John O. Ifediora.


In African societies, especially those found in West and Central Africa, important personal and collective decisions have perennially been made from the vantage point of clan or group interest. While Western democracies may trace democratic principles to ancient Greece, Africans have known and practiced its essence from time immemorial, for decisions on social matters are seldom made without proper consultations with members of the clan, the elders or ‘titled’ men or women in the community. Depending on the matter to be resolved, deference is usually given to the elders or titled men (Chiefs) during deliberation, but in no instance would the final decision be devoid of controlling traditional and cultural precepts. This has been, and to a very large extent in present day, the primary method of decision-making in traditional African societies; the advent of colonial rule never changed much at this grass-roots level.

Thus, traditional observances and cultural constraints remain very powerful determinants of behavior amongst Africans as manifested in different social arrangements throughout the continent. The Ibos of eastern Nigeria for instance, defer to titled men for final adjudication of social issues; the Yorubas of the same country on the other hand, look to a collectively recognized leader to make important decisions for the social group. In either method, the final decision invariably enjoys near universal acceptance, and almost without exception carries with it severe penalties for dissenters. The reason for this is simple; in traditional African societies, there is a strong need to belong to a social group if only for the fact that an individual is defined by his or her group affiliation. One is first and foremost an Ibo, and secondarily a Nigerian; it is never the other way around.

It is this need for group affiliation that shapes and determines how African societies deal with social and personal matters, and it is within this context that one must seek ways to introduce new ideas of governance and development. This approach is best demonstrated by the successes currently enjoyed by religious groups in the continent. In many parts of Africa today, the Catholic Church, and Protestant Pentecostals have sub-planted domestic governments by providing essential services that are normally within the domain of state and national governments. These de facto religious ‘governments’ are able to collect more than enough financial resources through tithes to build schools, hospitals, fund higher education, provide housing, and train priests for ‘export’ to developed nations. The ability of these churches to collect tithes from their congregation where state and national governments are unable to collect taxes from the public goes to the core of dysfunctional governance, political violence, and deficient development strategies. In colonial times, Irish and Scottish priests dominated the Christianization of Africa; today, the vast majority of priests in Ireland are imports from Nigeria. The point of this is that Africans can be nudged towards different social and political arrangements accommodative of modern democratic principles that serve as the basis for sustained economic development if adopted strategies take advantage of controlling cultural and social sensibilities.

The failure to date of development effort in Africa can be attributed to the perception of government and its agencies as foreign and oppressive entities, a view properly molded and conditioned by colonial experiences. To many Africans, governments are impositions from without, or worse, designed by the national elites to further consolidate their positions of privilege. In this special understanding, governments are viewed as means to personal enrichment, and not instruments for social development; hence the crippling levels of graft amongst civil servants and the inability to sustain projects conducive to development. This perception needs to be changed if governments are to be effective, but in order to effect this change, policy makers must understand how African societies function. This approach worked to the advantage of the early British colonizers when they utilized more of the services of cultural anthropologists than those of economists.

But all is not lost, for culture, religious dogmas, and controlling social practices are not immutable; they change with time, and from pressure from both within and without. Thus, in order for modern democratic principles that respect and protect individual rights and freedom to take hold in Africa (indeed and in fact), certain basic conditions must be met. One is the recognized need for an educated polity. A sound education grounded in the liberal arts, and available to the masses, is indispensible to democracy (being able to conduct elections and cast votes are both a negligible aspect of democracy); it is not enough to have a secondary school certificates or university degree as is commonly the case in many African nations where the diplomas or degrees are not worth as much as the paper they are written on. A noted lawyer in Nigeria once described the degrees now issued by the country’s universities as “venereal degrees” for want of a better adjective to describe the processes by which many students get their university certifications without the disagreeable task of studying or attending lectures. The result is a mass production of graduates who can barely write or sustain a logically consistent articulation of issues.

That unemployment and underemployment in all strata of the labor force in Africa are extremely high feeds back to the absence of sound educational institutions, and limited access to ones that are barely functional. In such dire circumstances, the masses, lacking in marketable skills and chronically unemployed, abandon secular activities and look to the heavens for eternal redemption in life after death. Invariably they become proper objects of indoctrination by religious leaders of various inclinations. What Karl Marx said over a century ago is now completely fulfilled in Africa, “that religion is the opium of the masses.” In Nigeria, next to graft and government contracts, preaching the gospels and careers in pastoral duties now dominate the various professions, the world’s oldest profession notwithstanding. Democracy cannot thrive in the midst of poverty and ignorance. Africans can do better, and should if the continent is to break the vicious cycle of poverty, diseases, violence, debilitating poor educational standards, and better yet, shed the perennial dependence on foreign aid.