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The African Union’s ambitious program: advocate of democratic values in Africa

04 Jan 2022

The African Union’s ambitious program: advocate of democratic values in Africa

04 Jan 2022


The African Union is an institution undergoing deep reforms, initiated by the Rwandan, Paul Kagame. He has made the self-financing of the pan-African institution, through a 0.2% tax on imports, the focus of his concerns, alongside other initiatives that have led to the establishment of the continental free trade zone.

On the political front, the African Union makes known its intention to regulate democracy. However, it is faced with a plethora of meanings of the concept of democracy, which fluctuate between tradition and globalization. This makes its understanding difficult, even on the continent. Indeed, according to the international community, Africa seems to be a place where democracy is stalling to take its root, due among other things to the non-consideration of African Traditions and values, which structured African societies long before colonization.

Drawing on the Greek terms dêmos (meaning people) and kratos (meaning power), democracy can be conceptualised as a political system in which the people hold and exercise power, or in which “the will of the people is the basis of the authority of the public authorities.”[1] This conception of democracy is in line with the semantic logic of the famous formula of Pericles, echoed by the American President Abraham Lincoln, who defined it as “the government of the people, by the people, for the people.” However, it should be stressed that the concept of democracy has undergone an extraordinary historical evolution, both in terms of meaning and power and in terms of substance and relevance, giving rise to various schools of thought. Thus, today, we can rightly consider that there is no definition which is universally accepted for the word democracy; moreover, any attempt to elaborate one meets with resistance from all sides.[2]

Africa is not a place where there is no democracy at all. However, the divergent views on what democracy should be in Africa further impede the efforts of the African Union in defending democracy and its ensuing ethics. The Democratic Peace Theory helped to analyse the functional implementations of democracy in a continent undermined by all kinds of new strategic conflicts. Democracies are more pacific in general than are other types of states. Democracies carefully identify the type of state with which they are interacting, and adjust their behavior accordingly.[3] According to Immanuel Kant in Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch (1795), democracy consists of “freedom (with legal equality of subjects), representative government, and separation of powers.”[4]

Semantic and semiological discordance on the concept of democracy in Africa

States and governments are engaged in internalising and institutionalising a democratic culture within their space. In other words, in Africa, a tacit consensus has been forged and formed on the legitimacy of democracy as a model for the political organisation of African societies. Almost all African countries recognize the universal nature of democratic values, human rights, the rule of law, etc. since almost all African countries have ratified the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which enshrines democracy as a cardinal value in Africa.  However, this apparent unanimity somewhat obscures the divergences and practical disparities that exist in terms of the development and concrete functioning of the democratic system in the countries concerned.

Several countries claim a certain freedom in the way they organise, design and operate their democracy. They invoke at will the relevance of a “democratic diversity”[5] approach, which expresses the idea that “there are several ways of achieving democracy and guarantee human rights.”[6] This approach seems to match with the idea of the Bamako normative text of 3 November 2000, which states that “there is no single way of organising democracy and that, while respecting universal principles, the forms of expression of democracy must be in line with the realities and historical, cultural and social specificities of each people.”[7] Democracy is therefore not the most widely shared concept in Africa.

Thus, within the wider African community, several member countries consider themselves to be eminently democratic, while other member countries think otherwise. Such “cognitive dissonance”[8] (the political parties representing the actors’ interests choose different policies, and all actors could may rule either democratically or dictatorially) and “representational discordance” (different representation of the same pattern) has been seen in several speeches by several African leaders. Mahamadou Issoufou, former President of the Republic of Niger, established two terms of incumbency a foundation of democracy and peaceful alternation.[9] During the 14th edition of the World Policy Conference in Abu Dhabi on 1 October 2021, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda stated that: “We cannot talk about a theoretical democracy that is not built on what the actual citizens of that place desire for themselves, their families, and their societies.”[10] For him, “that’s the confusion of, in some cases, contemporary liberal democracy with its singular emphasis on individual freedoms, identities, and desires, even at the expense of the common good.”[11] For Nana Akufo-Addo, President of the Republic of Ghana, “democracy and freedom are providing the political, social, and economic platforms for Africa’s long-awaited development. Africa is on the cusp of building a great new civilization, one which will unleash the great energy and potential of the African people.”[12]

Democracy in Africa: between ancestral civilization and globalization

African states have their origins in antiquity (dating back to the 9th century BC), which saw the rise and successive decline of Kush, Egypt, Nubia and Aksum, then (from the 5th to the 17th century AD, in the Sudano-Sahelian era) Ghana, Mali, Songhay and Kanem-Bornou. The period from the 17th to the 19th century saw the evolution and gradual transformation of autocratic kingdoms based on the political economy of slavery (Atlantic trade), violence and predation, such as the Bambara kingdoms (Segou and Kaarta), Dahomey, Benin and Oyo in West Africa, and the Kongo and Luba-Lunda kingdoms in Central Africa.[13]

It should be noted here that we do not consider traditional political systems and institutions as belonging to a ‘golden age’ or an idyllic past to which we must return. Rather, from a realistic perspective, we highlight elements of those systems that are still functional today.

