At a time of coups – nine were recorded between 2020 and 2023 – where is democracy on the African continent? While ten countries are expected to undergo national consultations in 2024, this is the question that the critical essay De la Démocratie en Françafrique attempts to answer. A history of electoral imperialism (La Découverte, 384 pages, 22 euros), by the French journalist Fanny Pigeaud and the Senegalese economist Ndongo Samba Sylla. The two authors immerse us in the introduction of the elective representative system within the African countries colonized by France.

“When we speak today of democracy, we are not necessarily aware that we are using the language of authors and politicians who themselves rejected the principle of government by the people and who designed the system representative as its antidote”, summarizes Ndongo Samba Sylla. After covering two thousand five hundred years of history, going back to the origins of the word demokratia, the two authors recall the development of this concept first understood as political equality between “all”. From antiquity to the mid-19th century, the word was hated by the aristocracy, becoming the mask for a “new kind of oligarchic political system called representative government.” Finally, it is associated with elections held by universal suffrage.

“Illusory promises”

By reinscribing the “standard narrative of democracy” over time, the co-authors show how Western nations, during the four centuries of the development of capitalism, deprived non-European peoples of “their rights to be human beings”. It was only under the Third Republic that part of the elites ceded a little power to part of the inhabitants of the colonies. Fraud will serve to limit the scope of this measure.

With this new criticism of “Françafrique”, Fanny Pigeaud and Ndongo Samba Sylla denounce the processes deployed, according to them, since the colonial period to constrain the expression of popular will in French-speaking Africa. The Ivorian example in 2011 is, according to them, a textbook case of France’s capacity to impose its candidate, even to the point of military involvement. This sequence, believes Ndongo Samba Sylla, undermined “the illusory promises of liberal democracy”. But, in this specific case, the co-authors elude the strategy of conserving the power of former President Laurent Gbagbo, who, contrary to his commitment, refused to recognize the victory of Alassane Ouattara, although validated by the United Nations. More broadly, the two authors do not pay much attention to all those on the continent who fought against one-party regimes.

Highlighting the limits of the representative system, they envisage innovations such as drawing lots for deliberation positions, popular initiative referendums or citizen audits. At the risk of making a bed for populists, in fatigues or dressed in the costume of the young leader.