The African Democracy Project is embarking on its fourth study of an African nation’s exercise of democracy, this time in the west African nation of Ghana. The project is sponsored by the Forum on Contemporary Issues in Society (FOCIS) and the Eugene Applebaum Chair in Community Engagement in collaboration with Wayne State University’s Irvin D. Reid Honors College. This report details the preparations that were made in collaboration with the Legon Campus of the University of Ghana, from which Wayne State sought assistance for the ongoing research project on African democracy.

This undertaking follows three similar African Democracy Project (ADP) courses offered at Wayne State: 2009 in Mozambique (ADPM), spring 2011 in Botswana (ADPB), and fall 2011 in Liberia (ADPL). Like the first three projects, African Democracy Project/Ghana (ADPG) will enroll a maximum of 14 undergraduate and graduate students; they will be taught by Professor Ron Brown and President Emeritus Irvin D. Reid. They will be assisted by two graduate students, one administrative coordinator, and technical videographic assistants in support of a documentary on African democracies.

During the first two weeks of April 2012, I traveled to Accra, Ghana to hold preparatory meetings for the fourth African Democracy Project. Beginning with a visit to Maputo, Mozambique in 2008, each project has been preceded by an assessment visit to the country chosen as the target for a future course. The purposes of the visits are to establish contacts and to plan for our students to conduct research for their individual or group projects. In addition, students participate in a larger project of preparing a documentary on democracy across a number of African countries over several years. Each of these projects is summarized below.

From the beginning, those with whom I spoke in Mozambique, Botswana, and Liberia were fascinated. They wanted to participate in our project and to be helpful in many different ways, but they were mostly curious as to why anyone would be interested in them and their country. Often they wanted to know what I would do with the results or how I would change what they were doing. I had to make it clear that my goal was for the students to simply learn about their country and its people as a way to better understand themselves and their own democracy. The results often went far beyond any expectations I had about my students’ interest in African democracy or what I thought would be their capacity to expand their horizons about Africa. A summary of each program follows:

Mozambique. During November 2008, I traveled to Maputo, Mozambique at the invitation of former president Joachim Chissano to discuss a concept I had written to him about concerning the introduction of American students to democracy in the emerging nations of Africa. The idea was inspired by the Mo Ibrahim Award that was to be given to Chissano, the first recipient, in recognition of his leadership in democracy in Africa. I described to the former president my idea for introducing American students to democracy in Africa and sought his advice. He said rather bluntly, “If you want American students to understand democracy in Africa, why don’t you bring them here to Mozambique during the presidential elections next year?” Out of that suggestion, the course and the entire African Democracy Project was born. The students arrived in Mozambique in October 2009 to inaugurate the first course and the first phase of the documentary.

The Mozambique program established several very important templates for the African democracy courses that followed. It was built on the concept of the students gaining a deep understanding of the history, culture, politics, and current events of the country. Students were required to blog from the very beginning of the course. They were given extensive readings, both historical and from online newspapers, about the country of interest as well as other countries in the region and on the continent.

Another important aspect of the course was the opportunity for students to participate in the design of the course by contributing content, not only in terms of their blogs and journals, but also through suggested reading materials, social media activities, and research projects. Each course varied in some unique way, but most involved students designing an original research project on an issue in the country. In Mozambique, following discussion with the Chissano Foundation, we decided that it would be wise for our students to consult with nongovernment organizations, political parties (including opposition leaders), and government agencies.

In addition to a wide-ranging syllabus of reading and writing requirements, the course relied on outside lecturers and experts who had written or researched extensively on the country of interest.

Botswana. In 2009, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation announced the award of its second leadership recognition to Festus Mogae, former president of Botswana. The country had one of the highest incidents of HIV infection in the world, and deaths from complications related to HIV/AIDS soared. Mogae had led Botswana at the height of its health crisis.

Under Mogae’s leadership, government policy committed to provide treatment free of charge to any of its infected citizens. Obviously the citizen had to take the bold step of acknowledging and then seeking help. However, it was Mogae and his government who were responsible for encouraging those steps.

As with former president Chissano of Mozambique, I discussed the Wayne State University project on democracy in Africa with former president Mogae. I was able to ask him about his views on the challenges for not only his country, but the whole continent of Africa. Without hesitation, he stated that the greatest challenge for the continent was HIV/AIDS.

Unlike the project in Mozambique, African Democracy Project Botswana established a relationship with a university. Before departing on the exploratory assessment visit to Gaborone, ADP contacted the vice chancellor as well as professor David Sabadubudu, director of the Center for African Democracy at the University of Botswana. In collaboration with the Wayne State University Office of International Studies, the ADP program formed its first university alliance. Through partnership with the University of Botswana, ADP met the requirement of WSU’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) to have local approval of the research project as well as local scholars to provide considerable insight into the culture, history, and politics of Botswana.

