I am glad the representative of the Nigerian Ambassador present herein is my former student who graduated at the time when the vocation of all democrats and progressive forces in Nigeria was to be out on the streets on a regular basis to combat the police, to begin to define a path for a democratic future for that country.

I am also glad that my teacher in Ahmadu Bello University, Patrick Wilmot, is here. I don’t know what he is now, at that time he was a very fierce Marxist-Leninist. He imbued us with the spirit of radicalism and a theoretical grounding to make the case against capitalism, against the bourgeoisie that exploits the world, and to engage in the struggle of making the world something that is better for the people to place progress on their agenda. Patrick, those ideologies are no longer current, so you still have to brief me about what the correct ideological position is today.

For me, the question of democracy and development, like I said, is extremely broad. My opening statement is that the trend that we see emerging is an extremely positive one and the reality of the direction of movement is away from the usual story about Africa of hunger, of disease, of war and of forms of identity that negate the rights of others. Today, all over Africa, there are liberal democratic Constitutions that have enshrined the rights of all citizens and that prioritise the welfare of the people as the purpose of government.

It is true when you look at the state of economic development in Africa; it is not as true as the Constitutions say, when one looks at the Human Development Report for this year and is struck that at the very bottom of the list you find virtually only African countries. And that is why it poses a serious question to all of us about what is the relationship between this democracy we have now said we have all adopted and the reality of the economic life of most African countries that still remain characterised massively by underdevelopment.

I think the point one can make, before getting into that argument, is that the past three decades have been extremely active ones for Africa, and that there has been very profound and very rapid transformation that has been occurring. That transformation has been rooted in very intense conflict, often in civil war. But the pains of those conflicts, the pains of those wars are translated into something that would lead to a better and greater future.

What then are the trends that one sees in Africa over the past three decades? I think two major issues: a lot of the social forces in Africa over the past three decades have been very much engaged in combating authoritarianism. If there is one engagement that can describe recent African history, it is really the involvement of citizens on the barricades confronting military authoritarianism, civilian authoritarianism, fighting tyranny at a very high cost to the lives and liberties of citizens. I think there is not very much a debate about that tendency.

The second trend that one can talk about is the efforts for the construction of democracy. What strikes me about these efforts for the construction of democracy is that the direction of movement has been towards the deepening and entrenchment of democracy. It is not, however, a unitary direction of movement. There are always huge challenges, there have been obstacles and there have been reverses in the process.

But I think, what is important, where reverses have occurred, is that societies in Africa have been able to reorganise, reenergise and come back to the path of democratic struggle and democratic construction. The message I get, therefore, out of the trends in Africa over the past three decades is that nobody ever gives you democracy, nobody gives you rights, and nobody gives you freedom. You get it when you stand up and when you fight for it.

When one, therefore, looks at this trend, very positive trend of the construction of democracy and movement towards democracy, it is important to understand how it occurred. There is a whole debate about the timing of what is called the second wave of democratisation in Africa. The first wave as we know, was based on the nationalist struggles of the post Second World War era when nationalist parties emerged in most African countries to struggle against colonialism, smashed British imperialism, as well as the other imperialisms, and set up independence with great euphoria that the era of liberty has arrived and the purpose of governance will henceforth be the welfare of the people.

But, of course, that did not last long. Within a period of  six to seven years, three quarters of the countries that had got their independence and set up liberal democratic regimes had collapsed and within a decade virtually most of Africa was characterised by regimes that were authoritarian, to some extent, tyrannical and that  adopted ideologies that negated basic freedoms for communities, for people, for citizens.

And then, in 1990 a major threshold appeared. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was a very rapid movement towards liberal democracy all over Africa. Indeed, between 1990 and 1994 forty-one African countries had said they were against liberal democracy and did not have liberal democratic Constitutions. But within those three years, thirty-one of those forty-one African countries, reversed their Constitutions, wrote up liberal democratic Constitutions, organised multiparty elections. And that was the second euphoria for the return of democracy. The ideologies that had existed in the past, of course, crumbled. There used to be one party regimes, with the argument that one party regimes were more democratic, because rather than contesting factions everybody comes into the same household and democracy is a reality for everybody.

Of course, the other version was the zero-party regimes, where the notion of parties was rejected on the grounds that African culture was based on communitarianism and communities cannot subdivide on the basis of partisanship. These regimes argued for a collective assembly, a collective executive that represents the general will of all the people. The other version in terms of political system was, of course, military rule, which was the majority of political regimes that existed at that time.

