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South African Journal of Philosophy
ISSN: 0258-0136 (Print) 2073-4867 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rsph20
Africa and the prospects of deliberative democracy
Emmanuel Ifeanyi Ani
To cite this article: Emmanuel Ifeanyi Ani (2013) Africa and the prospects of
deliberative democracy, South African Journal of Philosophy, 32:3, 207-219, DOI:
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South African Journal of Philosophy 2013, 32(3): 207–219
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Africa and the prospects of deliberative democracy
Emmanuel Ifeanyi Ani
Department of Philosophy and Classics , University of Ghana, PO Box LG 211,
Legon, Greater Accra, Ghana
Preoccupation with multiparty aggregative democracy in Africa has produced
superficial forms of political/electoral choice-making by subjects that deepen
pre-existing ethnic and primordial cleavages. This is because the principles of the
multiparty system presuppose that decision-making through voting should be the
result of a mere aggregation of pre-existing, fixed preferences. To this kind of
decision-making, I propose deliberative democracy as a supplementary approach.
My reason is that deliberation, beyond mere voting, should be central to decision-
making and that, for a decision to be legitimate, it must be preceded by deliberation,
not merely the aggregation of pre-existing fixed preferences. I agree with arguments
that when adequate justifications are made for claims/demands/conclusions, deliber-
ation has the potential to have a salutary effect on people’s opinions, transform/
evolve preferences, better inform judgments/voting, lead to increasingly ‘common
good’ decisions, have moral educative power, place more burden of account-giving
on public officers, and furnish subjects/losers/outvoted with justifications for collec-
tively binding decisions. I argue that a deliberative turn in politics in Africa will
have a mitigating effect on tribal and money politics.
References have been made to a culture of deliberation in precolonial African societies. Though
these references have been presented as references to reaching decisions by consensus1 and raised
many controversies that surround the routine workability of consensus,2 they can be interpreted
(and ought to have been presented) basically as references to a culture of deliberation and delibera-
tive democracy in some traditional African societies. The emergence of the modern state structure,
which can often encompass a multiplicity of traditional societies, is a development that has
extended the social arena beyond the boundaries of the immediate traditional community into a
multiethnic society. This sociospatial extension was not accompanied by an equal extension of
deliberative institutions, since the modern state inherited the aggregative democracy of the colonial
masters. The result of this is that while the practice of deliberative democracy can be used to
sustain the inclusivity of primordial communities, there is no mechanism for this sustenance at
the state level, save for the aggregative pitting of societies, ethnicities, political ideologies, and
even religious worldviews against each other. A more heterogeneous society is in much more need
of a culture of deliberation compared to a more homogeneous society. This is because deliber-
ating presupposes diversity. The current picture in many African countries is quite the contrary:
deliberation often functions to foster the cohesion of many primordial societies while aggrega-
tive politics remains the only constitutional mechanism for bringing these societies together. It is
puzzling to imagine how this kind of bringing together—the togetherness of mere aggregation of
numbers—can transform into national unity. Unfortunately, aggregation can tend towards aggrega-
tion of the majority over the minority and, in Africa, aggregation can translate to aggregation (and
1 See, for instance, Kenneth Kaunda in Mutiso and Rohio (1975: part VII, p. 476) and Wiredu (1996: p. 182).
2 See, for instance, Eze (1997), Matolino (2009) and Ani (2013).
entrenchment) along ethnic cleavages.3 This is by no means the only threat, since money can also
be an ‘aggregative weapon’.4
In discussing aggregative democracy, I refer to the institutionalisation of voting as a basic standard
for decision-making, instead of its usual function of being a last resort in cases of intractability or
failure of consensus. This is because the most ideal form of group decision is usually a unanimous one.
Wiredu had asserted that there was no word for voting in some traditional African societies, and that it
seems to be a Western import (1996: p. 184). However, I argue that voting is a basic human solution
to resolving intractability, and intractability exists everywhere. The very idea of voting cannot have
been imported. What could be a Western import is the standardisation of voting as a tool for decision-
making, often without deliberation, which usually leads to a mere aggregation of pre- or un-deliberated
preferences. In objection to this, it may be argued that the political campaigns that precede electoral
decision-making are instances of deliberation, but these are true only as far as advertisements (and
other instances of one-way communication) can be seen as instances of deliberation. Even presidential
debates can often pass as the competitive advertisement of rival candidates for public office, and cannot
pass as deliberation unless care is taken to structure them into a real two-way interaction between
candidates and the electorate. People need to deliberate more thoroughly with and about their leaders to
make better-informed decisions about them, as well as about other issues of national interest.
