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Issa Shivji

The Struggle for Democracy

Thursday 13 August 2009

The Struggle for Democracy

Issa Shivji

The contemporary neo-liberal discourse has one fundamental blind spot. It treats the present as if the present has had no history. The discourse on democracy in Africa suffers from the same blindness. The struggle for democracy did not begin with the post-cold war introduction of multi-party system. The independence and liberation struggles for self-determination, beginning in the post-world war period, were eminently a struggle for democracy. Neither formal independence nor the victory of armed liberation movements marked the end of democratic struggles. They continued, albeit in different forms.

The struggle for democracy is primarily a political struggle on the form of governance, thus involving the reconstitution of the state. No one claims that democracy means and aims at social emancipation. Rather it is located on the terrain of political liberalism so, at best, creating conditions for the emancipatory project. This is important to emphasize in the light of the hegemony of neo-liberal discourse which tends to emasculate democracy of its social and historical dimensions and present it as an ultimate nirvana.

On these premises, although liberation was no doubt a democratic struggle, its articulation as a struggle for liberation gave democracy a social dimension, which the neo-liberal ideology eschews and avoids. In turn, the tension between political democracy and social emancipation constantly beleaguered the liberation and independence movements. This tension inevitably got enmeshed in the cold-war ideological confrontation between the two power blocks under respective superpowers. The cold war confrontation not only “disfigured” the liberation and democratic discourse in Africa, it turned the newly and fledging independent states into pawns, and the continent into a chessboard, of proxy hot wars. The consequences of those hot wars have been devastating for the continent. Today’s failed states were once upon a time the darlings or demons – depending on the point of view you take – of global hegemonic powers.

Military coups became the order of the day in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The targets were nationalist regimes, which wanted to carve out an independent space and give their sovereignty a modicum of reality. Patrice Lumumba was assassinated by the American and Belgium manipulation and involvement (Blum 1986, 174). A surrogate regime of Mobutu was put in place.

The Congo, and its people, including, neighboring states in Central Africa have since seen no peace. Kwame Nkrumah, who early realized the importance of continental unity and the curse of imperial exploitation through multinationals, was overthrown in a CIA engineered coup (ibid., 223). That country too has not totally regained stability and development since....


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