‘You have a role in building democracy,’ researchers hear

The African academic community has an essential role to play in promoting democracy on the continent, particularly through research on what ordinary citizens think about the subject and on the broader question of good governance.

They can focus their research on answering critical questions about leadership and citizen participation in elections and provide important feedback on the state and health of democracy on the continent, to gain insights on what areas need attention.

The political environment across the continent has improved significantly over the years, and scholars are free to critique political systems, unlike in the 1970s and 1980s when they would face persecution, researchers told University World News after a virtual public dialogue titled ‘Technology as a tool of enhancing public confidence in elections in Africa’, organised by the Alliance for African Partnership, or AAP, and co-hosted by the United States International University-Africa based in Nairobi, Kenya.

The Alliance for African Partnership was co-created by Michigan State University (MSU) and African thought leaders in 2016 and is a consortium of MSU and 10 leading African universities. AAP members collaborate to address global challenges.

Technology as key research area

One area of research, it emerged from the virtual discussion on 27 October, can be the use of technology in elections, a relatively new concept in many African countries, hence a key area of study.

For example, it is critical to understand whether people trust and value the technologies, or fear and distrust them, said Carolyn Logan, an associate professor of political science at MSU in the United States.

“The academic community needs to find out what ordinary Africans think about democracy. Do they support it? What do they think are its most important features, about whether democracy is delivering benefits and how well their governments and leaders are performing?” she noted.

Other important questions for the social scientists to pursue could touch on the difficult question of corruption and voter bribery by politicians during polls, she said.

“Researchers’ findings on these and many other topics related to democracy and elections can provide valuable information that democracy advocates use to advance their efforts,” she observed.

The findings from studies would be useful in the planning of voter education campaigns, designing laws to promote and protect democracy, or in building pro-democracy advocacy campaigns, said Logan, who is also the director of analysis of Afrobarometer, a non-profit research company that conducts public surveys on democracy, governance and the economy.

Academics and politics

Even more important, the African academic community has a role to play in engaging in research with the aim of informing policies on the nature of institutions in a country that can enhance the process of democratisation, said Mercy Kaburu, assistant professor, international relations, United States International University-Africa.

“In addition, through research, academics can inform possible gaps in liberal democracy and advocate for a type of democracy that responds to the unique nature of African society,” she added.

As matters stood, she argued, academics in many countries are free to engage in political activity unlike in the past where they faced censorship from dictatorial governments.

Currently, like many others interested in political leadership, they have to contend only with ethnic realities and political party groupings, which are quite central in shaping African voting patterns and democracy at large.

“That said, however, it can be argued that any citizen – including academics – is likely to engage in politics if they are assured of fairness in elections,” she observed.

Strengthening of democratic structures

According to Keaoleboga Dipogiso a lecturer in political and administrative studies, University of Botswana, the academic world is responsible for home-grown ideas on governance and politics, and has to ensure that research is accessible to people – both the voters and the policymakers, alike.

He noted: “The first role of academia is to produce knowledge by means of research and publications on the democratic experiences of African countries. I say ‘African countries’ because I believe the West produces the most mainstream literature on democracy.

“While, in the past, African scholars have fled persecution at home, constituting a loss of critical skills, professors in the diaspora can now continue doing work on African while abroad – due to the existence of new media.

“Overall, Africa’s political scene needs to be cleaned of undemocratic practices and the building of strong institutions, before the continent’s academia can be encouraged to join elective politics in bigger numbers.

“This includes building robust democratic institutions that are able to monitor the electoral process. Political parties must be also strengthened and civic education [should be] improved,” he added.