I think we live, as they say, in exciting times. Because what is striking when you review Africa over that period was that there were only two regimes that completely refused to shift from the notion of zero party or one party rule. And they were the Libyan and Eritrean regimes. Gadhafi, who had carried out one of the major theoretical advances of the twentieth century in his “Green Book”, had invented the “Third Universal Theory”. I do not know how many of you have read the “Green Book”, but it is a fascinating piece of literature. It engages in a virulent critique of capitalism and liberal democracy. It argues that capitalism is based on class oppression and that any society, any political system that takes as its symbol oppression of one class by the other is bound to destroy that community. Communism, the “Green Book” argues, is based on class warfare. And class warfare, in which the proletariat imposes its will, as it were, on the former ruling class, negates the spirit of humanity where everybody, every member of the community, should enjoy at the same level.

It is after this analysis of the limitations of both capitalism and liberal democracy on the one hand and communism and socialist proletarian democracy on the other that he came up with the Third Universal Theory, in which you rule without an executive on the basis of People’s Committees, in which all members of the Committee exercise power collectively and there is no boss, there is no executive to oppress them or to impose their will on him. What is interesting in the minds of dictators is that they begin to believe their mythology.

It was interesting reading Gaddafi’s comments when the protests and the Arab Spring arrived in Tripoli. He expressed his contentment that Tunisians had to riot against the oppression they were suffering and affirmed that the same could not happen in Libya because there was no oppression in the country and power was in the hands of the people. I think we all know the end of the story, when he and his sons came out to say they were going to bomb and kill every single citizen that they called the ‘rats’ because they are going to take this power that belongs exclusively to them. Gaddafi’s demise in a sense is a fitting end to that history of Africa where elaborate ideological arguments were made to support authoritarianism and tyranny and calling it genuine democracy to spite the people.

The current situation in the contemporary Africa therefore, is that virtually all African regimes, at least at the formal level, have committed themselves to liberal multi-party democracy. Citizens are to be respected and rule is to favour the people. The reality on the ground, however, when you review what has happened in the 1990-1994 era, when most of these Constitutions where drawn up, is that for many of the political leaderships in Africa it was simply a ruse. Many of Africa’s political leadership pretended they were part of the new trend when in the reality the authoritarian regimes continued.

Clearly, for most of this period, in Cote d’Ivoire, in Guinea, in Ethiopia, in Nigeria, in Togo, in Cameroon, in Kenya, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in Zimbabwe, in Gabon, in Sierra Leone, the nature of the regimes was that there was a formal commitment to democracy, the reality on the ground however was that you had authoritarian regimes in new clothes. And I think this phenomenon is really important and shows us that it is not enough to construct democracy by simply changing the Constitution. Democracy arrives on the table only if there is reality behind the words.

The trend of moving towards the establishment of formal multi-party democracy happened suddenly. What was the basis for that sudden and massive transition that occurred in the 1990-94 era? I think mainly because of the timing, there is this assumption that this is very much part of a global trend that followed the collapse of the Berlin Wall. In a sense, one cannot minimise the impact of the collapse of the Berlin Wall on Africa. I think it is particularly important in the context of the way in which the Cold War was conducted, it meant powerful regimes in London, in Paris, in Washington DC supported military dictators all over Africa, they supported authoritarian civilian regimes because they were seen as bulwarks against the spread of Communism.

What that did in contemporary African history therefore was to create a barrier to democracy that was too important and too strong for African citizens to penetrate, because not only was brutal state power locally used to smash the will of the people, but that smashing of the will of the people was massively supported by the Western powers, and therefore, both nationally and internationally, the states worked against the freedom of the African people. Given this background, it is not surprising that a lot of the literature on the second wave of democratisation in Africa argues that what brought democracy to the continent was the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of political and military support by Western powers to authoritarianism and tyranny.

My sense is that that this reading of the “second wave” of democracy is a very inadequate understanding of what happened. I believe that when you look at the period preceding the second wave, especially the decade preceding the collapse of the Berlin Wall, it was the period of the most active engagement of Africans in fighting authoritarianism in their countries. There must therefore be a strong link between African agency and democratisation. In explaining that agency, the crisis that hit African economies at that time was very much part of the narrative.

There is a story told by the “City” and its multilateral agencies such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The narrative tells us that throughout the 1970’s African states began to live beyond their means. They borrowed massively from the West, their production was not at pace with their consumption, and a payments crisis developed in most African countries, and in that context it became very important for the gendarmes of the world economy, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to impose discipline and to impose austerity on African countries.

