We have come to look at free and fair elections in Africa as a standard for measuring how democracy is setting in for many countries on that continent. Free and fair elections are indeed the best place, the first place actually, to assess whether or not a country is heading in the right direction towards a democratic dispensation. But I argue that this is not the only measure by which to judge whether a country is actually a functioning democracy. The question we should be asking is “What happens between one ‘free and fair election’ and the next one?”

If by free and fair elections we mean that the voters in any given country have the final say on who is going to govern them over a given period, then we should also be giving those same voters the final say on how, in practice, they will be governed in that given period. People find a stake in institutions when they have a say in how those institutions make decisions on their behalf. Only when people are empowered to demand and shape better policies, express grievances, seek justice and hold leaders accountable can we say that free and fair processes of choosing a country’s leadership reflect their democratic wishes. In other words, a true measure of democracy is how people demand and receive better policies from those they have chosen as their governors.

In other words, democracy demands constant and consistent participation, not in casting a ballot every five years but in people at every level of society becoming involved in decisions that affect their lives, and doing this on an ongoing basis. This means more than just a free press reporting on what is going on and in what decisions are being taken by a government. It means more than politicians and the ruling class arguing over which direction to take on any and many available options for any given issue or policy. It means direct involvement by the very people that elected the governors. I argue that in many African countries there does not exist a well-organized and vibrant civic society that actually mobilizes ordinary citizens to, for example, have direct input into how a particular piece of legislation and its accompanying regulation will be debated, drafted and implemented. Not many members of a national or local legislature actually hear from their voters on how they should vote on a particular bill coming up for debate. Not many bureaucrats actually hear from ordinary citizens in any given district about how a project will be implemented in that area. And when the citizens actually make their views known, do those same bureaucrats take citizen input seriously? Do the bureaucrats even contemplate negative consequences for not listening to those who would be affected by their actions? I have personally waited for hours on end in long lines for service at government offices in many an African country, when people supposed to be providing the service were inside on personal cell phones or endless tea breaks. And any visitor to any part of Africa will tell you of horror stories about projects implemented without input from the affected locals, leading to major disasters, including famine or illness.

I am arguing here for a ‘quality democracy’, one which requires responsiveness of elected officials to the needs and concerns of those they govern; a democracy where the governed have the means to access and/or influence the decision makers and where decision makers are fully aware of the consequences of not responding in one form or another to the concerns of the governed. The stress here is on citizen access and ability to provide input and not necessarily on results. Not all the interests of all members of a given society can be accommodated at any one time. But knowing that you, as a citizen and a voter have been heard is crucial because it gives you a stake in a system. And as a decision maker or leader, knowing that you have been seen as listening to all view points before making a final decision gives you legitimacy. And the confidence to act accordingly.

This, in my opinion, is especially central in promoting economic development, yet it is lacking in many parts of Africa. Where it exists the positive results are obvious. In Botswana, for example, there exists a traditional system of governance called the Kogtla. It combines the country’s established democratic system with a process of public meetings or community councils where decisions are always arrived at by consensus. Anyone at a meeting is allowed to speak, and no one may interrupt while someone is “having their say”. This consensus is then applied to decisions and actions taken at government level throughout the country. It can be argued that Botswana has achieved a relatively good development performance in the 50 years of independence primarily because its democracy accommodates continuous input from the citizens on all matters affecting their well-being.

Where such an organic system does not exist, civic organizations can fill the void. These institutions have done a yeoman’s job in Africa in promoting human rights and democracy and exposing abuses of every kind. They can do more, especially by being the avenue for citizens input in a country’s governance because active participation of citizens in governance promotes transparency and accountability. Civic organizations in Africa should be the extra constitutional ‘other’ branch of government, much as the press does in western democracies. And they alone would have the backing of their international counterparts in expanding this crucial role as promoters of good governance. Providing them with additional funding and support for this essential task is also of utmost necessity.

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