African Tradition Upholds Free Speech, Democracy

Image: Flickr, United Nations Photo

To suggest that Africans cannot understand or do not care about free speech, electoral fairness or misappropriation of public funds is to misread African traditional culture, write Kwaku Asante-Darko and Ross Herbert, in a guest column for allAfrica marking the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

What is the right balance to strike between African traditional values and constitutional rights? Are constitutional principles that were not invented in Africa illegitimate? Should they be subordinated to or be qualified by African values?

These important questions are at the heart of current debates about press coverage and civil activism in several African countries.

In South Africa, the head of the country’s public broadcaster said recently he considered some dimensions of freedom of speech to be a “foreign and feelingless” right. He argued that the right of the public to know does not outweigh the traditional African value of showing respect. By implication the alleged alcoholism and theft of a minister of state is no one’s business.

His concerns have implications for governance in Africa, especially when African tradition is evoked to justify lack of accountability. The key question is: Should African values trump constitutional rights or at least temper them?

Many, many African cultures embrace the idea that the individual has a right to free speech. Indeed, in Africa the practice of the community taking decisions through public meetings under the tree or in a place in which everyone has a right to their say is an ancient one. Issues discussed have included whether or not to rebuke, punish or remove traditional leaders from office, or to execute or pardon obnoxious criminals. These debates were conducted on the basis of principles and practices without which democracy is impossible: public participation and inclusiveness, probity and accountability, transparency and consensus, and freedom of expression.

Such traditions embraced the idea that individuals in positions of public trust should enjoy a certain amount of extra respect, but not the privilege to abuse others or stifle criticism. In fact, traditional African governance has emphasised responsibility and service of (not to) state officials.

The emphasis on privilege and praise is a latter-day degeneration. Praise for a worthy individual and for authority has always been recommended but was never unconditional; it has always been earned. And no one missed the chance to speak out for or against an issue of concern to the community.

In many instances, protagonists in the debate confuse private morality with the constitutional precepts that should govern state behaviour.

It may be within African tradition to frown on someone who disrespects their elders, but it is quite another matter to assert that constitutional rights should be removed when someone is deemed disrespectful. In fact, in African tradition the sanction for such behaviour is to broadcast loudly the person’s malevolence, and to perform costly animal sacrifices to expiate the disrepute in which he or she has dragged the sacred names of the ancestors, the gods, the yet-to-be-born and the living.

African traditions temper the idea of free speech with restraint on defamation. Truth is an absolute defence against defamation. In his book Ashanti Law and Constitution, R. S. Rattray explains that one was hardly sanctioned for defaming an office bearer if one told an unpleasant truth one could prove. Thus, private morality that derives from our traditions was not confused with the constitutional powers that underpin governance.

Today also, rights are enshrined in constitutions and defended through an impartial judiciary to restrain the state from unfairly punishing individuals. The very notion of a constitution was developed not only to protect one individual from the next but also to protect the individual against the state. Many cultures, including African ones, have recognised that since the state has great power it could be tempted to stifle criticism.

Nigeria’s April presidential elections were widely criticised by Nigerian citizens and Western election observers for their vote fraud, disorganisation, 65 deaths, intimidation and violence that unduly disenfranchised citizens. Nonetheless, some apologists argued that those who criticized the elections failed to understand African tradition. This suggests that fairness and democracy are alien or beyond the reach of Africans.

It is significant to recall that in generations past many African leaders – including Kwame Nkrumah, Kenneth Kaunda, Julius Nyerere and Jomo Kenyatta – justified one-party rule by saying it was a more authentic expression of African values than multiparty democracy. Many have argued, and continue to argue, that what outsiders see as corruption by state officials is merely an expression of African tradition of gift-giving gratitude.

In these instances, people are being highly selective with interpretations of African tradition. They forget that Africa has deep traditions of respect for free speech and individual rights and integrity. To suggest that Africans cannot understand or do not care about the finer points of free speech or electoral fairness, or misappropriation of public funds or amnesty to parliamentarians for economic crimes, is to misread completely African traditional culture. The fact is that in some instances African traditional values were harder on public office holders than present constitutional systems.

Many of those who appeal to African tradition do so in an effort to shield public officials from accountability, which is ironic. It has become common to argue that officials should not have to uphold a higher standard of behaviour than ordinary citizens, and should remain in office until proven guilty in court. But African traditional cultures have embraced the idea that even if an official is not convicted of an offence, he or she is nonetheless tainted enough no longer to be able to command public respect and thus can be relieved of public functions.

It is quite wrong to suggest that African tradition is undemocratic or that Western norms of constitutional rule should be cast aside as un-African. We should show respect for African traditions but be very careful about suggesting that constitutional rights such as freedom of expression should be limited or overturned because of “traditional values.” Traditional governance, with all its faults, has a lot to teach modern democracy, just as tradition has a lot to learn from modern democracy.