Social Justice Concept in Social Political Theory

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According to the Oxford dictionary, a theory is a supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something, especially one based on general principles independent of the thing to be explained. In other words, they are set of statements that provide explanations for real-world events or phenomena (Asare, 2016:31).Political theory which forms part of the building blocks of political science or studies has instigated a lot of debate among scholars about its existence. This theory which helps us to better understand concepts such as equality, democracy, justice etc. and has altogether shaped our politics was thought to be dead until Rawls import in 1971 on the Theory of Justice. However, there is still a divide still on political theory and the existence of its normative import.( Graham,1999:2).Graham reflects in his research paper by saying:

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“So, even if we allow that political theory exists,

we are left with the question “Does it have any import”

One may wonder the connection between political theory, its normative import and the purpose of this essay “examine the fit of democratic theory with practice in African states”. Normative political theory looks at what ought to be as against what is. This extends to the democratic theory and practice in Africa. Mahmood Mamdani’s article questions Africa’s democracy as against what is prescribed by the fathers of this notion over what ought to be practiced by African states. This highlights the role of context bringing to bear an old question, “is democracy really for Africa?” “How do we streamline this everlasting concept to suit our needs as Africans?” Are we really practicing what democracy ought to be? All these recurring questions only proves one thing, that is the expression or manifestation of democracy across the continent is abysmal. Thus, the crux of this essay is to explain the suitability of the practice of democratic theory in African states by providing empirical evidence to support my point of view. I hope to do this by focusing on democratic theory and its tenets and hereby connecting its application to Africa interlacing Gordon Graham’s article on political theory and practice, not excluding Mahmood Mamdani’s article on Africa’s democratic theory and struggles.

The concept of democracy has come to stay. It is believed to be a system of government that gives precedent to people’s rule. To state this is other words, it is a form of government where authority over the government is exercised by the people (citizens of a state).It is on this ground that democratic theorists sought out to study this notion. Democratic theory as a part of the whole, (political theory) primarily looks at the underpinnings of the concept of democracy. From the Oxford Bibliographies, a researcher, Lawrence, in his paper on democratic theory reinstates:

“Democratic theory is an established subfield of political theory

that is primarily concerned with examining the definition

and meaning of the concept of democracy, as well as

the moral foundations, obligations, challenges, and overall

desirability of democratic governance.”

As apt as this can be, it is the unison drive for all democratic theorists. Africa’s interaction with this idea of democracy only materialized after constant struggle for independence from colonial rule. This breakthrough was sought to be the beacon of hope for a continent stripped of all its humanity and rendered as dark. However, according to Mamdani, it only protracted the internal wounds the continent suffers. He identifies democratic theory as a framework of received theory that has little to do with the contemporary realities of Africa. This maybe the reason why the practice of democracy in Africa is not in sync with the tenets held by democratic theorist. The following paragraphs would assess the fit of this looking at the principles that underpin democracy and these includes the principle of competitive and periodic free and fair elections, the existence of multipartysim, rule of law, protection of fundamental human rights highlighting freedom of expression and association and finally the presence of press freedom.

Competitive, periodic free and fair elections has always been principal in the practice of democracy as democratic states are characterized by elections. It is of no hidden fact that elections involves the mechanisms through which qualified electorates vote to choose their political leaders as they entrust the governance of the state in their hands. These process must be conducted periodically and devoid of any sort of biases and manipulations. However, this is not the case for many African states. The failure of elections as a process is predominantly marred by dictatorships and power grapple. African states such as Burkina Faso, Algeria, Gabon, Cote D’ivoire, Guinea etc all have had their heads-of-state overstay beyond their term limits via unconstitutional revisions. Elections are either rigged or controlled by the incumbent leaving no room for the people’s choice. In 2018, the DR Congo’s December elections had the incumbent control the electoral commission and cancelled voting in some opposition strongholds of Beni, Butembo and Yumbi, and subsequently announcing results which were counter-intuitive to real time figures collated by some 40,000 observers of the Catholic Episcopal Commission. This story was picked and documented by the African Even in Nigeria’s 2019 elections, between the incumbent Buhari and opposition leader, Atiku Abubakar, had claims of rigging and non-transparency. The issue of the practice of elections as a democratic principle has been wrought with several changes leading to political unrest on a continent believed to be the first home of man according to Professor Ali Mazrui.

Closely related to the point above, is the existence of multipartysim in Africa’s democratic states. As we know, democracy is for the people and by the people. Primacy is placed on the people. That is why individuals must be allowed to participate in this process by forming parties as well as a joining parties. The freedom to do this must not be stifled because it allows for varied democratic choices for the people. According to Larry Diamond, a political scientist, this is the basic tenet of democracy yet in Africa this is not the case. The practice of multiparty democracy is almost non-existent giving rise to one-party states by Dejure or Defacto means. Ghana has not been immune to this. Almost a decade after independence, Nkrumah declared Ghana a one party state allowing CPP to be the only party of the time.

Julius Nyerere of Tanzania also declared his party, the TANU party as the only recognized party by passing social ordinance act declaring any society or organization that challenged his authority as unlawful. He was very critical of his administration. This goes contrary to the theory of democracy which implores these organizations to check the excesses of government. When this is not in play, arbitrariness abounds. In Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda made the United National Independence party the only official party until 1991 when he was replaced by electoral process. The examples abound. Even in Kenya, by 1969, Jomo Kenyatta outlawed other parties and made his party, the KANU party the only party in the country. In recent times, Togo our neighbor is a one party state and an attempt to make it a multi-party state was resisted vehemently by the president, Faure Gnassingbé. From all the empirical examples given it is of no doubt that Africa is deficient in the practice of democracy.

