Rodrigue Nana Ngassam: “National dialogue? A reinvention of the African palaver”

by Hervé Pugi.

Between electoral crises, constitutional reforms and security problems, the principle of national dialogue is spreading across Africa. Constructive or fruitless, sources of hope or smokes and mirrors, the debates are underway in any case. To see things a little more clearly, we asked our resident expert, Rodrigue Nana Ngassam, a researcher associated with the Groupe de recherche sur le parlementarisme et la démocratie en Afrique (GREPDA) [Research Group on Parliamentarianism and Democracy in Africa], to enlighten us.

Scribouille: The concept of ‘national dialogue’ seems to have caught on in Africa recently. How can this be understood?

Rodrigue Nana Ngassam (R.N.N.): Dialogue is not a new invention, but is a new concept for the Africans. We can see that throughout history and in most societies, dialogue was used to curb conflicts and that some elements of dialogue methodology have been and still are used in traditional societies and rely on ancestral customs and procedures. The democratisation process had already been set in motion by the national conferences initiated in Africa at the beginning of the 1990s, following the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the Communist countries in the former Eastern Bloc.

These political foundations imposed on the established powers by opposition movements, essentially composed of organisations of civil society, produced variable results. The frenzy that accompanied this process was such that some observers did not hesitate to announce the irreversibility of pluralistic democracy on a universal level, and particularly in Africa.

Today, the concept of more recent national dialogue has, for obvious reasons, a particular connotation since it is generally in countries in crisis where it is needed. This is the very expression of democracy insofar as it can be described as democratic dialogue.   It can be an essential mechanism for promoting a democracy without violence. Well implemented, it also helps to promote democratic practices by allowing all parts of society to make their voices heard. By ensuring that dialogue takes place not just between political elites and by encouraging truly peaceful and inclusive dialogue, it is possible to create this democratic legitimacy.


Scribouille: It is striking to note that most of these current (or future) dialogues take place in very different contexts. Can we, for example, compare dialogue initiated in Guinea to that which takes place in the DRC?

R.N.N.: The crisis-generating factors in these two states are not the same. In Guinea, political actors engaged in dialogue where the outcome resulted in the signing of several agreements favoured by the opposition on 12 October 2016, such as the one relating to compensation for victims of electoral violence in recent years and the lifting of ambiguity about the forthcoming organisation of the local and municipal elections, seeking to pacify a socio-political climate that had been tense for years. The political agreement reached after several weeks is now a reference document for resolving any political disputes that may arise between parties, civil society and those in power.

On the other hand, in the DRC, there is a system of musical chairs where grasping the gist of Congolese politics is no mean feat. Questions arise about the credibility of this dialogue. If a fringe of the opposition joins in, the remainder has set preconditions for its participation: respect for constitutional deadlines, liberation of political prisoners and the ceasing of judicial harassment against political opponents. Their boycotts of this dialogue and the controversies that surround the consensus reached on the election cycle and management after 19 December did not ease the tension and frustration among the population. Discord is therefore expected before the deadline of April 2018.


Scribouille: If we consider the case of Gabon, how can we interpret President Bongo reaching out after his disputed re-election? Is this an admission of weakness or a gesture of appeasement?

R.N.N.: Democracy normally implies the abandonment of any use of force in favour of dialogue in political competition. Also, it is by no means an admission of weakness on the part of President Ali Bongo Ondimba. As you have underlined, it is a responsible gesture of appeasement of tensions resulting from the electoral dispute in order to avoid, as he himself stated, “hate, barbarism and violence prevailing again to spread terror in Gabon”; the purpose of him reaching out is to strengthen the legitimacy of institutions by reaching a consensus on their proper functioning and building trust in it.

The aim is to standardise views and define a common agenda that is precise and clear in order to reach a friendly agreement or broader national cohesion and to suggest a common vision for the future. But also, to dispel all subject matter that arouses fears and other apprehensions that result from the violation of the electoral process.


Scribouille: Ongoing dialogues mainly bring together political forces of the countries concerned. Can this be enough to establish agreement in states where “clanism” generally prevails on the concept of common interest?

R.N.N.: Very often, state institutions do not work properly because they are being jeopardised by the persistence of tribal, ethnic or even clan considerations. This situation contributes to the change in the political climate, the increase in personal, political and even ethnic divisions, to the maintenance and radicalisation of dictatorial regimes resulting from single parties who have become strong parties who have no reason to envy the single parties of yesteryear against a backdrop of a plurality of small parties without, for the most part, national scope.