In the period 1980-82, therefore, most African countries were called, told off and given directives to impose austerity measures in their societies.The form of these austerity measures was to cut public employment, to stop pension regimes, to reduce massively public expenditure on education and health. I know that I am beginning to sound as if I am talking about contemporary Europe, but I am not. Nonetheless, what is pleasing us in Africa today is that what we went through at that time is beginning to be understood at a more universal level.

The imposition of austerity measures in Africa was something that was extremely traumatic for the continent and impacted on it in various ways. Within a period of 2-3 years, the middle classes in most African counties were pauperised. A massive brain drain occurred as professional groups in Africa started to move out of their countries and to search for better lives elsewhere. Within Africa itself, the impact of the devaluation of African currencies at the beginning of these austerity measures meant that there was massive inflation and that the livelihoods of Africans all over began to crumble in a very dramatic manner.

It was within the context of the implementation of these austerity measures, against the backdrop of the suffering of the African people, that things really began to change. The reality of those massive changes was that life became unbearable for most people, and as it became unbearable economic issues became transformed into political issues. In my view, the dynamics of this transformation of the economic into the political is extremely important. The first dimension of that dynamic was a question of the conditionalities that were imposed by the Bretton Woods institutions on African countries.

Africa had regimes that were tyrannical and authoritarian, in which citizens had no rights to question public policy. Africans were only supposed to obey the instructions they were given by their governments. And then all over Africa, within five years, thirty-six countries adopted these austerity measures imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. African presidents were directed by the new bosses in Washington D.C. that they must follow conditionalities, they were given policy measures to impose on their population and they were told they must do as they are told, if they do not, they must suffer for their disobedience. And then the question started making the rounds in the streets.

The dictators have been given orders that they are meekly trying to obey. The Brits and the Americans are in control and are giving all the directives and the dictators are following those directives obediently. These interrogations of the early 1980s posed new questions. How do we end this suffering? Why has survival on a daily basis become so difficult and why is hunger spreading all over the land? Why are Africans being told that there are no alternatives to austerity measures that are punishing the people?

It appeared very naturally at that point that the solution to economic hardship that Africans were suffering was to question the logic of the imposition of the austerity policy package by those who control the world economy. And it was in that context that massive riots started all over Africa, unions became very active, and churches started making political comments that the policy package was cruel and unacceptable. 

Prior to SAP, military governments acted as if they were above the law and reacted violently when their actions were questioned. When therefore they acceded to SAP and had to accept the principle of handling economic aid in line with the laid down conditionality, it became possible to start demanding accountability. In addition, the sudden upsurge in civil society activities aimed at combating the implementation of structural adjustment policies created synergy between the struggle against economic hardship and demands for democratisation. The logic on the part of the civil society therefore became that if the military could be held accountable by distant IMF and World Bank, why not by the citizens? It was in this context that strikes, popular revolts and uprisings became the order of the day in the 1980s and early 1990s in virtually all West African countries.

The response by the international community was that the policy package was not open to discussion; it simply must be implemented completely and immediately. That is the context in which the phrase (TINA) arose. For every riot or economic argument, the response from the bosses was that “There is no alternative (TINA) to structural adjustment and austerity measures.” There is no alternative to the economic path we are giving you - just obey, just follow. History is repeating itself. We all saw what happened with the Greek Prime minister last week. Poor George Papandreou, we all watched live on cable television when Angela Merkel sat this poor man down, pointed a finger at his nose and snarled: “Did we not give you a package to implement immediately?” Are you crazy, why did you announce that you will ask the Greek people whether they are ready to accept the package? Don’t you know that there is no alternative to austerity measures?

As the poor Greek Prime Minister tried to explain that it is difficult, if not impossible to implement draconian austerity measures for ten years while people are already in the streets protesting, the French President Nicolas Sarkozy delivered the killer message, implement or vacate power. The world economy, he was told, cannot wait for what the people think or want. There is no alternative to structural adjustment and austerity measures. You have lived beyond your means and the time for suffering has arrived. It was not surprising that he resigned earlier today. TINA has arrived in Europe.

As we compare Africa of the 80s and Europe today, the narrative is clearly one of a Greek Tragedy. This is not because I just referred to Greece. I am talking of the literature genre. In Greek tragedy, you must suffer because you have done something wrong in the past and that suffering is the solution. The suffering then becomes entertainment for the audience. The issue about economic solutions is that they are sometimes based on a lot of assumptions that do not make sense in political terms.

