The much-heralded inaugural edition of the BBC African Debate took place at the Kofi Annan Centre in Accra on 27 January. The theme of the well-attended forum was “Is an African Spring necessary, and is it possible?”
The topic was apparently inspired by last year’s mass uprisings in North Africa and other parts of the Middle East.
Chaired by the BBC reporters, Alex Jakana and Sam Farah, the debate saw four Africans sitting on a panel to enlighten and take questions from an invited audience.
The panelists were Professor George Ayittey, a noted Ghanaian author and scholar based in the United States; Kuseni Dlamini, vaguely described as a South African analyst; Anne Mugisha, described as aUgandan activist; and Dr Michael Kpessa of the University of Ghana’s Institute of African Studies in Legon.
If the agenda was to promote a North African-style uprising in the rest of Africa, then the organisers and sponsors must be sorely disappointed.
The debate kicked off with a request that those who support an Arab Spring in Africa should raise their hands. Only five people out of the more than 100 present did so.
Africa 1: BBC 0.
The panelists were then invited to give their views. The Ugandan activist, Anne Mugisha, opened with a robust report of her experiences at the hands of what she termed an “oppressive and tyrannical regime” in her native Uganda. She did not find, however, the so-called Arab Spring inspiring as she did not believe that one size would fit all in Africa.
Professor Ayittey took issue with the very theme of the debate. He opined that “black” Africa had experienced its own Spring in the 1980s and that, if anything, it was the Arabs who needed lessons from the African experience.
From here Prof Ayittey, much beloved by the West because of his pro-Western views, went off tangent. According to him, only 15 African nations are democratic and even out of these, only six could be described as truly free.
His remark was met by thunderous murmurs of dissent from the audience which, seemingly, prompted Alex Jankana to invite the audience to take issue with the panelists’ assertions.
The first speaker lambasted the opinions expressed by the two panelists. The first to be attacked was Prof Ayittey’s reference to a “black” Africa, which was deemed not only tautological but equally, oxymoronic.
The speaker, a Nigerian, then questioned Anne Mugisha as to whether her problem was with the staying power of African leaders or the outcome or benefits of their stay. Does it really matter if a leader stays long and delivers quality leadership and development to the people, as happened in Singapore and Malaysia, or stays a short time and delivers nought? he asked. He continued: “Where is the sense in having ritualistic elections where the elite rotate themselves in power without delivering any service to the people?”
Some Africans, including this writer, have a problem with terms like “black Africa”, “Sub-Saharan Africa”, etc, that only succeed in dividing an already divided people.
Europe is made up of people of different hue, but no one refers to “White” or “Brown” Europe; or “Sub-Mediterranean” or “Sub-Arctic Europe”. Europe is simply Europe.
When it comes to Africa, intelligent and educated people strain themselves to apply hazy neo-colonial terms like “Sub-Saharan Africa” that lack geographic, historic, political, logical, or even common sense.
Also troubling is the casual manner in which scholars like Prof Ayittey throw ill-defined terms like democracy and freedom around. No wonder Ayittey did not only fail to define his terms, he also did not mention the six countries that fall within his para-meters of being “free” states.
A participant, an octogenarian and high official of Kwame Nkrumah’s erstwhile government, K. B. Asante, debunked the very notion of the necessity of an African Spring.
The elder statesman, who still writes a weekly column for Ghana’s largest daily, the Daily Graphic, said that he had spent more than 80 years in Ghana and never saw a spring, and he certainly did not expect to see one in his remaining years.
The problem of Africa, Mr Asante said firmly, was that the continent had never been left alone to decide what was best for it. Outsiders had always interfered to promote their interests at the expense of the African people, who got blamed when things went wrong. This drew sustained applause from the audience.
After the applause had died down, a lone ranger, apparently irked by Mr Asante’s remarks, asked him why he kept on blaming “white people” for Africa’s woes. Since Mr Asante never made reference to “white people”, it looked like the speaker already had a grudge against the elderly speaker.