If, with independence, there has been a genuine will to create nations, a unitary state, the acknowledgement of failure is convincing since the ethnic, tribalist and especially regionalist vote are aplenty in Africa, as is shown in the examples of previous presidential and legislative elections in Kenya, Togo, Ivory Coast, Guinea, etc. It is virtually impossible for a man from the south to be elected in the north and vice versa; in a given region, it’s the clan or ethnic factor that holds sway. Consequently, political dialogue will be meaningless unless it is inclusive and not exclusive by avoiding partisan politics and putting the interests of the whole nation first.

A dialogue between all players in the political, ethnic and social spheres is more likely to have a positive impact if the resulting agreements are deemed to be legitimate for the people. Consequently, this model makes every individual of every group responsible for the destiny of the country at any time.

There is no place for a large group of citizens who would wait forever to participate in decision-making, playing the fruitless opposition, for a very long time often isolated from the decisions on everybody’s future. A consensual government stays quiet about small differences of opinion, adopts a great civic and patriotic vision of the nation, subordinating the interests of individuals and groups to the general interest.


Scribouille: Does this approach to dialogue seem more interesting than this doctrine, adopted for some time by the great powers of the international community who advocated, modelled on South Sudan, a sharing of power between opposing clans/parties?

R.N.N.: Power sharing is an instrument for the prevention and resolution of conflicts and for establishing peace. The prospect of power sharing may encourage opposition groups in government to accept and respect the peace agreement: thanks to positions obtained, each party can find their peace and be encouraged to preserve it. The success or failure depends on the acceptance by all of the provisions and mechanisms for power sharing and the presence of guarantees and external mediators.

This doctrine is not necessarily an absolute guarantee of compliance with a peace agreement or of the development of democracy. For example, when returns on resources or control of a territory by certain groups are at stake, the lure of power sharing may not be sufficient to encourage them to keep the peace. Sometimes a group finds an excuse to resume the war, as is the sad experience in South Sudan.

On the other hand, national dialogue is a much more interesting approach insofar as it creates harmony, negotiation, consensus, awareness of the necessity of union, and the sense of permanent responsibility of each person in terms of national destiny. This is why it deserves to be considered, in many ways, as being more democratic than the doctrine of power sharing.


Scribouille: Finally, a number of people have talked a lot about “African democracy” recently. What do you think about this other concept and, if appropriate, how would you define it and would you say the dialogue as it is taking shape today can be a specificity?

R.N.N.: Between democracy and non-democracy, the current African experience would be, on average and with little variance, in an intermediate zone of “hybrid regimes”. Elements of democracy (elections) would exist in these regimes, combined with impenetrable authoritarian practices. This overview produces an (unflattering) image of democracy in Africa, but not a “model”, in other words a strong reference that would have target value. There is no need to reinvent “African democracy” because this model seems to be imposed chronologically as it refers to a distant past, to a golden age. It does not correspond to an epoch, it is sought and revived at any moment.

Today the topic of “African democracy” is taken over by versions that do not directly rely on tradition but on the recent developments in power relations between the continents. Africa has sustained significant progress and failures that are part of the normal course of the democratisation process that is more or less long depending on the specificities of the country. Democracy is under construction and proposals for the consolidation of democracy and the stabilisation of political life already exist. But the venture is still young and fragile and therefore reversible. It is therefore pleasing to note that the major conflicts on the continent are dealt with in the context of dialogue according to the ancestral procedures of negotiation and restoration of peace.

The virtues of national dialogue are inspiring the desire and the need for the creation of a new type of governance, one that is participatory and inclusive. In this we can see a reinvention of the African palaver in the context of modernity, capable of becoming a tool for the prevention and resolution of crises. And as wise Africans know, the maturity of a people is measured not by the number of tragedies that it has endured, but by the way in which the people manage them peacefully without clashes or fighting.


*Rodrigue Nana Ngassam is a doctoral student in International Studies at the University of Douala, a researcher associated with the Groupe de recherche sur le parlementarisme et la démocratie en Afrique (GREPDA) [Research Group on Parliamentarianism and Democracy in Africa] and the Société africaine de géopolitique et d’études stratégiques (SAGES) [African Society of Geopolitics and Strategic Studies]. He is also a junior researcher at the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society (TSAS).

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