The Ancestors, Africanism, and Democracy

Nyonsuabeleah Kollue I Society & Culture I Analysis I June 22nd, 2016

My mother begins every important discussion with the phrase "the old people used to say", first, for the purpose of showing respect for the ancestors, and second, to give a sense of legitimacy to the knowledge that she intends to pass on to me. However, as I have become older and more in tune with the reality of an African legacy that is equal parts beautiful and gruesome, I've often wondered, why is it that African peoples only seem to incorporate knowledge passed down from our ancestors into the private and domestic aspects of our lives? Why isn't this knowledge applicable to the political and economic structures in independent African countries today? After all, the old peoples managed to establish complex trade systems, educational facilities and working governmental institutions. Some political pundits would like to credit this phenomenon to the influence of Western powers on fledgling African democracies. While I agree with this idea to some extent, I believe that the explanation put forth is too simplistic for a topic so intricate and multifarious. Therefore, in an effort to present an exhaustive response as to why modern African nations lack the capacity to establish governmental facets that are essentially African, I have set forth an analysis of the aftermath of counter-cultural movements as it affects the power component of communication in intercultural relations between African countries and their former European colonizers.

In the aftermath of Counter-Cultural Conflict

Dr. Gary Weaver describes counter-cultural identity movements as a challenge of dominant culture and the refutation of traditional cultural norms [1]. He references the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the hippie movement of the 1970s as perfect illustrations of counter-cultural conflict in American society. These were periods in history whereby, young, university educated Americans directly and successfully confronted the systems and institutions of racism as well as challenged the practices of modern warfare.

Across the Atlantic, African countries were involved in a more intense and violent form of counter-cultural conflict. After enduring European imperialism and colonization for more than a century, African colonies began to demand the right to self-determination, a global recognition and a respect of a progressive identity that was inherently African, and a promotion of a dominant culture that celebrated Africanism. Between the late 1950s and the early 1990s, all European colonies in Africa had achieved independence.

One might even venture to say that counter-cultural conflict in colonial Africa was successful because independence was achieved. However, for the purpose of this analysis, emphasis will be placed on the issues that arise after a successful counter-cultural movement.

Dr. Weaver presents the theory that in the aftermath of counter-cultural identity movements, society often reverts to the established rules that existed prior to the genesis of the identity movement[2]. This occurs as a result of a fear of the unknown. A successful counter-cultural identity movement opens up the window for the establishment of new societal structures and institutions. Upon the realization that they might be responsible for the creation of these new systems, members of identity movements become afraid of having to function in uncharted territories of society and more times than not, they begin to re-embrace traditional values because said values provide a sense of familiarity and safety. This is quite evident when observing how young Americans openly supported and embraced conservative values in the 1980s and early 1990s after the student movements of the 1960s and the 1970s.

This theory is also applicable to the former colonies in Africa in the aftermath of the fight for independence. Tasked with the responsibility of establishing legitimate democracies in multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-religious nation-states, new and inexperienced African leaders were quickly overwhelmed by the urgency of their responsibilities as well as by the voices of dissenting factions in their governments. Keeping in line with the characteristics symbolic of post counter-cultural conflict, African leaders began to re-establish relationships with former colonial powers in Europe - unconsciously reverting to the culture of African dependence on colonial leadership prior to the fight for independence.

Power Component in African - European Communications

In his piece "The Role of Culture and Perception in Communication", Marshall Singer presents the idea that "every communication relationship has a power component attached to it."[3] The power component in communications determines what party becomes the dominant player and what party assimilates into the dominant culture. In the case of emerging African democracies, the power component of communications dictates that wealthier, more politically and economically stable European powers would become the dominant players in this relationship. This also meant that African countries would have to assimilate into Western culture by incorporating European ideas of democracy and economic practices in African societies. This ensured that African nations never had a chance to cultivate an African form of democracy that would have been unique to the cultural and geographic climate of the region.