No people would be ready to take that level of suffering for a decade and just sit down and continue with their life of misery. That is what we learnt in Africa and I think it is the right time for Europeans to become more serious, read African history and know the limits of what they can impose on citizens. I think, when one reads the literature on democracy there is a lot about direct democracy, that the views of citizens matter and that economic logic must subject itself to the desires and wishes of citizens. And I must be very careful, I am in the City of London and I was not asked to speak about Europe so let me go back to Africa, it is safer territory.

The argument I am making, therefore, is that there is a coincidence in timing in terms of the transformations that occurred in Africa from the 1990s, that there was that decade of massive suffering and the response of citizens to austerity measures was that “we cannot take it anymore. If it means going on the streets, being killed, we are ready to take that because the level of austerity that it is imposed on us is simply too much.” And I think, this is my last word on the economy, it was Brecht in one of his plays that was talking about the German Emperor who was telling the people that he was really losing confidence in them and they must make a serious effort to regain his confidence. And, of course, Brecht’s response was that “well, Mr Emperor why do you not dissolve the people and elect others.” I think, when you think you can impose whatever you want on the people, at the cost of their lives, their survival, their pensions, at some point they will tell you “well, if we do not exist as a people you do not exist as a Government.”

The African Spring of 1990 was, therefore, very much a result of the image of civil society, of the active role played by trade unions in mobilising to resist what came to be known as the Washington Consensus. On the activation of students unions, I was hopeful that this place would be full of students so that I can mobilise them too, but oh no I forgot I said I am staying out of that. So, the image of trade unions, the very active engagement of the church, in particular, in politics on the side of people and the role of the mass media in placing issues of protest on the agenda; and, I think, when you look at what happened in most African countries since then, it led to making reality out of not just liberalisation but also democracy.

The Africa of the 1980s has changed significantly over this period and in so many countries of Africa the change is palpable and can be seen. You take Ghana of the 1970s. That was a country that was in deep economic crisis, a country from where over two million highly trained citizens left in search for greener pasture. A country in which the per capita calorific intake of the average Ghanaian was 68 per cent of the required minimum for survival. Ghana has changed today. The country has been able to respond to adversity and today not only has Ghanaian democracy been consolidated but a lot of those who left the country in the 1980s and 1990s are returning massively to their country to re-build it.

You take Sierra Leone with the crisis it went through in the 1970s: the successive coup d’état, the brutality of the civil war conducted by the RUF in which 30,000 people killed and 400,000 people were displaced, that country is on the mend today. The same story is repeated in Liberia. Well, not exactly the same. In Sierra Leone 30,000 people killed in the civil war, in Liberia it was 200,000 people who were killed during the war. 2.5 million Liberians were displaced. But yesterday, we all observed the second round of the Liberian elections. Of course the elections were boycotted by the opposition who questioned the process. A month ago, I was an observer in the first round of the Liberian elections and the transparency of that election was remarkable. The very orderly manner in which it was organised and the way in which the electoral procedureswere very closely followed.

So, I think, coming from civil war, massive displacement of population, killing of people, cutting of limbs to where we are today is a remarkable story of progress. I think, what is even more remarkable is the way in which regional institutions have been playing a very positive role in pushing forward this positive trend. We all remember in 2005 when Eyadéma Gnassingbé, the President of Togo died and his son Faure Gnassingbé had not quite realised that the world has changed and simply took over power. The streets responded in defence of the Constitution which states the President of the National Assembly takes over when the President dies. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) stepped in to force him step down. President Mamadou Tandja, who was then the Chair of ECOWAS, stood his ground and said: “You are signatory of the 2001 Supplementary Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance and that says you must follow what the Constitution says. At the end of the day, Gnassingbé was forced to step down and go through a process of election. The election was violent, it was problematic, it was not the best of elections, but that was a better alternative than Gnassinbé ruling simply because his father ruled.

People in power have, of course, short memories and it is very interesting that five years after the Togo events, the time of President Tandja of the Niger Republic also finished and he suddenly felt “Well, why should I leave, I am enjoying this business of ruling” and he decided to discard the Constitution saying that he would rule for three more years while he reflects on what the country will do subsequently. I remember I was part of the civil society delegation to go and draw his attention to the role he played in Togo five years earlier. He refused to see us and said: “this is an internal affair of Niger.” And we told him: “Well in Togo, you are not on the list of Togolese citizens, why did you go and stop Gnassinbé in Togo? And now you are saying we are not from Niger and, therefore, we cannot tell you to move on.” He was obstinate but, of course, at the end of the day he was forced out of power and the election was subsequently held.

