Wale Adebanwi on democratic reform in Africa

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Wale Adebanwi is the Presidential Penn Compact Professor of Africana Studies. His research and teaching focus on the social mobilization of power and interests in Africa. Adebanwi’s undergraduate course, Popular Culture and Youth in Africa, explores how popular culture offers escape and entertainment for young people while also working to transform African societies. He discusses the successes and challenges of democratic reform in post-Cold War Africa.

Wale Adebanwi in conversation with Wole Soyinka, Nigerian playwright, poet, Nobel Laureate, and pro-democracy activist at the annual Distinguished Lecture in African Studies at Penn on March 22, 2022. (Image: Eddy Marenco)

Is democracy on the rise in Africa? Yes and no, says Adebanwi. “To the extent that democracy has become a norm, or a formal system of governance, in Africa, that is something to be celebrated. Unfortunately, the forces that were arrayed against democratic rule did not give up.” According to Adebanwi, forces opposed to democratic rule had an approach to democratic rule. “The first was to become part of the democratic process,” he explains. “They changed the means for accessing power, and because these forces became dominant in many democratic polities, it meant that some of the most vital institutions and processes that would otherwise deepen democracy were not, in fact, truly democratic institutions and processes.

The second thing was to sap democratic institutions of their dynamism and energy. For example, in many states, because of the legacy of military rule and one-party rule, antidemocratic forces ensured that the executive arm of government was overdeveloped in relation to the other two arms.

Some scholars have described what we have now as hybrid democracies, because there’s a large number of authoritarian institutions and leaders dominating many polities, and they constitute the core of the ruling elite.”

In order for true democracy to happen, Adebanwi says, serious structural problems need to be resolved. “One problem is determining what kind of political architecture works best in states where different communities—ethnic, ethno-regional, religious, or a mix of the three—are living together. Another challenge is the absence of a clear investment by the political elite in the mess, the true mess, of democratic politics.”

Adebanwi cites Botswana and South Africa as two countries where democracy is thriving. Globally, other nations should “do more to make it clear that they will not recognize any government that comes to power other than through free and fair elections,” he says.

Homepage image by Kingsley Nebechi. This story is by Jane Carroll. Read more at OMNIA.

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