Some former Nigerian military rulers used to justify their reluctance to relinquish power to a democratically elected civilian government by insisting that a Western style democracy would never work for the country. They often suggested that we should find a system that took into consideration the culture, history, diversity, and uniqueness of the country. Obviously, the good news is that after many years of military dictatorship, the country is now firmly run by democratically elected leader despite all the challenges. However, the question remains: Is there any form of democracy that is indigenous to the continent? Are there any adjustments that Africans need to make to Western democracy to make it suitable?
In search for the answers, the first thing that comes to my mind going back in history is the ways the Igbos in Eastern Nigeria governed themselves in the past. They were an organised nation of people known to have had no kings or powerful rulers. Each village had its own council of elders that served as the local parliament. The eldest person was the most respected and his position would have been similar to the modern day figure head president. This is because his role was just that of a mediator, organiser and centre of focus. Most meetings took place in his compound and he was the one who sent out the “town crier” to announce meetings even though the meeting might have been another elder’s initiative. Nobody challenged his authority because he had none.
Elders joined the council as they reached certain age or as someone left through death. They met to settle disputes and make all the important decisions. As regards decisions, it is vital to note that there was nothing like voting or balloting. Consensus was the rule. People were invited and stood up to address the council. There were debates and member either nodded in agreement or suggested a modification. The council also meted out punishment to offenders as well as conferred titles to people who achieved great feats.
Interestingly, this structure is still practiced to a large extent in Igboland. However, with exposure to the outside world, some traditional rulers known as chiefs have emerged. These were all artificial creations that had nothing to do with history or tradition.
Obviously, many African countries are now complex entities and suggesting a system such as the council of elders at a national level would be just ridiculous. The question however is if there is anything we could learn from our past as regards the system of governance. How did other various African nations and societies govern themselves before the Europeans came? What were the pros and cons of these systems? Is it strong leadership or consensus that will deliver Africa?