Unfortunately for Africa's first democratic leaders, this relationship provided embittered European countries - that had been unceremoniously relieved of their colonies - with the perfect platform needed to re-establish control over the continent via newly established global financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. African leaders who sought much needed financial support from European countries were forced to sign crippling austerity measures and agree to structural adjustments that supported European foreign interests on the African continent at the expense of the development of Africa's economies and infrastructure. These measures called for privatization, limited role of the state in the economy, reduced level of domestic production etc.[4]

Mounting pressures and demands of European financiers coupled with domestic issues such as corruption, nepotism in government and rising incidents of ethnic clashes allowed former colonizers to insert themselves in the affairs of various nation states under the banner of building democracy and encouraging stability. This resulted in the undermining of African leadership at the domestic and international level.

Power Dominance: American Influence on the African Continent

Former European powers would not have been able to successfully regain control of African nation states without the financial and military support of the United States[5]. While countries like Britain and France were still recognized as major world players, the United States' role during WWII and in its aftermath solidified the country's position as the world's newest ruling power. As such, the United States was allowed to unofficially assume the role of the world's police. During this time period, much of America's foreign policy was centered on promoting and establishing an American brand of democracy and capitalism on a global scale as well as actively combating all signs of communism [6].

This is where the power component in communications takes a dangerous turn down a path of what I like to call the power dominance of communications. As aforementioned, the power component of communications dictates what party assumes the role of dominant culture, however power dominance of communication occurs when the dominant culture is allowed to wield power without the oversight of a working regulatory system.

African leaders who objected to the stipulations of the "aid" provided by western countries were viewed as obstacles of democracy and capitalism and many found themselves disposed of the offices that they had been elected to serve in. A perfect illustration of power dominance at work on the African continent would be the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, by a coalition of CIA operatives, Belgian forces, and Congolese opposition factions on January 17, 1961. As the first Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lumumba's socially progressive views on economic equality and indigenous ownership and control of the DRC's natural resources served as a direct threat to American and Belgian access to the vast supply of natural resources in the region. Lumumba was unlawfully arrested, tortured, and killed and his assassination allowed for western powers to install a leader that would promote their interests in the region[7]. It is not until February of 2002 that the Belgian government openly apologized to the people of the DRC and the family of Patrice Lumumba for their role in the murder of one of Africa's greatest minds [8]. Other instances of power domination would be the United States' early support of Charles Taylor's rebel forces during the Liberian civil war[9] or France's provision of weapons and combative training to Hutu militias in preparation for the Rwandan genocide[10].

Power dominance on the African continent has fostered the practice of installing ineffectual agents in places of leadership. As long as the leader helps promote western economic interests and provides a semblance of western democratic leadership, he or she is automatically accepted by the international community. This has led to more of a rise in corruption in African governments as well as a general discontent among citizens of nation states in Africa.

A New Scramble for Africa

The new millennium introduced a new player in the form of China. As China continues to solidify its position as an emerging economic powerhouse with the credibility and propensity to compete, the United States and Western European countries have to fight to secure their interests and access to African markets and natural resources. For many African countries, this is the first time in many years whereby they've been presented with a realistic option in trading partners.

Very much like the relationship that exists between Africa and the West, China is the dominant culture in the relationship between Asia and Africa and therefore, a level of power dominance exists. Lax labor laws, corruption, and a lack of citizen protection has allowed China to exploit Africa's peoples and its resources[11].

However, China differs from its counterparts in the United States and Western Europe in that the Chinese government has taken steps to aid in structural development in various African countries[12]. In recent times, more and more African leaders are willing to engage in trade agreements with Asian countries rather than the West, because Asian leaders view African leaders as equal partners in trade agreements rather than subordinates. This has resulted in strained relations between the West and the East as well as the West and the African continent.

Accountability in Modern African Countries

In order for African countries to have complete ownership of their governmental and economic institutions, and to establish a democracy that is compatible with Africanism, African countries will have to take control of the power component in their relationships with foreign agents. This in turn means that African countries will have to reject foreign aid, and invest in their own industries and educational institutions. Without incoming aid, African governments will be forced to address issues of corrupt spending by officials in order to ensure an availability of funds necessary for structural development. No longer should African countries continue the colonial model of selling natural resources to developed regions and buying finished products from outside the continent. Harvesting of natural resources, refinement and production should begin and end on the African continent. This will help combat the issue of unemployment, boost economies and give Africans control of their own markets.