To be sure, the politics of the aggregation of numbers is not producing the desired results
in nations that are seen as its chief custodians.5 Even in these places, national development
can be perpetually strangled, and the state of the nation may hang on the precipice of disaster
as meaningful executive governmental policies are blocked by the presence of greater aggrega-
tive opposition in other arms of government, especially the legislative. Without a deliberative
culture, aggregative democracy stands the danger of translating into a self-defeating technocracy.
African nations need to go beyond aggregative democracy, but not necessarily to drop the idea of
aggregative voting. I propose deliberative democracy as a supplement rather than a replacement to
aggregative democracy. There will be space in this article only to argue the merits of a deliberative
turn, but not to list and develop deliberative platforms. The detailed development of the optimal
structure and platforms for public deliberation will have to be the subject of another work, and
could also be taken up by social scholars.
The concept of deliberation
Deliberation can be understood as ‘an unconstrained exchange of arguments that involves practical
reasoning and always potentially leads to a transformation of preferences’ (Cooke 2000: p. 948).
Thus in a deliberative democracy:
… actors listen to each other with openness and respect, provide reasons and justifications
for their opinions, and remain open to changing their view about public policy problems;
they should be oriented toward mutual understanding, the goal of coming to some level of
agreement, and should want to learn the reasons why they agree or disagree. They must
be driven not only by a search for their personal notion of the best policy, but by a search
for reasons that would warrant them and their fellow citizens in believing a policy to be
the best. Deliberation is not just an opportunity to learn things others know or what they
think, but to more fully articulate a public justification for actions on matters of common
concern. That is, deliberators discuss what we should do as a political community rather
than (or in addition to) what I want as an individual. (Dorr Goold et al. 2012: p. 24)
The concept of deliberation received more serious attention with the impact of Jurgen
Habermas’ theory of communicative action. Habermas construes ‘communicative action’ to
3 See Ferree (2006), Reardon (2012) and Olowojolu (2013). Ethnic and racial allegiances are fundamental and not restricted to Africa: see
4 For instances, see Bryan and Baer (2005), Ameyibor (2007), Adetula (2008) and Al Jazeera (2013).
5 The United States of America is an example.
South African Journal of Philosophy 2013, 32(3): 207–219 209
mean the sort of cooperative action undertaken by individuals based upon mutual deliberation
and argumentation. He sees this as possible given the human capacity for rationality. By this he
means, not the subjectivistic and individualistic rationality orientations of modern philosophy
and social theory, but rationality as a capacity conveyable in language, especially in the form of
argumentation (Habermas 1984: pp. 16–18). Generally, arguments contain reasons or grounds
given for validity claims, and the strength of an argument is often measured in a given context by
the soundness of the reasons. This can be seen in, among other things, whether or not an argument
is able to convince or motivate participants to accept a validity claim. Habermas adds that the
concept of criticisability means that rationality remains accidental if it is not coupled with the
ability to learn from mistakes, to learn from the refutation of hypotheses and from the failure
of interventions. Thus, he couples the concept of argumentation with the concept of learning.
Reiterating Toulmin et al., Habermas (1984: p. 18) emphasises that:
Anyone participating in argument shows his rationality or lack of it by the manner in
which he handles and responds to the offering of reasons for or against claims. If he is
“open to argument”, he will either acknowledge the force of those reasons or seek to reply
to them, and either way he will deal with them in a “rational” manner. If he is “deaf to
argument”, by contrast, he may either ignore contrary reasons or reply them with dogmatic
assertions, and either way he fails to deal with the issues “rationally”.
Thus, Habermas sees communicative action as reflective in the sense that participants in an
argument can learn from others by reflecting upon their premises and questioning suppositions that
typically go without question. The criteria of argumentative speech, which Habermas identifies
as (1) the absence of coercive force, (2) the mutual search for understanding and (3) the compel-
ling power of the better argument, form the key features from which intersubjective rationality
can make communication possible. The rationality of actions undertaken by participants through a
process of such argumentative communication can be assessed by the extent to which they fulfill
these criteria. Communicative action is action that results from such a deliberative process of
interaction and common agreement of interpretations of situations.
