Cooperative Collegial Democracy: An African Alternative to Western Liberal Democracy

Emefiena Ezeani

For many people, democracy simply means formation of political parties for the primary purpose of recruiting major political office-holders. The heart of the liberal model of democracy is the recruitment of government officials. The political recruitment process in liberal democracy, unlike in traditional African democracy, makes a mockery of democracy as it presumes that best leaders can be put forward by their respective political parties and not directly by the people, the demos. Such method suggests the practice of Partycracy instead of Democracy.

Aware of the reality that the use of this political process to institute government has continued to disrupt different African countries and some other multi-cultural societies, sometimes, costing them enormously in terms of wealth and human lives, I propose Cooperative Collegial Democracy as a fair, tranquil, and robust method of political leadership recruitment, using a step-by-step process and College of Representatives who directly come from the people, the demos. Cooperation or consensus, as opposed to competition or majoritarianism, is a significant aspect of African tradition and culture.

African Culture: Democracy as “Familyhood”

Plants and trees grow and flourish on watered and fertile lands but wither and die on arid soil. For anything to thrive, an appropriate and conducive environment relative to its nature must be in place. Cooperative collegial democracy is a context-relevant model of democracy which fits well with the African culture and worldview. For Africans, a nation is a large family; ‘a single party’. This is encapsulated in the thought of the first President of Tanzania, Julius Kambarage Nyerere, which he referred to by the Kiswahili word Ujamaa, which translates to “familyhood.”

The idea of family in African context goes beyond the European concept of the nuclear family of father, mother and their children. The African concept of family transcends even one’s ethnic group or nation to embrace the entire humanity, a position that accords with the Igbo people’s saying Nwanne di na mba – The persons from another land are also one’s brethren. Ujamaa is the belief in the fundamental equality and universal brotherhood of all. It is a social philosophy with the three characteristics of freedom, equality and unity. Because social or economic domination of a people is contrary to the basic tenet of Ujamaa, it is considered to be the greatest enemy of African democracy. It is this emphasis on the equality of all people, which makes democracy the best of all political systems.

For Africans, family is a sacred institution. No family, therefore, pursues any goals by forming opposing groups or parties. Nor are the views of young family members (minorities in a country) denied serious consideration. On the contrary, the wise (elders) always ensure that the spirit of cooperation is maintained among the family members for the common good. When, therefore, members of the family begin to struggle for power or for a larger portion of the wealth bequeathed to them by their forefathers, the family has chosen the path to anarchy and destruction. Is the negligence of the above contextual political norm not a major reason competitive party democracy is a disaster in Africa?

Introducing Cooperative Collegial Democracy

Cooperative collegial democracy is modelled after the African notion of familyhood. It can be defined as a government structured, organized and regulated in a pyramidal pattern, with a step-by-step method of leadership recruitment and government formation. It operates without political parties and it is concerned with the emergence of the best leaders. The importance of quality leadership in society cannot be overstressed or compromised.

Basic political units, for example, villages, towns, or wards of a country are the starting points for the formation and organization of governments. In this system, the actual duty of selecting major government functionaries is transferred to colleges of citizens elected or selected by the people (not parties) at different political levels.

The indigenes of different villages (wards in cities) would select their representatives to form the Village Assembly; representatives of all the villages would come together to form the Town (or Community) Assembly. Representatives of all Town Assemblies in a Local Government Area would then come together to form the Local Government Assembly and so on. Representatives of all Regional Assemblies, finally, would form the National Assembly, which would select from amongst themselves the president of the country. In other words, all these assemblies would be electoral colleges for various political offices at different levels of government. How all these are done and the  broader argument are contained in my forthcoming book by Anchor Book Publishers.

Liberal Democracy vs Cooperative Collegial Democracy

Liberal democracy and cooperativecollegial democracy are both species of the genus democracy. The former is characterized by party formation, institutionalized opposition, political campaigns and competition, and (sometimes, violent) struggle for power. Indeed, it has continued to provoke political conflict, and cause social havoc in different African societies. Cooperative collegial democracy does not possess any of the aforementioned characteristics. Cooperative collegial democracy is non-partisan, cooperative, deliberative, consensual, and it is guided by the principles of equity and equality of all political units in its operation. Structural injustice (e.g. “majority carries the vote”) is a major cause for social discontent and political violence. In terms of cost, in African context, while the liberal model can gulp millions of dollars and human lives to implement, cooperative collegial democracy can only cost a little fraction of such money, and has no propensity of endangering human lives.

Democracy Needs to be Context-Sensitive!

It is time to realise that democracy, as a system of government, is anchored in contextual conditions, and so, it needs to take different forms. For this reason, the Western liberal party democracy cannot function effectively in every society.

Consociational democracy, where power is shared among societal groups, may work in a country like the Netherlands. The Netherlands was known to be politically paradoxical. It was characterised by social cleavages and remained, at the same time, “one of the most notable examples of a successful democracy” because it adopted a context-relevant and a context-sensitive democratic model.

Two variations of democracy can be compared to a tropical apple and a temperate apple: while one can flourish in one geographical environment, the other cannot. African tropical apples cannot flourish in the Western European climate. In the same way, and in many cases, Western European apples will either wither or have stunted growth in African soil.

Emefiena Ezeani, a Catholic priest who hails from Igbo-land, is an educationist, writer, political analyst and author of a number of books, including In Biafra Africa Died – A Diplomatic Plot, IQUISM –Intelligent Questioning as African Liberation Philosophy, Nigeria: 66 Reasons for Biafra, Restructuring or Peaceful Dissolution, and Cooperative Collegial Democracy for Africa and Multi-Ethnic Societies. He has a keen interest in African Affairs, International Relations, Social Justice, Democracy, Education and Development, and for him, Politics, Education and Religion are the three primary factors which shape any society.

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