Former president of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who wrote the foreword to the book Democracy Works, Rewiring Politics to Africa’s Advantage, was joined at the podium by her Nigerian counterpart Olusegun Obasanjo, who co-authored the book with Greg Mills, Jeffery Herbst and former Zimbabwe finance minister Tendai Biti.
The book, published by Picador Africa, is a meticulous reflection on why Big Men failed the continent and gives empirical evidence of why “democracy works”.
Perhaps two of the people who should know best about the ravages of repressive systems in modern-day Africa were Zambia opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema and Biti.
Both have been in and out of their respective countries’ jails, with Biti having been jailed a guest of the state three times already this year.
Hichilema, released last April after 100 days in custody, was arrested and charged with treason for daring not to make way for the motorcade of President Edgar Lungu.
He says: “Democracy in South Africa has value that goes beyond your national borders. You are a leading economy in the region. If democracy is protected here, it will be protected in the rest of the region. When we hear of state capture, it does concern everybody. When we hear about the erosion of democracy, it concerns everybody. But also, when we hear and experience the strength in your judiciary, in your media, it gives us hope.”
Hichilema says what went wrong in Zambia is simply “leadership”.
“The issue of Big Men, who take away from poor people that they were supposed to lead, and I’m talking corruption. Corruption is intertwined with the destruction of democracy. In a purely democratic state you will not see high levels of corruption because there will be checks and balances.”
Biti spoke passionately about the pain of life under Robert Mugabe “for 38 years”.
“For democracy to work,” says Biti, “there must be those who hold power to account. In autocracies there is no one who holds power to account because the citizen is too weak, too beaten up or too poor. Institutions are captured or subjugated. So when that happens, democracy doesn’t work.
"In South Africa you have strong institutions. You have a strong Constitutional Court. You’ve got people who assert their rights in protests. You hold power to account, and when you do that, democracy is self-correcting. Because the policy makers are afraid of protest, of noise So the capacity for people to protest makes democracy in normal countries and developed countries self-correcting, which is the missing link north of the Limpopo.”
Biti says South Africa must move quickly to erase the twin scourges of state capture and inequality.
“It must learn from the mistakes countries like Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Guinea and Togo have made. It must play its leadership role.”