Habermas’ theory of communication has been criticised for being hyperrationalistic, to the
neglect of emotions (Neblo 2007: pp. 531–532), rhetoric (Young 1996), greeting/testimony/story-
telling (Young 1996, Sanders 1997) and struggles for recognition (Neblo 2007: 534). The conclu-
sion of some of these critiques is that Habermas’ theory overlooks ‘reality’, and the argument
is that we should seek the ‘real’ modes of communication such as storytelling, testimony and
rhetoric.6 However, two things can be said about these critiques. First of all, though Habermas
does not really develop his writing on emotions, he regards emotions as not just compatible with,
but also indispensable to, his theory of practical reason.7 Second is that the emphasis on ‘realism’
does not sufficiently prove itself to be different from complacency with the status quo.
Mercier and Landemore (2012: p. 10) try to distinguish between what can count as deliberation
and what cannot, in the course of which they distinguish deliberation from mere reasoning, and also
distinguish between private or ‘internal’ and public or ‘external’ deliberation. Private deliberation
happens when a person internally simulates several opinions and uses reasoning to find arguments
for and against those opinions. Even at this personal level, if the person finds reasons supporting only
her opinion, then she will still be reasoning, but deliberation will not have taken place. Deliberation
also fails if reasoning is used to produce, but not evaluate, arguments. Arguments become genuinely
deliberative only when they are evaluated by co-participants, meaning that they are given a genuine
chance to influence the listener. And if the listener merely uses the arguments as a springboard for
building counter-arguments, and thus does not really evaluate them, she does not truly partake in
deliberation. If an opinion is held by someone taking part in a discussion but not expressed, or if
arguments for this opinion are expressed but not evaluated by others, or if arguments are evaluated
6 Also see Neblo (2007: pp. 532, 534) and Young (1996).
7 Neblo (2007: pp. 531–532) develops this defence much more elaborately.
but not addressed, then this opinion will not genuinely be part of the deliberation (ibid.). From this,
we see that reason is a necessary but not sufficient condition for deliberation. The primary character-
istic of deliberation is mutual justification (Thompson 2008: p. 504), which is, in my view, likely to
compel reason to function at its best.
The term ‘deliberative democracy’ was coined by Joseph M. Bessette in his 1980 work
Deliberative Democracy: the Majority Principle in Republican Government. The central thesis
of this term is that deliberation, beyond mere voting, should be central to decision-making. So
for a democratic decision to be legitimate, it must be preceded by deliberation, not merely the
aggregation of preferences that occurs in voting. Deliberative democracy could be made compat-
ible with both representative democracy and direct democracy. Some scholars8 employ the term in
relation to bodies whose members deliberate on roughly equal power basis (governmental bodies
such as parliament, committees and boards), and this can be seen as elitist deliberative theory,
whereas some other scholars9 apply the term to deliberative forums organised for and involving lay
citizens, as in direct or populist democracy.
The idea of populist deliberative democracy has two alternative purposes. The first is to use
deliberation among a group of lay citizens to distill a ‘more authentic’ public opinion about
societal issues but not directly create binding law. An example of this is the deliberative opinion
polls organised by media agents in some democratic countries, which sample popular opinion
about an issue at hand, or even on the popularity ratings and continued desirability of a public
leader regarding specific public tasks. Another example is the constitutionally created Indian
village deliberative forums set up to argue, contest and determine who is poor and eligible for
government assistance in the Indian economic redistribution system.10 In these forums, the popular
opinion is able to question government and elite assumptions about the definition of poverty and
who should be more eligible than whom for this assistance. Popular opinion is also able to unearth
and question the inclusion of politically powerful and economically well-off villagers whose
names find their way into the list. In these two examples, however, government representatives
are free to accept or reject popular views, but they have to nevertheless realise that they are in an
account-giving, electoral democracy instead of a dictatorship.
The second (alternative) purpose of populist deliberative democracy can be for it to serve as a
form of direct democracy, where deliberation among a group of lay citizens forms a ‘public will’
that can directly create binding law (Leib 2006: p. 8). This alternative arises as a response to the
problem of inadequate representation that can be attributed to elitist deliberation. However, this
particular option (direct and binding legislation or governance by the masses) will, to my mind, be
less feasible and much more chaotic in large polities. Moreover, it is incompatible with representa-
tive democracy. In the first place, inadequate representation arises, in my view, if the amount of
deliberation between representatives and represented is inadequate.