In today's world, it is only when African countries are able to compete economically on the international level that they can have a realistic chance of creating systems that are based on the examples provided by the ancestors before them. Until then, as the old people used to say "we will continue to dance to beat that the drummer decides to play."

Nyonsuabeleah Kollue is a Nigerian-born student currently pursuing a Master's degree in International Relations with a double concentration in International negotiation and conflict resolution, and Global Security from American University. Her academic research is geared towards the analysis of conflict cycles, and governance structures and processes in West and Central Africa. She currently serves as a Policy Analyst for United Nations NGO coalition members: Nonviolence International and the International Action Network on Small Arms, where she is responsible for research on non-coercive methods in the enforcement of the Arms Trade Treaty, tracking the use of small arms and light weapons in conflict areas, and incorporating aspects of the Sustainable Development Goals into workable domestic policies.


· Akerman, David. "Who Killed Lumumba?" BBC News. October 21, 2000. Accessed December 15, 2015.

· Arsenault, Chris. "Accused War Criminal Taylor 'worked with CIA'" - Al Jazeera English. January 21, 2012.

· Bert Jacobs. 2011. "A Dragon and a Dove? A Comparative Overview of Chinese and European Trade Relations with Sub-Saharan Africa." Journal of Current Chinese Affairs 40 (4): 17-60.

· Bustin, Edouard. 2002. "Remembrance of Sins Past: Unraveling the Murder of Patrice Lumumba." Review of African Political Economy 29 (93): 537-560.

· Iwereibor, Eheidu. "The Colonization of Africa." The Colonization of Africa. Accessed December 15, 2015.

· Lagon, Mark P. "Promoting Democracy: The Whys and Hows for the United States and the International Community." Council on Foreign Relations. February 1, 2011.

· "Patrice Lumumba: The Most Important Assassination of the 20th Century."

· PAUL SCHMITT. 2009. "The Future of Genocide Suits at the International Court of Justice: France's Role in Rwanda and Implications of the Bosnia V. Serbia Decision." Georgetown Journal of International Law 40: 585-1271.

· Shah, Anup. "Structural Adjustment-a Major Cause of Poverty." - Global Issues. March 24, 2013.

· Wall, Wendy. "Anti-Communism in the 1950s." Anti-Communism in the 1950s.

· Weaver, Gary R. Intercultural Relations: Communication, Identity, and Conflict. Rev. 2nd ed. Boston, MA: Pearson Pub., 2014

· "World Briefing | Europe: Belgium: Apology for Lumumba Killing." The New York Times. February 5, 2002.


[1] Gary R. Weaver, Intercultural Relations: Communication, Identity and Conflict, (Boston, MA: Pearson, 2014), 103

[2] Gary R. Weaver, Intercultural Relations: Communication, Identity and Conflict, (Boston, MA: Pearson, 2014), 104 - 105

[3] Gary R. Weaver, Intercultural Relations: Communication, Identity and Conflict, (Boston, MA: Pearson, 2014), 43

[4] Shah, Anup "Structural Adjustment - Cause of Poverty." Global Issues, March 24, 2013

[5] Lagon, Mark P. "Promoting Democracy: The Whys and Hows for the United States and the International Community." Council on Foreign Relations. February 1, 2011.

[6] Wall, Wendy, "Anti - Communism in the 1950s." The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History,

[7] Bustin, Edouard. "Remembrance of Sins Past: Unraveling the Murder of Patrice Lumumba." Review of African Political Economy (2002).

[8] "Belgium: Apology for Lumumba Killing." The New York Times, February 5, 2002.

[9] Arsenault, Chris. "Accused War Criminal Taylor 'worked with CIA." Al Jazeera, January 21, 2012

[10] Paul Schmitt, "The Future of Genocide Suits at the International Court of Justice: France's Role in Rwanda and Implications of the Bosnia V. Serbia Decision." Georgetown Journal of International Law (2009).

[11] Bert, Jacobs. "A dragon and a dove? A Comparative overview of Chinese and European Trade Relations with Sub-Saharan Africa." Journal of Current Chinese Affairs, (2011)

[12] Bert, Jacobs. "A dragon and a dove? A Comparative overview of Chinese and European Trade Relations with Sub-Saharan Africa." Journal of Current Chinese Affairs, (2011)