In Cote D’Ivoire the same story: after the 2005 elections, President Gbagbo refused to call elections and stayed in power for five years after the termination of his mandate. Eventually the elections were held; he lost and then decided he was not going anywhere. Eventually he met his fate and was thrown out of office. I therefore completely agree with the words of our Chairman for this occasion, Keith, that 2011 has been a very bad year for dictators all over Africa.

It is in this context that I make the argument that there is a positive trend in Africa. Yes, that trend is significant and it is changing Africa for the better, but there is a major problem around the question of incumbency. There is a massive abuse of incumbency in many African countries and people in power use the power at their disposal to change their tenure in office, to perpetuate their rule, to engage in massive electoral fraud and sometimes to make nonsense of the choice of people. Opposition parties in particular have had great difficulties in operating.

There are elections coming in a week and a half in Gambia and opposition parties are not even allowed to put up their posters on the streets. Anybody who tries to put up a poster other that the ruling party is beaten up by the president’s supporters. I have mentioned cases of the tenure of Presidents ending and their refusal to step down from office. So there are certainly serious challenges to the consolidation of African democracy. The general trend however is that in spite of these challenges, at the end of the day, the direction of movement is towards resolving them.

As we look forward into the future in Africa, I think, the path has been cut out for us. The standards of elections have been improving and, I think, organisations like ERIS have been playing a great role in that regard, but these standards need to continue to improve. Citizens have been very active in challenging authoritarianism and dictatorship in Africa. It is important that we continue to empower citizens in their action to impose their will on regimes and in this context civic education is very important. Opposition politics is very problematic in Africa.

As my former president Olusegun Obasanjo used to say “Africans do not know opposition because in African languages there is no word for opposition which is often translated and understood as enemy.” For many incumbents, the question they ask themselves is why I should provide a level playing ground for my enemy to defeat me. My argument is that this understanding is short sighted. For the African people, the enemy is authoritarianism and bad governance. As we continue to walk towards addressing these challenges, my sense is that over the coming years the consolidation of democracy in Africa will continue to grow.

As I end my lecture, a feel I should say a couple of words about my country, Nigeria, and since Nigerians are a quarter of the total African population, I think we matter. Just last week, we all celebrated the birth of the 7th billionth human being. But for Nigeria the official population is today 167.9 million, and if all these Nigerians do not have democracy then there are very strong limits to African democracy. I will just say two things about Nigeria which I think are important. The first is that the struggle of the Nigerian people to break the cycle of electoral fraud which has deprived them of their franchise for so long is a resolute one. As we all know, we have had three cycles of elections in the country: the election of the First Republic in 1959 was relatively free and fair; the subsequent election organised by the incumbent in 1964 was a disaster and massively rigged; It was re-conducted in 1965 and that was even worse than that of 1964. The result was that we had a civil war and the military took over.

The Second Republic commences in 1979 with an election that was fairly credible. The second round organised by the incumbent government was massively rigged, and again the military took over. The third round of our elections started in 1999, again with fairly credible elections. The second round of election in 2003 was massively rigged. However, unlike in the First Republic and the Second Republic, where rigging of the second round of elections led to the return of the military, in 2003 Nigerians said: “We do not want the military, we will continue.” In 2007, we all worked hard to make sure the elections were free and fair. It did not happen; once again it was massively rigged. But, what is important about the Nigerian narrative is that, once again, the democratic system did not break down. In 2011, for the first time, we have an election organised by an incumbent government that was better than the previous one. This is a strong signal of the return of integrity into the electoral process. The message I get out of this improvement of our electoral fortunes is that there is now more patience in the struggle to develop democracy.

If indeed there is more patience in the struggle for democracy, the explanation lies with the people. My final point is that over the past eight years the keyword in Nigerian politics is protecting the people’s mandate. At each point that there were attempts to rig elections there has been increased mobilisation at the popular level to ensure that the quality of the democratic transition, the quality of the elections, improved. And, I think, in a sense it is this determination of citizens to improve the situation that creates the basis to think the future of democracy and of development in Africa can be optimistic. Thank you so much for your patience.