Moving on to the next, another index of the practice of democratic theory in Africa can be identified in the existence of the rule of law. According to, rule of law is said to be

“ the mechanism, process, institution, practice, or norm

that supports the equality of all citizens before the law,

secures a non-arbitrary form of government, and more

generally prevents the arbitrary use of power.”

We can see from the definition that the Law is held supreme. No one is above the law. The law becomes the levelling ground for the high and mighty as well as the lower crux of society. This ensures accountability and checks arbitrariness in all forms but it appears this does not happen to be the case in our part of the world. The rule of law is absent in the practice of democracy among many African states. Governments of the day seems to be above everyone else. It is no news that Africa has had a lot of despotic governments as well as military regimes. Their rule not only seared democracy as a concept, it also allowed for fear and panic to run through the populace because these regimes believed to be above the law thus ruled by decrees and juntas. Ghana as a country has experienced a lot of military regimes right from the over throw of Nkrumah in 1966.The National liberation council took the reins of power till 1969 ruling Ghana by military decrees. This was just the beginning of the breech of rule of law in Ghana as we had subsequent regimes till the birth of the fourth republic. It is also important to note that the breech of rule of law is not only left in the hands of military dictatorship but all kinds of dictatorship. Africa has had its fair share of dictators as there exist a long list of names. Between the years 1993-1998 General Sani Abacha of Nigeria ruled the country with an iron fist. He issued a decree that gave him absolute power thus placing his authority over the judiciary and could jail any bad mouth that criticized him denying them of right to trial. Zimbabwe has also been under the dictatorship of President Mugabe for several decades until he lost elections in 2017.After he took the reins of power too, he consolidated all powers of the state giving himself the utmost power to dissolve the parliament as and when he can as well as declare martial law. The rule of law which is seen as the panacea for free and fair democracy and sustainable development cannot be experienced by African states if the constant thirst for power clouds the vision of its leaders.

Penultimately, respecting the fundamental human rights of citizens or individuals is the core of democracy. After all, what is democracy without protecting the people? It is however sad that this has been neglected in the democratic practice by African states. In the era of despotic governments and dictatorships, the fundamental human rights of citizens have abuse. The people Africa has experienced unimaginable abuses in post independent Africa.War crimes committed against humanity,unwarranted arrests and executions,the absence of freedom of expression and association etc has its imprints all over the continent. Omar Al-Bashir is of Sudan during his tenure as president is believed to have committed crimes against humanity largely for the crisis in Darfur as he was found to be connected to the occurrence of the genocide there. He was indicted on crimes of murder, extermination, torture, rape, forcible transfer and the war crimes of pillaging and intentionally directing attacks against civilians, an affront to the institution of democracy .This information was sourced from on the existence of Africa’s dictators. Idi Amin’s rule was also a brutal one that led to several of thousands of Ugandans to their death. These purges occurred after a failed military coup d’état on his regime. Till date Uganda still suffers the effect of these executions as it plunged the country into a state of turmoil. The absence of the protection of the basic human rights in a democracy renders such a democracy paralyzed because the wheels of democracy is the ordinary people.

Finally, the independence and freedom of the press or media, the fifth arm of government is an important index in examining the fit of democratic theory in Africa. Independence and freedom of the press upholds the concept of tolerance of dissenting views yet in some African states, the story is different. The presence of the media is to check the excesses of government as well as bring them to book when the falter. They reflect the voice of the populace and must be respected as such. But cases of arrest and persecutions of media personnel and shutting down media houses flood the continent of Africa. The governments curtail or curb media only to hang on to power. In an interview with DW, a German media power house, The Committee to Protect Journalists advocacy manager, Kerry Paterson gives account of how press freedom is not great in Africa. She gives an example of situation in Cameroon where a journalist, Ahmed Abba was given a ten year sentence simply because he was doing his job as a journalist. He represents the many that are behind bars or even dead. This is troubling as it places a huge dent on the democracy we practice as a continent.

To conclude, the suitability of the democratic theory with practice in Africa which has been measured along the lines of competitive and periodic free and fair elections, the existence of multipartysim, rule of law, protection of fundamental human rights highlighting and the presence of press freedom has proven to be shaky. It is argued that over six decades of the liberation of the continent cannot be compared to several centuries’ worth of experience and practice of democracy by the proponents of this theory. We have had our own share of troubles, ranging from slavery to colonialism and although we are still picking up the pieces of the past we tend to learn from our slave masters as we exhibit the traces of brutality meted on us. A case in point is Tanzania, where Julius Nyerere used the same social ordinance act the colonial administration used to outlaw any society that questions colonial authority to make the TANU party the only party recognized by the state. It is not always a grim and bleak situation for Africa as we may be trying our very best. Thus it is important for Africa to embark on a self-assessment exercise, looking inward and fine tuning the concept of democracy and democratic theory to work for its situation. This I believe is the only way to achieve results. Thank you.

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Social Justice Concept in Social Political Theory. (2022, Sep 07). Retrieved February 7, 2023 , from

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