January 2011

How should we judge democracies? How do we know when we have a live, thriving one? Whose values should be employed in classifying governments as democratic or undemocratic?

We have examined Dahl’s historical analysis of working democracies as our principal conceptual framework. We have challenged our students to think about the dichotomy of Bostwanan democracy vs. Western concepts of democracy.

An alternative framework that is actually being employed to rank governments and nations in terms of their good, or bad, practices in democracy is the Ibrahim Index of good governance. The Ibrahim Index of African Governance is a comprehensive assessment of governance quality in Africa. The Ibrahim Index measures the delivery of public goods and services to citizens by government and non-state actors. It uses indicators across four main categories as proxies for the quality of the processes and outcomes of governance:

–– Safety and Rule of Law
–– Participation and Human Rights
–– Sustainable Economic Opportunity
–– Human Development.

The index is the most comprehensive collection of qualitative and quantitative data that assess
governance in Africa. According to Mo Ibrahim, founder and chair of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, and the father of the index, it is the embodiment of democracy itself. Ibrahim states:

“We are shining a light on governance in Africa, and in so doing we are making a
unique contribution to improving the quality of governance. The Ibrahim Index is
a tool to hold governments to account and frame the debate about how we are
governed. Africans are setting benchmarks not only for their own continent,
but for the world.”

For a detailed presentation of the Ibrahim Index, please visit the following website:

It is not clear to me that this is a flawless model for judging democracies. Certainly the four criteria and the commitment to serve your constituency are seemingly necessary elements of democracy, although I clearly do not know that experts would consider them to be a sufficient set of criteria. Mozambique and Botswana demonstrated strong ratings on the Ibrahim Index but each has strong questionable results in how they guarantee their democracy.

Now it is clear to me that the exclusive dependence on the Ibrahim process of selecting democracies based on awards to their former leaders was ill-advised. The Ibrahim Foundation has declined to give the award now for two consecutive years after only two leaders on the continent were recognized. Their combined populations were around 20 million out of more than 1 billion people in the 54 nations that comprise the continent.

Regardless of what one may think of Ibrahim’s approach to judging African democracy, it was his influence that stimulated my interest in the concept of African democracy and led to the Wayne State University initiative entitled African Democracy Project.

In the Spring of 2008,  an initiative to recognize former African heads of state that during their terms of office practiced good governance was established by Mo Ibrahim, a British of subject Sudanese decent, who wanted to recognize outstanding leadership. He created The Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership which was intended to be award annually by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation to African heads of state for their commitment and demonstration of good governance. The measures of successful leadership were based on the role the leaders played in advancing security, health, education and economic development during their terms of office. As importantly, candidates for the award were those who “democratically transfer power to their successors”. The recognition comes with a substantial financial award, a portion of it for life.

A panel of former world leaders, chaired by Kofi Annan, the former Secretary General of the United Nations, selected Joaquin Chissano, former president of the Republic of Mozambique as the inaugural recipient of the award. I was intrigued by the concept of an African leader democratically turning over power to someone else. More typical of Africa were coups, civil wars, military interference and downright genocide. I contacted Chissano in Mozambique and sought an audience with him. In November of that year, I traveled to Maputo, the capital of the republic to meet with the former president and told him that I was so impressed with the notion of African democracy that I would like to devise a way for our students to develop a deeper understanding of what democracy in Africa meant. (For the remainder of this visit, see an earlier blog.)

The Chissano recognition was followed by the announcement that Festus Mogae (seated here with me in his study at his villa) would be the next recipient. In March 2009, I traveled to Gaborone, the capital of Botswana to meet with representatives of the University of Botswana and to meet the former president to discuss how Botswana could be the next site of the Wayne State University African Democracy Project.

What is evolving in the eyes of our students is a new way to look at things, namely, in this case, judging what is democratic and what a democracy is. Perhaps as the African Democracy Project evolve so will a new paradigm for examining democracies — one perhaps developed by students themselves.


This was the second course I had offered on Democracy in Africa. The first was on Mozambique. I had no baseline of what students thought or perceived about democracy on the African continent before the course began. I along with my colleagues felt that this would be interesting. I had done an examination in the first course but it was based on their recollection of what they thought several months after they returned.

As I sat with the students of the African Democracy Project/Botswana (ADPB) one on one, I was genuinely interested in what they really knew or even thought about democracy. I had encountered the thirteen of them along with the two graduate students as a group once before over our “traditional” African dinner at my home as we all got to interact and, in most cases, got to meet for the very first time.