Traditional African political systems were, in many respects, inherently democratic. First of all, political succession was institutionalised and governed by very strict and precisely codified customary rules, depending on whether the society was matrilineal or patrilineal. Moreover, only members of certain clans – such as the Keïta in the Mali Empire – had the right to claim succession. As a result, competition for power between families and clans was kept to a minimum, and leaders deemed physically and morally unfit to rule were automatically disqualified. In addition, institutional mechanisms for controlling the power of princes existed in all traditional African political systems. For example, abuses of power and breaches of tradition were severely punished, and princes who were guilty of such abuses were either neutralised or deposed; in extreme cases, they may have been subjected to ritual murder (Benin and Oyo kingdoms). If a village chief abused his power, the villagers would move in masse to create a new village elsewhere, leaving the chief alone in a deserted village, equivalent to a social death in Africa.[14]

In addition, the power of the prince was circumscribed by two key advisory bodies:

  • The Private Council, representing all the aristocratic clans of the kingdom, with advisory power in political and administrative matters and in charge of maintaining order, was the supreme political, legal and religious authority and took decisions by unanimity.
  • The Council of Elders, made up of the village chiefs of all non-aristocratic lineages, represented the people and had advisory power in political and administrative matters, and took decisions unanimously. In the event of a deadlock (that is, if the Council of Elders failed to reach a decision), the case was referred to the lower level, the village assemblies, for resolution.

This brief overview of some traditional African political systems and institutions leads to the conclusion that, unlike contemporary African political systems, these systems were inherently democratic in that they were based on popular power and a decentralised political decision-making system in which the grassroots political body (village assembly) was the ultimate decision-making body. Furthermore, the village assembly allowed for the direct participation of the people in the political decision-making process of the state. Can it be concluded from this that democracy in Africa is not the result of cooperation with the West? According to the President of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, “democracy was not an imported product, and could not be designed in the offices of other countries. Democracy was formed through the application of positive values characterizing a society, and only the people were able to define the model that best suited them.”[15]

Functional fragility and operational flexibility of the African Union’s mechanism faced with violations of democracy

In order to give greater consistency to its desire to be a leader in the field of democratisation in the international political arena, the African Union has set up an operational mechanism to sanction violations of democracy on the continent. The problem is that this mechanism does not seem to be producing results that match the ambitions of the African Union. The mechanism is graduated, ranging from prevention to sanction, and can be broken down into three important points.

First, there is structural prevention. This takes the form of a permanent early warning mechanism through which the African Union keeps itself informed of the situation and the evolution of democratic practices on the continent, notably through contact missions and election observation missions. To this end, the African Union relies on the Political Affairs Committee, which is responsible for monitoring respect for democracy and human rights in member states and governments. Such a preventive operation is supposed to make it possible to define adequate measures to consolidate the entrenchment of democracy, rights and freedoms on the continent, and provide assistance to African countries wishing to do so.

Secondly, it refers to immediate and operational prevention in the event of a ‘crisis of democracy or serious human rights violation’. If faced with such a situation, the AU authorities are required to take any initiative that would prevent a worsening of the situation or ensure a rapid resolution. In such cases, the Chairperson of the AU Commission may send a facilitator to help find consensual solutions, or rather judicial observers in the case of a trial that is of concern to the African community.

Thirdly, the AU puts itself in a position to react immediately to any case of a ‘breakdown of democracy or massive human rights violation’. After consulting with the current AU Chairperson, confirming the gravity of the violation, publicly condemning it and demanding the restoration of the politico-constitutional order, the Chairperson of the Commission can initiate a number of graduated sanctions against the state concerned. These range from refusing to recognise the results of an election to suspending the country from the pan-African institution, including in the case of a military coup against a democratically elected regime.

