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The Party System and Democracy in Africa

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Practically nobody in these islands understands the Party System. Britons do not know its history. They believe that it is founded in human nature and therefore indestructible and eternal . . . by the immutable law of political human nature.

-BERNARD SHAW, in "Everybody's Political What's What?"

. . . if you were to ask . . . an American concerning the two great parties of his own country . . . , a bewildered look would probably cross his face; he would scratch his head and murmur something about tariffs. You would be puzzled. If you asked five Americans you would be five times as puzzled.

-VIRGINIA COWLES, in "How America Is Governed"

MANY people believe there is some special connection between the democratic form of government and the party system, so that one cannot exist without the other. This belief is strengthened by the fact that the freedom to form as many parties as people want is seen to be incompatible with a totalitarian régime. An ideal Communist government is run by a single party composed of the working class; a Fascist government is similarly run by one party in the interests of the capitalist class.

This type of thinking is based on a misconception of the true nature of democracy. It confuses cause and effect. There were parties before the advent of democracy. The first political parties in Britain, for example, are believed to have come into being in the reign of Charles II. This was long before the Reform Act of 1832, which was the bare beginning of change in the direction of democracy.

At present there are political parties in countries which do not even admit the correctness of the thinking behind democracy. Has not the U.N.'s 17- nation committee on colonialism ruled that there is no self-government-let alone full democracy-in Southern Rhodesia because of the denial of equal voting rights to Africans? And yet Southern Rhodesia has political parties which fight and win elections and form governments. South Africa also has parties which have been governing the country for over 50 years against the will of the majority of the people. No one can suggest South Africa enjoys anything like democracy.

The same conclusion is reached if we look at the circumstances which bring parties into being. In Britain there was an attempt to exclude James, Duke of York, from the succession to the throne because he was a Roman Catholic. Some people sympathized with him and started agitating in his favor. Their opponents called them Tories (which was the name popularly given to Irish pirates) . Tories returned the compliment by calling their opponents Whigs (which was the name given to highwaymen in Scotland).

In giving such names to each other, the parties seem to have suggested that there was not much to choose between them. In my own country, Africans were united in a single political organization which put up a united front at the 1960 Constitutional Conference. Then, independence came into sight and politicians started dreaming of loaves and fishes. The Kenya African National Union (KANU) was created as soon as Africans were permitted to form national political organizations. The Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU) followed three months later, but it had no separate program and found it difficult to justify its existence until somebody's brain wave came up with the platform of "Regionalism." This fitted in with the traditional regard shown by British politicians and the press for the interests of the so-called downtrodden minority tribes or communities.

A great deal of political confusion and weakness in dependent countries has resulted from this sort of practice. A national movement starts sooner or later in every country seeking independence. It has a universal appeal and quickly gathers strength. This alarms the ruling race which tries to find forces to counteract nationalism. Agencies of propaganda (the press, the radio) are fully used, but they alone are hardly equal to the task of convincing world opinion that nationalism is wrong. What is really needed is an indigenous opposition to the nationalist movement. Because no foreign government could possibly succeed in setting up a completely artificial opposition party, the policy is adopted of giving every encouragement to disgruntled politicians, especially if they belong to a different religious denomination, tribe, race or area from that of the main body of leaders of the nationalist movement. Such disgruntled elements are sought out and supported.

India, for example, had one nationalist party at the beginning of its political struggle for independence. Later, props were offered to the leaders of a minority group. This induced other minority groups to demand special representation, and in every case the demand was acceded to. This process continued until the whole population was divided into warring sections. The same sort of thing has been seen recently in Kenya, where KANU originally represented the national front. Then KADU was formed and received the fullest support from the local press, which is largely European-owned. The European population generally, and also certain sections of the Asian community, joined it. In the first general election KANU received 67 percent of the African votes cast; KADU received 17 percent. But the constituencies had been so formed as to give KANU 19 seats and KADU 15.