Now, with only a video camera between us, I urged each of them just to talk about their impending study in the course and to reflect on democracy in general, about their own democracy (mostly U.S. citizens), and about what each of them thought, no matter what, about African/Botswana Democracy. I wanted their very first recollection of Africa. Three things became clear:

Few had any exposure to Africa; those who did agreed that there information was nothing more than stereotypes that they had learned from the popular media, and a significant number had heard only of Africa from a single event: Rwanda, Darfur, AIDS, or starving children. Two or three, though, had fairly significant views and experiences. Two had actually lived in an African country, albeit before the age of 10. Two actually had written papers on Africa in previous classes another had written a significant paper on Ghana.

But the general lack of sophistication about things “African” was not at all surprising. What was surprising was what I learned next. I asked each about the perception of democracy in general and African democracy in particular. Many students took democracy for granted. One of the first week’s readings was a chapter from Robert Dahl’s On Democracy where he raises the question that was the sub context of the course and the challenge to our thinking for the entire democracy project.  Dahl wrote:  …….Just what do we mean by democracy?     What distinguishes a democratic government? from a nondemocratic? ……..If a country is already democratic, how can it become more?democratic?

The students struggled with the concept and democracy and they struggled even more with how a democratic country such as Botswana was different from the West. They knew with certainty that it was. How it was different from Western democracies was vague. To several the questions seem confusing.

By the end of the first class, however, they had delved into the readings for the course and those readings had had a huge impact on their views of democracy — African or otherwise. ! The students had begun to focus on their own issues about democracy. They were critical of Dahl’s formulation and had begun to see real issues with Botswana’s government in its treatment of the Bushmen in the Kalahari Game Reserve as well as to deal with concepts of democracy that had heard in their own homes among family members. They question some of the basic tenets of western democracies. They were beginning to look at the very structure of government as vehicles for democratic practices.

What was clear was that these students had, after one week, arrived at a different place. It was not always the same place as each other, but it was different for each of them from their work just a week before as they sat before the video camera. When I read some of their blogs this week it confirmed for me that the greatest learning was going to be, not in the readings in syllabus alone, but in the deep honest examination that each was about to undertake of her or his own value of democracy, regardless where it was. I fully expect that each will rewrite Dahl’s framework for examining democracies or become advocates for Botswana’s Bushmen!

There was exhaustion but extraordinary exhilaration among our students at the completion of the African Democracy Project/Mozambique in December 2009. My own feelings were extraordinary satisfaction and pride for what my faculty colleagues and I had accomplished. We took a diverse class of 13 mostly undergraduate students to an African country that was at the early stages of development in its practice of democracy.

They had studied diligently for nearly two months, taking on the challenges of heavy readings, visiting lecturers, films and their own blogging. After some initial meetings I had arranged for them, they made appointments and arranged visits with prominent and ordinary citizens of Mozambique in preparation for observing the presidential elections for which they now were going to have unique perspectives that few, if any, other Americans had ever had or would again for at least the next 5 years.

They completed both one of three group projects and individual final projects for the course that displayed their deeply changed outlook from those that they displayed to the faculty and to each other at the first class meetings.  In the Spring 2010, I conducted interviews with our students in order to get their perspective on the whole course and how they had been affected personally by the experience of democracy Mozambique. What I learned were several things, lessons that I will never forget.

First, while my students were highly indifferent to their own democracy, they were deeply committed to understanding democracy in Mozambique and wanted to understand it to a degree unequalled at first in their interest in their own democracy;

Second after the course, they were more circumspect about what democracy meant to them and more analytical of democracy here and in Mozambique;

Third, while every student was highly anticipative of the impending experience upon which they were about to embark, none anticipated the transformative experiences with which they were left at the end of the visit;

Fourth, more than half of the students had some notion of how they wanted to continue their contact with Africa, and while their plans varied widely, most anticipated returning to the continent in the future; and

Fifth and finally, we wanted the students to achieve a stronger connection between their experiences and strategies for impacting and improving democracy as well as solving other problems here at home.

This final point was particularly critical for those of us on the faculty and particularly in the Honors College, the home of our course and the home of many of the service learning projects of the university. Furthermore, FOCIS and the Eugene Applebaum Chair in Community Engagement, co-sponsors of the ADPM initiative, had as their commitments engaging the resources of the university to improved the greater Detroit community.

Correcting this shortcoming was to become a major goal of the next course, African Democracy Project Botswana (ADPB).