Liberia. In August 2011, I arrived in Monrovia, Liberia to engage in an assessment for the field visit by the class, a critical part of the African Democracy Project. The visit was coordinated with the University of Liberia, which provided extremely helpful assistance in arranging contacts both within and outside the university. My gratitude goes to President Emmet Dennis as well as his entire team of vice presidents and presidential assistants. President Dennis assigned an able team of his staff to assist me and I particularly would like to acknowledge Assistant to the President Michelle Stubblefield; Vice President James R. Kollie (Graduate Program and Research); and Vice President S. Momolu Gataweh (Academic Affairs). We agreed that I would provide a complete copy of our research with appropriate interviews and that I, as principal investigator, would appear before a panel of IRB members the following week. The three-person panel examined the project, asked a number of questions, and voted to approve and support the project with a letter that we had drafted and that was reviewed by the chair of Wayne State’s IRB Committee. Two original copies of the letter were signed and given to me by Dr. Kollie.

We owe a considerable debt of gratitude to the University of Liberia and particularly to Dr. Kollie, who patiently worked with me to complete the authorization and certification before I left Liberia. Clearly the relationship with the University of Liberia made the research component of our project considerably easier than the experience we had in Botswana. In terms of priorities, the university collaboration is the most critical. Without IRB approval, none of the fieldwork for the class or the documentary is possible. With that in mind, most of the contacts for the target country are now made with the local university first.


Things don’t always go according to plan. That’s great – because, while frustrating, surprises in Africa can really be a treat! Unfortunately, my students could not meet with former president Blah and his wife because of his health issues. We were not able to meet at the University of Liberia to engage with professors and students because the university unexpectedly chose to take a holiday for the historic election, and it would have been nearly impossible to reschedule the lecture. October turned out to be an opportunity for one of the rainiest countries in all of Africa to show us what rain really is: We floated through virtually everywhere. But this is the extent of the bad unexpected. The rest of the experience for the Wayne State University African Democracy Project Liberia was full of the extraordinary unexpected!

A few days before the election, I arrived in Liberia along with my colleague, Professor Sharon Lean, my executive assistant, and a Wayne State University delegation of nine students, two graduate assistants, and a two-man documentary camera crew. We were in Monrovia for the second presidential and legislative elections that the Republic of Liberia was holding since the country’s brutal civil war ended. At that time, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the first elected president of Liberia since the imprisoned Charles Taylor left the country for trial in the Hague. She was also the first female president on the continent.

The students had a unique experience. In addition to impressive meetings with governmental and non-governmental officials, they were able to observe for themselves the treatment of women and talk to former civil war fighters. They also spoke with ordinary citizens who were wounded in war, punished for not participating, or otherwise abused for their failure to join one side or the other.

War is not over as long as there are still victims, and Liberia has so many victims in so many ways. Despite efforts at peace and reconciliation and palaver meetings, pain and suffering are obvious everywhere as a country tries to host a civil society after a most uncivil war waged by neighbors and friends against each other.

I have not uttered the word “democracy.” Despite the election, enthusiasm, demonstrations, dancing, and standing in long lines to vote as well as a process relatively free of irregularities, something was not right. In many ways, it was unsettling and sometimes downright painful to watch. Nevertheless, the Republic of Liberia made history. From August to November of 2011, the country stumbled through three votes: a referendum on changing the date of its election (defeated), changing the age of judges (approved), and changing the time required to live in the country before standing for election to president (defeated). Then it held an election in which no party candidate got a majority. This required a run-off vote between the top two candidates a few weeks later – a run-off in which the challenger refused to participate. Nevertheless, it was held in accordance with the constitution and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, 24th and current president of the Republic of Liberia, was elected to her second term.

The 2011 elections may not have been “democracy” as we have idealized it, but elections did take place. Liberia was designated by the Ibrahim Foundation as one of the African nations that made extraordinary progress in 2011.

The following short documentary captures the experiences of the Wayne State University participants in the African Democracy Project Liberia while the class was observing the presidential elections: Liberia_ADP.mov – YouTube.flv.

On my first  Sunday afternoon in Monrovia, the capital city of the Republic of Liberia,  I received a call inquiring about my interest om going to the home of the former president,, Moses Blah. I was on an assessment visit to Liberia during which I tried to make arrangements for the students who would be arriving in the Fall 2011. The purpose of the assessment visit to Liberia was to making as many contacts on behalf of the African Democracy project as possible before the students arrive in  October for the presidential elections.  Illustrative of how accessible leaders and former leaders of Liberia really are was my visit late on a Sunday afternoon with Moses Zeh Blah, 23rd President of the Republic of Liberia . He had served as president for only a short period fro11 August 2003 – 14 October 2003 but he had been the notorious Charles Taylor’s vice president for roughly three years before that from July 2000 up until he took over from Taylor. A brief bio of the former president taken form Wikipedia is included below:

Moses Zeh Blah (born 18 April 1947) is a Liberian political figure. He served as Vice President under President Charles Taylor and became the 23rd President of Liberia on 11 August 2003, following Taylor’s resignation. He served as President for two months, until 14 October 2003, when a United Nations-backed transitional government, headed by Gyude Bryant, was sworn in.