I would argue for the first (non-binding) purpose of populist deliberative democracy. My reason
is that non-binding popular deliberation can have serious enough effects on representative govern-
ance without resorting to direct governance by the masses. We could choose to envisage the
representative (elitist) and (non-binding) populist democracy as capable of working hand in hand
and complementing each other rather than as mutually exclusive. By this I mean that democracy
is simplified by popular representation, and simultaneously receives insightful but non-binding
contributions from the represented masses. It should still be left for popular representatives to
accept or reject popular contributions, but the mechanism of popular representation confers consid-
erable pressure on the parts of representatives to be fair and accountable, to seriously consider
various contributions, for they have to be popularly elected and re-elected. Although this kind of
popular deliberative contribution has no official binding force, its real force can be nonetheless
8 Such as Steiner et al. (2004).
9 Such as Fishkin (2011: pp. 1–256).
10 For more details, see Rao and Sanyal (2009: pp. 2–39).
South African Journal of Philosophy 2013, 32(3): 207–219 211
substantial. In other words, the officially non-binding nature of popular contributions will not take
away from their effectiveness, because representatives are elected officials who are compelled by
the exigencies of popular (re)election to take popular contributions seriously.
A more general purpose of deliberative democracy is democratic legitimacy. Regarding the
issue of legitimacy, James Fishkin (2011: pp. 2–3) outlined five basic features of deliberative
democracy: (1) information: accurate and relevant data is made available to all participants;
(2) substantive balance: different positions are compared based on their supporting evidence;
(3) diversity: all major positions relevant to the matter at hand and held by the public are consid-
ered; (4) conscientiousness: participants sincerely weigh all arguments; and (5) equal consid-
eration: views are weighed based on evidence, not on who is advocating a particular view.
According to Joshua Cohen (1989: pp. 17–34), citizens in a deliberative democracy will have to
structure their institutions such that deliberation becomes the deciding factor in decision-making
and the creation of institutions. In this case, the deliberative procedure constructed will have
to become the source of legitimacy for political organisation. Each member must recognise the
other member’s deliberative capacity, and the idea is that: we ‘owe’ one another reasons for our
proposals. Though I might disagree with the framing of the call for deliberation as necessarily
the call for consensus, I think that Wiredu’s (1996: pp. 182–190, 2010: pp. 1055–1066) call for
democracy by consensus is equally driven by the concern for justification, and thus for the value
of legitimacy. I would, for the most part, see the concept of legitimacy as most desirable if it is to
rest on rational justification.
Apart from legitimacy, other purposes of deliberation (which can also be seen as virtues or
benefits) are that it leads to change of opinion/mind (Linderman 2002: p. 199, Mackie 2006:
p. 295), better-informed judgments/voting/political decisions,11 broadens perspectives (Chambers
2003: p. 307), reduces opinion extremities (Himmelroos and Christensen 2012: p. 13), induces
transition from extremist attitudes to more other-regarding behaviour (Himmelroos and
Christensen 2012: p. 3), increases tolerance (Gutman and Thompson 1996: p. 96), increases
faith in democratic processes (Fishkin (1995: pp. 2–256), increases community’s social capital
(ibid.), and increases legitimacy of the constitutional order because people have a say in and an
understanding of that order.12 These outcomes are enhanced through deliberation’s capacity to
update people’s opinions, leading to dynamic evolution/transformation of interests (Karpowitz and
Mansbridge 2005: p. 356). The common denominator is that deliberation and publicity associated
with deliberation can have a salutary effect on people’s opinions (Chambers 2003: p. 318).