The European press and radio have always been willing to give full publicity to new, dissident groups, although their policies seldom reflect a national outlook; they are sectional or tribal groups whose only effect- if not their purpose-is to delay the coming of freedom. Parties are formed because they are free to form, not because there is need for them. In our country a new trade union may not be formed if there is already one which serves the interests of workers in that field. No similar test of need is laid down for political parties. Anyone who feels like starting a political party can do so. The more sensational and unnecessary its program, the more publicity it will receive in the European press.

The worst of it is that in dependent countries imperialism has managed to keep the level of illiteracy and ignorance high so that every person who takes it into his head to become a leader can find some followers in his own district or tribe or religious denomination. No wonder that the parties in dependent, or erstwhile dependent, countries are not divided on ideological lines. There is generally one party which presses-and whose leaders suffer for-the nationalist cause. Other parties exist because the law allows them to, and because their alien sympathizers give them limelight, encouragement and sometimes money.

II

It is quite clear that the party system can exist without democracy. The only question is whether the converse is also true. To put it more strongly- and I hope agreeably to those brought up in the traditions of the West-we must ascertain whether democracy can function fully and fruitfully without a party system.

Here, a further distinction is necessary. There are states which allow the fullest freedom for the formation and working of political parties but where the multi-party system (which is what we really mean by the expression "party system") fails to flourish. In Tanganyika it has, in the past, been possible for anyone to start a political party. At least two parties have in fact existed there. Nevertheless, one of the parties (the Tanganyika African National Union led by Mr. Julius Nyerere) was able to win 70 seats out of a total 71 in a straight, completely free, general election. To all intents and purposes, therefore, Tanganyika has had a single-party system. Does it cease on that account to be a democracy?

To take another illustration, India has a multiplicity of political parties and there is freedom to form more if the people so desire. The country has had three general elections during the 15 years or so of her freedom, and each of them was vigorously contested. One of the parties (the Indian National Congress led by Mr. Jawaharlal Nehru) has won all three elections and still occupies a more or less unchallengeable position. Is India not to be called a democracy because of this?

The only conclusion one can draw from the political experience of newly freed countries in Asia and Africa is that the party system is not a necessary part of democracy, which is truly concerned with the views, wishes and interests of the individuals making up the nation. Democracy is not fundamentally or necessarily concerned with the existence or well-being of parties, which may represent either sections or cross-sections of the population.

A good, relevant definition of democracy is suggested by the late Dr. C. E. M. Joad:

If we define democracy as a method of government under which every citizen has an opportunity of participating, through discussion, in an attempt to reach voluntary agreement as to what shall be done for the good of the whole, we shall conclude that in offering to its members opportunities to shape its policy and to realize in action the policy they have shaped, it offers them also opportunities for the development of their nature. . . . It enables the individual to realize himself in service to the State, while not forgetting that the true end of the State must be sought in the lives of individuals.[i]

Even those who believe that there is a connection between democracy and the party system must therefore agree that what is necessary is the freedom to form parties. It is not necessary that more than one should in fact exist and function effectively.

Let us take the argument one step further. The chief theoretical justification for the party system is that it increases the force and effectiveness of the people's views. It is an instrument, a means to an end, not the end itself. If the end can be achieved by an alternative means, there is no reason why that alternative should not be adopted. And as in democratic theory the people are sovereign, they can, of course, decide to achieve their ends by another means. A sovereign legislature parts with its sovereignty to the parliament of a new state (say in Africa) which was hitherto a dependency. In the same way, the sovereign people may decide to forego their right to form parties and decree that there shall in future be only one party in the country.

Now, it can be argued that no people will ever do that, but the theoretical possibility is there. And can anyone question the competence of the sovereign people to make such a decision? The only condition is that the decision should be voluntary, and arrived at after free and frank discussion. But, it will be objected, dictators in the early years of their rule always command a persuasive tongue; will they not misuse the weapon of a single party which has been placed in their hands? Have they not in fact misused it in the past?

Perhaps the single-party system will be misused. But has anyone the right or power to stop the sovereign people from decreeing such a system? At the most, we can insist on two things. First, the original decision should be completely voluntary and without any coercion. Secondly, the people should be able, if they so desire, to restore the multi-party system by a further amendment of the constitution. Nevertheless, it should be said that if the people have the right to take a revocable decision to establish a single- party system, they also have the right to say that that decision shall be irrevocable. It is this unfettered right of the people which is difficult to exclude or outlaw.