Blah was born in Toweh Town, Liberia, a Gio-speaking hamlet in north-eastern Nimba County, close to the border with the Ivory Coast. He joined with Taylor because of a shared hatred of the current president, Samuel Doe, who had killed Blah’s wife along with hundreds of others in an ethnic-related massacre. He trained with Taylor in a Libyan guerrilla camp and served with him as a general during Liberia’s civil war in the 1990s. He held the post of ambassador to Libya and Tunisia after Taylor was elected in 1997. In July 2000 Blah was appointed as Vice President after the death of Enoch Dogolea who was rumoured to have been poisoned.  Blah was known as a quiet and unassuming man, driving his own jeep around town rather than using a motorcade and driver, and wearing flowing African robes instead of the normal olive green military uniform.  He was constantly annoyed about the bodyguards who followed him around.

 In June 2003, Taylor had left the country for peace talks in Ghana, and while there he was indicted by the war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone. Blah was urged by the United States to take power from Taylor during his absence, but Blah made no such attempt. After Taylor’s return, Blah was held under house arrest for ten days, but was subsequently absolved and reinstated as Vice President. When Taylor resigned in August of that year, Blah briefly succeeded him as president. He was condemned by Liberian rebel groups for his close ties to Taylor; they charged that he would simply continue Taylor’s practices. Blah responded by calling the rebels “brothers” and saying “Let bygones be bygones. If there is power, we can share it.” He invited the rebels to negotiate in his own house. On 7 April 2008, Blah said that he had been sent a subpoena to testify at Taylor’s trial before the Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague. He said that he would testify and “speak the truth”,[1] and he testified on 14 May 2008, describing child soldiers and the relationship between Taylor and Foday Sankoh. (Wikipedia, 2011.)

I asked the president to meet with the Democracy in Africa course when they arrive in Monrovia. That is when I learned at Mrs. Blah, the former first lady was an excellent cook. (President Blah said so.) I then struck a bargain that I would bring the delegation of approximately 20 to the former President’s home for meeting with him and if Mrs. Blah would prepare the meal, I would pay for it!  It was agreed! In summary, the class will be meeting the former president in his home over a meal prepared by the former first lady of the Republic!

Democracies can really be violent. Mozambique is a case in point; Botswana is not; and a more recent example is Liberia, a more recent and demonstrative case.

When I left Botswana in March this year after my second visit, I was still marveling over what a peaceful, civil place that country is. Botswana achieved independence without a civil war, revolution, insurgency, or anything like that. Independence without violence? Multi-party elections and known no violence to persuade the British to leave? What kind of democracy is that!

Actually, the Portuguese left Mozambique without so much as a fight, but then again there was that extraordinarily destructive civil war between the Frelimo and Renamo parties, a nasty brotherly fight that claimed the lives of more than a million people. They had a democracy, so they fought each other after the colonists left. (Okay, they started with one party rule by Frelimo, but who says that a democracy has to have two parties?) We see this story again and again and again: India and Pakistan, for example, were formed after indigenous groups really went after each other – kind of like opposing liberation groups in Iraq, Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt today.

A colleague of mine at Wayne State University and I are now embarking on the third course in the Wayne State University African Democracy Project. We have chose Liberia. It is focused on national elections, as was the Mozambique course in 2009.

Why Liberia? There are many reasons. First, democracy is not new to Liberia. One might argue that Liberia has always been a democracy and one can just as easily argue that it was never a true colony in the tradition of British, Portuguese, French, and Dutch Africa. (Incidentally, Botswana was not a colony either. Technically, it was a protectorate of Britain. After diamonds were discovered, Britain really protected it!) Liberia was settled by freed slaves and other black free men from the United States who, on their own volition and at the urging of others, left the U.S. to find a place back in the homeland. Then there were other Africans who, on their way to the “free” world to become unfree, were liberated by the British from slave ships and dumped – not back in their homelands, but onto the nearest shoreline in what is now Liberia. This mixture of free and freed, liberated and castaway, formed what became collectively known as the Congo people of Liberia. They basically took over the free people of Liberia to create the first and only colony formed by people (not citizens) of the United States of America. (Of course, this depends somewhat on how you look at what Teddy Roosevelt did in Panama to get the canal. But let’s not go there.)

Why Liberia? Because the people are much like us and, furthermore, wanted to be like us. For heaven’s sake – they formed the True Whig Party! The Liberian flag – except for missing 49 stars and two stripes – looks exactly like ours.

Why Liberia? Among other reasons is the simple notion that it is there and is what it is. And the connection of Liberia to “us” is that we never let slavery and slaves get too far away from our shores, our minds, or our souls. There is a kind of spiritual kinship between Liberia and us. Charles Taylor, a latter-day freeman in an American jail, mysteriously escaped and went back to Liberia to wreak havoc on the country and its people, but that puts me way ahead in telling this story.

Let’s just go with the idea that Liberia, democracy, violence, and America are inseparable. Mary Moran’s book about Liberia, The Violence of Democracy, may help us to understand why these concepts are inextricably linked in Liberia.

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).