I consider it a great privilege to speak to you today on the subject that the organizers of the conference have proposed for me, “Strengthening Democracy and Good Governance in Africa: What Can Young People Do?” That’s for several reasons:

  1. That I am speaking to you, members of the World Youth Alliance. I know that you are deeply committed to improving the status of your respective nations and their citizens. As you will see, I believe in preaching to the choir—speaking to the converted—because I am not in the business of conversion—rather my hope is that I can make a modest contribution to building your capacities to do exactly what you have set out to do.
  2. That I believe that creating and sustaining democracy is the very best approach, in fact, I would say the only approach, to creating the New Africa –an Africa whose nations are governed by the rule of law—not by a colonial power, nor a monarch nor a self-appointed leader-for-life– but rather by laws made by the people and for the people—laws that can also, when the need arises, be changed by the people.
  3. That I believe that young people are the answer—that you are the future and it is your job to create that future in which all people can enjoy the blessings of liberty and justice.

In that regard, I respectfully submit that I would like to make a slight change to the title of my speech—that is to the question at the end of it, “What can young people do?” May I change that to “What must young people do?”
You see, I believe that it is in your hands to change the course of history in your respective nations, and on the African continent, and thus, in our increasingly interdependent times, to change the course of history in the world. In short, you have a daunting task ahead—but it will surely be one of the most important and rewarding tasks that you will ever take on.

It’s important to understand what democracy is and what it is not. You may have heard what the late Winston Churchill, prime minister of England in the mid-20th century, who had lots of wisdom and a very wry sense of humor, had to say about democracy: that it is the worst form of government—except for all the rest. We all known that democracy is an imperfect system but here’s why so many people, including me, believe that it is better than all the rest:

It does not pretend to be perfect;

It is always a work in progress whose laws and regimes can be changed without bloodshed or revolution;

And most important, it gives us as citizens the dignity that we humans all deserve—to be in charge of our own destinies and to be responsible for the common good. Citizens are the essential element in the equation of what comprises a democracy. And democracy is not just a system of government—it is a way of life, based on the assumption that we have the right and the capacity to choose the way we want to live and what kind of society we want to live in—and we agree to assume responsibility for that society. It is a way of life that gives us values and ideals that help us to understand and appreciate the dignity of all human beings.

Democracies are not all alike, but whether they are socialistic, capitalistic or something in between, they do all stand on three pillars: Government, the economy and the civic sector. All three are necessary to democracy—but the civic sector is uniquely necessary while government and an economy are common to all forms of government. That third sector—sometimes called civil society–that is you and I and the organizations and institutions that we create or belong to—that sector is what we need to cultivate—in order to ensure that what government does is for the public good and what the economy does benefits not only the rich but all people in the society. We citizens provide a counterpoint to government—so that the state does not hold all the power without consulting the populace, and to the economy—so that the market, with its bottom line of profit, is not the guiding principle for what happens in society. The market, in and of itself, is not democratic—it is rather about profit for owners, not about economic justice for all. In a healthy democratic society, the rule of law and the civic sector put constraints on the market so that economic development benefits all the people.

A robust, informed and engaged civil society is what we need if we are to strengthen democracy and good governance. Citizens must have the power to work with government and the market to determine the fate of our countries. There can be no democracy without your active and informed participation in the system. Even if you have a good constitution; even if you have honest elections– — you will not have a democracy unless you have informed and active citizens.

Now I caution you that neither strong autocratic government nor the free market is interested in sharing its power with citizens—which means that you must seize that power—but never by violent means. We have many examples of power gained through non-violent protests, peaceful demonstrations, through debate and discussion leading to consensus and compromise, through declarations of independence. Those are the techniques that must be used in the spirit of creating a sustainable democratic society—there is no place for violence. Violence begets violence; indeed some violence is state-sponsored—it is an effective technique for preventing people from assuming their role as citizens.

In the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the nation in nonviolent protest—advocating for the laws that were ultimately passed in 1964 and 1965 that gave African Americans the legal rights that were withheld from them before;

In Poland in the 1980s Adam Michnik, cofounder of the Solidarity Movement, which ultimately overthrew the communist regime in that country, encouraged his fellow dissenters to “act as though you live in a free society—speak your mind about issues of public concern, in school, at home, in your churches , in the public square.” Michnik pointed out that with violence you cannot produce a just society—you replace one tyranny with another tyranny. It’s important to remember that. Ultimately Solidarity prevailed and broke the long lived repressive communist regime through peaceful protest.