Nevertheless, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, President of the Republic of Equatorial Guinea said that the collapse of democracy could be due to a proliferation of interventions that do not respect the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of states, which is a cause for great concern.  Those interventions interrupt the process of democracy in the affected countries, further fueling divisions and socio-political instability.  It is important to clearly distinguish between supporting a democratic process and interference through pressures, which lead to intolerance, exclusions and hatred among citizens.[16]

Operational weakness of the African Union faced with the collapse of democracy in Africa

The mechanism put in place by the pan-African institution may seem perfectly operational. However, it must be noted that it has many shortcomings in terms of its functionality in concrete and practical situations in the daily lives of citizens. It is difficult and complicated to deny the African Union’s desire to build an image as a leader in the area of democracy. However, its ambition is rendered obsolete by the near absence of respect for basic human rights in many countries.

Against this backdrop, every citizen must be guaranteed social security, the banning of torture and slavery, the protection and rights of women, girls and children within an egalitarian society, the right to publicly seek redress for injustice, personal safety and security, freedom of choice and expression, rights of minorities and intra-African migrants.

It is understandable in these conditions that presidential elections turn into a show of shame. It is hard to imagine that a candidate, who has ruled the country without sharing for several decades, would take the risk of destroying the state in order to remain in power. Several elections have shown that certain regimes in power will never accept the democratic game that guarantees the peaceful alternation of power in their country, despite the existence of a consensual electoral system.

Towards consensual democracy

That said, the African Union is making progress all the same. Beyond a simple display and propaganda policy, we can note the fact that the African continent is becoming a space where the democratic imagination is beginning to take root and become institutionalised, as is the mechanism for implementing and sanctioning violations of democracy and human rights, a real boon for the development and prosperity of member states. Despite “cognitive dissonance” and “representational discordance” of the concept of democracy in Africa, we can observe many cases where the implementation of democracy has been successful or partially successful. South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, and Senegal are just some of the countries that have seen a democratic changeover and a peaceful transfer of power over the last ten years.

Source: International IDEA. The Global State of Democracy Indices v.5.1, 2021

According to the Democratic Peace Theory, democratic states are more peaceful than non-democratic states. Democracies do not go to war with each other because they trade more, cooperate better, and share common norms and values.[17] They also promote the mobility, interchange and expression of ideas.

In addition to the democratisation of the political and social system, it is important to emphasize a more liberated and democratic approach to family relations. This would guarantee each African an existence, a presence, a recognition, a trajectory and a destiny in daily life. A new age is dawning on the African continent, one that will utilize democratic processes and economic development to create a prosperous, independent future for the African people.


From the above, it can be seen that Africa is still plagued by several problems and difficulties in building and consolidating democracy, which would constitute an obstacle to the democratic influence of the continent. The problems hindering progress include “recurrence of conflicts, interruption of democratic processes, genocide and massacres, serious violations of human rights, persistence of behaviours hindering the development of a democratic culture, lack of independence of certain institutions, and constraints of an economic, financial and social nature, which lead to the citizen’s disaffection with the democracy.”[18]

Indeed, it is not uncommon for leaders in states that have ratified the African Union’s framework document for democracy – the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights – to violate democratic institutions in order to protect their own interests and shield their power from the popular vote and constitutional constraints. In this respect, the wave of democratization over the last twenty years has sometimes fostered the emergence of sham democracies: rigged elections, leaders not accountable to parliament, weak rule of law, and weak protection of civil liberties.



[1] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, Article 21, paragraph 3

[2] Orwell. George. 1957. “Politics and the English language”. Selected essays. Baltimore.

[3] Fendius Elman, Miriam. 1997. “Introduction. The Need for a Qualitative Test of the Democratic Peace Theory” in Miriam Fendius Elman (ed.), Paths to Peace: Is Democracy the Answer? CSIA Studies in International Security. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

[4] Russett, Bruce. 1993. Grasping the Democratic Peace: Principles for a Post–Cold War World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

[5] Guillou, Michel. 2012. « Francophonie et géopolitique : la troisième francophonie », Géostratégiques, n°36.

[6] Guillou, Michel. 2010. « Francophonie : demain il sera trop tard », Revue internationale des mondes francophones, n°2.

[7] Convention et Charte relatives à l’Agence de coopération culturelle et technique (Niamey, 1970)

[8] Akos, Lada. 2009. Cognitive Dissonance and The Success of Democracy. SSRN-id1345417.pdf



[11] IBID


[13] Muiu & Martin. A new Paradigm of the African State.

[14] Ayittey (G.B.N.). 1991. Indigenous African Institutions. Ardsley-on-Hudson. NY



[17] Russett, Bruce. 1993. Grasping the Democratic Peace: Principles for a Post–Cold War World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[18] Convention et Charte relatives à l’Agence de coopération culturelle et technique (Niamey, 1970)

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