Now, the people can either express themselves in the words of a constitutional amendment or by their conduct. Suppose Mr. Nyerere's party in Tanganyika repeats its electoral performance once, twice, thrice. Can anyone then doubt what are the wishes of the people? My view, therefore, is that the question whether a country is to have a single party or several parties is to be answered not in terms of any preconceived ideas of "democracy" but in the concrete terms of the wishes of the people.

III

It is unfortunate that the intentions and declarations of African leaders are so often misunderstood. Immediately the people of a country feel a need to strengthen their central government and take steps in that direction, there is a hue and cry in the West that a dictatorship is being created. The fears expressed may in some cases turn out to be justified, but the readiness with which they are expressed shows that the critics start with preconceived notions.

Only a short while ago, Mr. Julius Nyerere of Tanganyika made a public announcement on the subject of party organization in his country. Most newspapers noticed in his long, carefully prepared speech nothing but a determination to put an end to the party system. His essential arguments were carefully excluded from newspaper reports. I should like to quote only a few passages from the speech, omitting the general arguments against the multiparty system which can be found in any good political textbook:

In Tanganyika . . . we adopted the Westminster type of representative democracy. . . . But it soon became clear to us that, however ready we leaders might have been to accept the theory that an official Opposition was essential to democratic government, our own people thought otherwise . . . in spite of our having only one party, we were very democratic. But we were more democratic within the Party. . . . In Parliament it is no longer permissible for each Member to express his own personal opinion. . . . There is a party line to be followed . . . where there is no Opposition party, there is no reason why the debate in Parliament should not be as free as the debate in the National Executive. . . . It seems at least open to doubt, therefore, that a system which forces political parties to limit the freedom of their members is a democratic system, and that one which can permit a party to leave its members their freedom is undemocratic. . . .

The existence of a Two-Party system in the older democracies is best explained by reference to the history of those countries. . . . the genesis of the Two-Party system was a class society. . . .

Our own parties had a very different origin. They were not formed to challenge any ruling group of our own people, they were formed to challenge the foreigners who ruled over us. They were . . . nationalist movements.

. . . where there is one party-provided it is identified with the nation as a whole-the foundations of democracy can be firmer, and the people can have more opportunity to exercise a real choice, than where you have two or more parties. . . . we can conduct our elections in a way which is genuinely free and democratic. . . .

. . . a National Movement is open to all. . . . Those forming the Government will, of course, be replaced from time to time; that is what elections are for. The leadership of our Movement is constantly changing. . . . since such a National Movement leaves no room for the growth of discontented elements excluded from its membership, it has nothing to fear from criticism and the free expression of ideas. . . . Any member of the Movement . . . would be free to stand as a candidate if he so wishes . . . the voters would be able to make their choice freely from among these candidates.

To elaborate briefly on the ideas expressed by Mr. Nyerere, there are circumstances in Africa which favor emergence of single parties, or systems in which there are many parties but with one in a dominating position. Those circumstances can now be listed.

First, the new states of Africa have hardly got out of the woods. In the days of struggle against a foreign nation or against a racial minority placed in power by a foreign nation, the minds of the people are preoccupied with their political troubles. They experience these troubles not as individuals but as a racial group, all of whom suffer the same disabilities and indignities. There are no exceptions made in favor of anyone. Therefore, when the victims of discrimination combine to form a single party, it tends to be based on race. Small "moderate" groups may be formed here and there, but they are of no consequence. The essential point is that all opposition to foreign rule or a mono-racial rule comes from what is to all intents and purposes a single political party. As the tempo of struggle against racial policies rises, this political party becomes better organized and more widely based. In time, it becomes the mouthpiece of an oppressed nation, a possible successor to the alien government.

Secondly, this party or movement comes to have a leader who, by reason of his sincere and effective advocacy of the national cause and by reason of his sacrifices in that cause, is regarded by the masses as the leader, the hero, the father of the nation. He is a symbol of national unity. He is identified in the mind of the people and the outside world with the party, with the nation. This serves to solidify the foundations of the political organization and the general movement for unity.