In the 1990s Nelson Mandela emerged from his 27 year term in prison to assume the presidency of a democratic Republic of South Africa—but even that could not have happened if the ANC hadn’t, years before, turned away from violence and began to train its members in local government administration.

Fast forward to this very week, which featured Kenya’s outstanding referendum approving the new Constitution, and Rwanda reelecting Paul Kagame as its president. Both events were conducted without violence—and both make progress in strengthening their countries.

These are just a few good news stories about how to effect change, which is what we are here to discuss.

Let me turn for a moment to some of the obstacles that I think you will encounter. When I finish my remarks, I hope we can continue the session as I want to hear what you consider the major obstacles you face in your respective countries and what you are doing or would like to do to address them.

Corruption—in its many forms—seems to be the dominant, omnipresent obstacle in most emerging democracies. I sometimes refer to it as “a weapon of mass destruction.”

Poverty and illiteracy are serious problems;

Ethnic conflict is debatable and I need to consult you on that issue. Even as early as 1972, the great Kenyan writer, Ngugi, reminded his readers that “Tribe is a special creation of the colonial regimes.” He insisted that, “Now there are only two tribes left in Africa: the “haves” and the “have-nots.”

Obstacles exist, in my view, because powerful leaders—even post-colonial leaders– who have no intention of ever leaving office– refuse to address these problems. Why? Because they are not willing to give more power to the people.

The task before you is daunting—it is complicated and long lived; it is, in its very nature, never finished. Democracy is always a work in progress. But I can assure you that no matter what else you do in life, in your profession or your career, assuming civic responsibility will be your most important work. And I firmly believe that in the realm of rights and responsibilities—the most precious right that an individual can have is the right to be responsible for the public good.

The reason that I consider it such a privilege to speak to you is that I know that you have the will to be agents of this very necessary change, and you either have or can acquire the skills that are required for this huge and eternal project.

You can take wisdom and inspiration from the way others have dealt with the challenges of transforming their societies—and you must then create your own strategies. We learn from the past—although sometimes I’m not sure of that—but we create the future. In our day and age, we need to be citizens at home and citizens of the world. Our responsibilities have grown as we recognize now that, through the revolution in information and communication technologies, we are bound together. We inhabit the same planet—and our actions affect others whom we may not ever see or know, so we are obliged to consider our actions according to the good or the harm they do to the world. In this realm environmentalists have led the way. They have helped us to understand that our actions in one corner of the world have an impact—and often a negative impact—on others who are thousands of miles away.

The task as I see it is to strengthen democracy by strengthening the civic sector. So what do we need to do? Here are a few ideas that we might discuss:

How about creating and making public a declaration of civic renewal through civic participation, declaring that citizens will work to take responsibility for themselves and for the public good, for the good of their local communities, their respective nations, their continent and their world?

How about working to reform education in your countries, insisting on free primary and secondary education for all—and for the kind of education which builds capacity for personal growth and public responsibility?

How about starting democracy discussion groups around your country, through existing institutions? In Rwanda, for example, I produced a handbook. It’s called The New Rwanda: Prosperity and the Public Good, and through schools, ngos, and businesses we are starting a national conversation on prosperity and the public good. The Foreign Ministry in Rwanda is even considering making it available in its embassies worldwide.

In short, develop a campaign for training citizens, for the purpose of strengthening democracy. It is difficult and time consuming, but as I said earlier, it is your job and it is the only way to liberate yourselves and those who come after you from oppression.

Looking ahead, I believe that it would be great to have an institution similar to the Kennedy School at Harvard—to prepare students for enlightened and informed service in the public sector.

Look for examples that can give you ideas that you can then accommodate to your own situation:

Here are a few that I’ve referred to:

  • The civil rights movement in the US and the subsequent women’s movement and gay and lesbian movement;
  • Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia
  • The Solidarity Movement in Poland
  • The ANC’s training of citizens in South Africa—and the Nelson Mandela Factor
  • The peaceful young dissidents who overthrew Milosevic in Serbia
  • The Declaration of Civic Renewal through Civic Participation in Kenya

You cannot import your democracy; I cannot export mine. It is yours to create. I know you have the will and I’m sure that you have many of the skills. So let’s talk now about the state of affairs in your own countries and strategies that may already be in place to strengthen democracy. I welcome your comments and questions and again, I thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak to you.

Strengthening Democracy & Good Governance in Africa: What Can Young People Do?

One thought on “Strengthening Democracy & Good Governance in Africa: What Can Young People Do?

  • March 7, 2013 at 8:08 am

    It is quite inspiring. Came across your article while researching on the role of the youth in good governace.

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