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African ownership and redefining democracy

- Wits University

Kenyan Pan-Africanist Advocate Patrick Lumumba spoke at Wits on May 4 ahead of Africa Day at the invitation of the Wits School of Education.

Speaking on the topic, Militarisation of democracy and democratic space: implication for higher education, Lumumba delivered a provocative and impassioned lecture in which he called on universities to redefine democracy for Africa. 

Why celebrate Africa Day?

Africa Day evolved from the creation of the African Union in 1962. It has become synonymous with a celebration of African identity distinct from colonial or other influences.

“Celebration is about ownership,” said Lumumba, who was the inaugural speaker of the Mapping African Futures series in the Faculty of Humanities, funded by the Mellon Foundation.

Lumumba prefaced what would be an impassioned lecture with, “My thoughts are not necessarily the truth”, and pointed out that so-called experts on Africa are often not African. He suggested that Africa is "a curiosity", referred to as “Francophone Africa” by the French or “Lusophone Africa” by the Portuguese. This curiosity is fundamental to ownership of Africanism.

Ownership encompasses both challenges and opportunities, he suggested, and then eloquently explored the militarization of democracy (and higher education) in Africa with astonishing breadth and insights into Africa.

Instinctively children of a lesser God

“The conceptual West believes they have a divine right to tell Africans what to do,” said Lumumba, adding that Africans have been unable to decolonize their minds. “We instinctively behave as if we are children of a lesser God.”

He alluded to the Congress of Berlin in 1884 where the Germans, British, Spaniards, French, Belgians, and Italians claimed their African colonies. Although countries in Africa have now ‘regained’ independence, Lumumba asserts, “We were independent before we were rudely colonized!”

Lumumba referenced Dr Kwame Nkrumah, the first Prime Minister and President of Kenya, who became an international symbol of freedom as the leader of the first black African country to gain independence.

“Our independence is not safe because the neo-colonial project is alive and well,” warned Lumumba. “Kenya’s independence [as per Nkrumah] is worthless if the rest of Africa is not free.”

Belgium’s King Leopold did not escape Lumumba’s wrath. History does not extensively denigrate Leopold – a mass murderer akin to Adolf Hitler – despite Leopold killing 15-million Congolese.  “He killed them!” declared Lumumba, suggesting that this indicates that the life of the African is worth less than that of the European.

The militarization of democracy

The Organisation of African Unity (OAU), which prefaced Africa Day, envisaged a United States of Africa. This included one army, one free trade route, one currency. However ‘independence’ for the OAU, was defined in London, Paris, and Madrid – not in Africa, says Lumumba. This was due to Africa’s inheritance of democracy and of the military, he suggested.

“Africa is a theatre for the concept of ideology,” said Lumumba in reference to the Cold War between the US and the USSR, which saw democracy – and Africa’s democracy – defined by the West. Africa adopted a Westminster Parliamentary System and this system continues to govern the former British colonies (notwithstanding the European judicial attire entirely inappropriate for the African climate). Just as Africa had to adopt the West’s democratic systems, so too did it inherit militaries, which the West had indoctrinated.

Lumumba cited an example of the “mutiny of armies” in 1946 when all the newly independent former colonies in West Africa staged coup d’états to destabilize these new African democracies. This was at the behest of the West, and so began a trend of destabilization by militaries of Africa from which the continent has never recovered.

He suggested that African leaders are judged as if they are running a relay although leadership is really a marathon. There is a continual “passing of the baton”.  In Nigeria, for example, where militaries were inherited, the West propped up brutal leaders. Yet the one-party states that characterize Africa are not necessarily dictatorships, Lumumba suggested and urged that the motivation of these leaders be considered within the context of their governance.

“Multi-party countries could disrupt democracy,” he pointed out.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union (in opposing the US) offered African leaders “a buffet” of governance options, says Lumumba, which led to the emergence of guerrilla warfare – viz. MPLA, the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola; ZANU-PF, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front; and Umkhonto we Sizwe, the paramilitary wing of the African National Congress.

“These were freedom fighters of a different type – even though they hadn’t gone to school, they believed in school.”

“Ideological armies” thus emerged in African countries which had inherited colonial militaries, but these armies never had a successful coup d’état in Kenya, Zambia and Malawi. Because of the “ethnic-isation of the army”, the new African democracies were immunized against being overthrown.

Within the context of an inherited system of governance, an inherited military infiltrated with an ethnic army, ‘democracy’ for African countries was not a freedom of their own making.

Redefining democracy for Africa

“This thing called democracy – who defines it? The conceptual west!” said Lumumba. From the independence of the judiciary, through the manner of dress, to bearing a parliamentary mace, to the concept of ‘one man, one vote’, the systems of the conceptual west have infiltrated, undermined and sidelined an African approach.

“We must define our own democracy,” said Lumumba, adding that Saudi Arabia, for example, does not kowtow to the West. “Saudi Arabia has self-esteem and the conceptual West has never told Kuwait how to govern.”

He likened Africa to the meat at the dinner table of civilization – where the British, the French, the Arabs, the Chinese, the European Union, all partake of the feast. “Are we saddled with this model? We must redefine democracy. And the University is the solution to the challenge of democracy”. 

Redefining higher education in Africa

“What is the University of Lagos famous for?” Lumumba asked, in comparison to renowned Ivy League higher institutions in the West.

“Research must define [African] universities. What education are we teaching our engineers that the Chinese are building our roads and bridges?” he demanded.

“We have been miseducating ourselves. We can’t keep blaming slavery and colonialism. Africa has come of age.”