Thirdly, this movement for unity continues after independence. The original party which fought for, and brought about, freedom continues in being-maybe as the government of the country. The same leader with the same group of collaborators is now the leader of both the people and the government. This in itself works against the emergence of a multi-party system. Again, the problems facing the new government are serious and urgent. It was easy in the pre-independence days to blame the foreign or the racial minority government for the poverty, the ignorance and the poor health of the people. Now, these causes of backwardness have to be removed-a process which requires planning, money and popular enthusiasm. This is the time when the government feels it must somehow persuade the people to give it all the support possible. The opposition parties, which were always small and weak, try to justify themselves by increasing their opposition to government measures-opposition largely for its own sake. This irritates the government which is engaged in the work of nation-building. At this stage, two courses are possible: either the government acts as a steamroller, ignoring the existence of the opposition, or it takes steps to put an end to opposition for its own sake-completely and permanently.

There is another force which militates against the establishment of a multi- party democracy of the Western type. The majority party in a dependent country-that is, the party which represents the nationalist movement-comes into conflict with the ruling race almost from the start. To establish a counterweight the rulers choose dissident individuals and groups and build them up. When the nationalist majority, naturally, demands a one-man-one- vote democracy on the Westminster model, the favorite minorities oppose it and ask for safeguards against majority rule. The rulers side with the minorities and a democratic system crippled by a crop of entrenched clauses is ultimately introduced. The majority party has to agree to this crippling in order to get rid of the foreign rule.

Our own experience in Kenya serves as an illustration. The African community was united in its demand for freedom and had the support of many of the Asians and some of the Europeans. At the Constitutional Conference in London in 1960, the African Elected Members presented a unanimous demand, speaking as one single party led by one leader. This Conference accepted two aims of constitutional development in Kenya: "first, to build a nation based on parliamentary institutions on the Westminster model and enjoying responsible self-government under certain traditional conditions; and secondly, a general acceptance by all of the right of each community to remain in Kenya and play a part in public life."

In pursuance of the second of these aims, the majority party (that is, KANU) proposed a comprehensive Bill of Rights guaranteeing full and equal political, economic and social rights to members of all races. As regards the first aim, the memorandum presented by KANU to the 1962 Constitutional Conference stated: "We understand this to mean majority rule, with the majority party, for the time being, running the Government, and the acceptance of an opposition party or parties who-on their part-accept parliamentary rules and methods as the means of advancing their policies and in pursuance of their political activities."

Can anyone in the face of these clear statements maintain that the majority party wanted to establish either a dictatorship or a one-party system? Nevertheless, we did not get the necessary backing from the British Government and many British papers were hostile to us.

IV

I think it will be useful if I now summarize my conclusions in a few brief paragraphs:

1. Democracy is government of the people, by the people, for the people. The supporters of the party system argue as though the word "people" in this definition read "party."

2. A government which gives all citizens the right to vote, the right to contest elections and the right to express themselves freely inside and outside parliament is not undemocratic.

3. The current aims of, and the history behind, the parties in the older countries of the West are different from the aims and history of the parties (or national movements) in the countries of Africa.

4. The responsibility for the emergence in African countries of a single political party or of one strong and several weak parties must be laid at the door of imperialist nations which created the conditions militating against the establishment of democracy based on two or more political parties.

5. The imperialist nations of the West and the Western press continue their traditional attitude of encouraging and actively instigating disgruntled, dissident elements which oppose the establishment of a parliamentary system of government (implying one-man-one-vote and majority rule). The Western statesmen and their representatives in Africa never tire of asserting that majority rule suits the countries of the West but that in Africa the minority tribes and races stand in need of special protection against majorities.

6. The countries of Africa emerging from political subjection are entitled to modify, to suit their own needs, the institutions of democracy as developed in the West. No one has the right to cavil at this so long as all citizens-irrespective of their racial, tribal or religious affiliations-are treated alike.

[i] "Guide to the Philosophy of Morals and Politics," London: Gollancz, 1938, p. 807.

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