When the panelists were given the chance to reply to the remarks from the floor, Anne Mugisha kept on hammering on human rights violations in Uganda where, she said, people were being oppressed.
“The state,” she cried, “uses statutes to oppress people. Revolutionaries who killed people in order to get to power today tell people that they cannot protest peacefully.”
To her, uprisings and revolutions are necessary when governments cannot satisfy the basic needs of the people.
It was as if the Ugandan activist fell into a well-laid trap, for she had no answer when asked why Libya’s Muammar Al Gathafi had to be killed when all evidence pointed out that he provided the best services for his people. Her only retort was: “They did not have freedom.” This forced me to ask her if she had ever lived in Europe. “Yes,” she answered.
My main gripe with the so-called human-rights promoters in Africa who take money from Western donors/sponsors and purport to fight for freedom in Africa, is whether or not they possess the capacity for comparative analysis.
European streets are saturated with cameras to monitor virtually everything the citizens do; citizens’ mail and phone calls are routinely snooped upon. Which proves that freedom is relative.
At this stage of the debate, tremendous heat built up and several people jostled to express themselves. Luckily, Dr Kpessa took his chance to speak.
Democracy, the scholar from Legon informed the audience, was not an event but a process. Everywhere in the world, democracy is a continuous learning process, as each nation-state fine-tunes the democratic processes best suited to its particular environment.
Dr Kpessa countered Prof Ayittey’s assertion that few African countries were democratic. He said that democracy had contagious effects that only help to build and deepen it.
Kpessa then asked why Africa today was being asked for good governance when the proponents of Structural Adjustment Programmes in Africa in the 1980s did all within their power to commodify every aspect of life, and successfully demonised governments as a “great evil”. He said that Africans were taught then to disregard and disrespect their governments and institutions. This, Kpessa said, did irreparable damage to the authority of the states.
It was then the turn of Prof Ayittey, who said that Africa had little to learn from anyone about democracy since it was inbred in the traditional systems of pre-colonial Africa. Surprisingly, Ayittey waxed lyrical about the African traditional system of governance.
He gave examples of African towns and villages where the chiefs sat, and still sit, with the elders to discuss issues until they reached (or reach) a consensus to which everyone must abide.
The professor correctly pointed out that this endeavour for amity, unity and consensus is what separates the African traditional system from the Western-style democracies that find its expression in unbridled antagonism, and party politics which, by its definition and nature, is inherently belligerent.
The dilemma facing Africa today, Ayittey said, was how to change governments without destroying the state. Many participants agreed with his statement about the African quest for consensus and equilibrium.
One participant asked about the benefits that the Arab Spring had produced today. No one could give him a candid answer. Many participants wanted to know from the BBC why there should be change just for change’s sake. They saw no tangible achievements in the Arab Spring to which they could relate. They asked: “Why leave the certain for the confused and the uncertain?”
Prof Ayittey danced around a question from the Ghanaian activist, Granfada Afrikavi, who asked the eminent scholar whether the Libyan experience was indigenously conceived or executed by imperialists?
It is quite difficult to understand the motive of the BBC and its sponsors in organising the debate. It must have cost a fortune to bring all the equipment from London; transport people from Uganda, South Africa, America, and wherever else, print all those nice event gifts simply to talk shop.
The BBC would say that it wanted to promote dialogue and all that, but it was a waste of time. With modern technologies, Africans need no longer be shepherded like cattle for their opinions to be canvassed.
It was a different thing in the 1960s and 1970s when few Africans went to Europe and were mesmerised by what they saw. But times have changed, and Africans’ view of Europe has changed too.
As K. B. Asante and others asserted during the debate, we will never know the strength and the weakness of the African continent as long as the imperialists make it their business to intrude into our affairs.
How many African media houses would have the cheek to organise a debate about whether a revolution was desirable in Europe or not? And how would Europeans look upon such abject temerity?