Maeve Cooke (2000: p. 947) has summarised the purposes of deliberation into five (broad
categories of) arguments in favour of deliberative democracy. These are (1) its educative power,
(2) its community-generating power, (3) the fairness of the procedure of deliberation, (4) the
epistemic quality of its outcomes, and (5) its congruence with ‘whom we are’. Cooke argues that
the first four arguments (which are benefits of deliberation) are insufficient without the support
of the last ‘congruence with whom we are’. However, I find her view of ‘whom we are’ to be a
bit surprising. By ‘whom we are’ she means the descendants of modern (Western) history and
traditions that have roots in ancient Greece. According to her, the people that emerge from this
tradition and history value autonomous reasoning, desacralisation of knowledge, rational account-
ability, objectivity of judgment, mutual respect, and the recognition of no authoritative standards
independent of history and cultural context that could adjudicate claims to epistemic validity
(Cooke 2000: p. 955). However, the exclusive manner of Cooke’s ascription of these qualities
to descendants of Western history is contestable. We recall that claims to a culture of delibera-
tion have been made by Africans regarding traditional Africa, in particular, Kenneth Kaunda’s
comment that ‘In our original societies we operated by consensus. An issue was talked out in
solemn conclave until such time as agreement could be achieved’ (Mutiso and Rohio 1975:
p. 476), or Nyerere’s reference to Guy Clutton-Brock’s testimony that ‘The elders would sit under
the big trees, and talk until they agree’ (ibid.) and Wiredu’s call for a sort of radical consensus that
11 See Mercier and Landemore (2012: pp. 14–15), Delli Carpini and Cook (2004: p. 317) and Chambers (1996).
12 See Chambers (1996: p. 199) and Gutman and Thompson (1996: p. 96).
will mimic some traditional African deliberative practices (Wiredu 1996: p. 184, 2010: p. 1063).
So deliberation as ‘whom we are’ should rather be a human (rather than a specifically Western or
However, deliberation will not work if certain attitudes are not possessed by the participants.
In other words, deliberation requires certain attitudes and dispositions such as public spiritedness,
equal respect, accommodation and equal participation (Thompson 2008: p. 504). Actors should be
ready to justify their positions with reasons, refer to public interest, respect the position of other
actors and be willing to yield to the force of the better argument (Steiner 2012: p. 1). They should
observe reciprocity and publicity (Wesoloska 2007: p. 665). Barabas (2004: p. 699) observes that
crucial to deliberation is open mind (to criticism and cross-evaluation), as this can distinguish
deliberation from mere discussion. I find Barabas’ point to be quite insightful. This point (open
mind) is perhaps one of the greatest challenges facing deliberation in a pluralistic and multiethnic
society, but adopting this attribute (or attitude) offers one of the greatest prospects of delibera-
tive democracy, because an open mind is ready to evaluate divergent opinions on their individual
merits, rather than on the basis of who these opinions come from. In an open-minded environment,
we would, thus, expect to reap the benefits of, not just more inclusive value (or inclusivity), but
arrive at decisions of better epistemic value. The opposite possibility—a scenario in which partici-
pants come to deliberation with minds closed by predeliberative cleavages and decisions—will
not, in my estimation, amount to deliberation.
Cohen (1989: p. 74) argues that participants in a deliberative forum are free from any authority of
prior norms or requirements, and consider themselves bound solely by the results and preconditions
of the deliberation. They should also suppose that they can act on decisions resulting from such a
process: the deliberative process should be a sufficient reason to comply with a decision reached. In
addition, Cohen presents two types of equality that are meant to work hand in hand: the formal and
the substantive. The formal is that anyone can put forth proposals, criticise and support measures.
There is no substantive hierarchy. The substantive equality is that the participants should not be
constrained by certain distributions of power, resources or pre-existing norms. However, Cohen’s
substantive equality, as desirable as it is to deliberation, is absent in the real world, which is filled
with all kinds of economic, social, political and even deliberative inequalities. We can come close to
achieving substantive equality in some deliberative forums such as a legislative house that is made
of legislators with roughly the same levels of educational advancements, and who might belong to
roughly the same socioeconomic class. However, even then, some will clearly have more delibera-
tive capacity than others, which is still some form of inequality. And deliberative capacity is not
synonymous with correctness, as it may be bent toward rhetoric. So equality is never guaranteed, and
thus we must think of ways in which Cohen’s ‘formal’ equality can be used to tackle what I see as
the ever-present ‘substantive’ inequalities. Let me briefly highlight one possible way to do this.
The greatest challenge to deliberative democracy seems to be inequality. Participants are not
materially or socially equal, neither do they have the same levels of deliberative capacity. Thus,
unless measures are taken, these inequalities could be very significant in determining the outcome
of deliberation. There is no guarantee that the opinion that commands the consent of the majority
of participants is the better opinion. The majority might well be biased, prejudiced, ignorant or
unduly influenced by dominant players. However, it is often the majority opinion that becomes the
group decision. For this reason, it is the role of the minority opinion to question the assumptions
of the majority opinion. This questioning can often pick up holes in the views of the majority, and
majorities can often revise their positions in the light of this development.13
We might not imagine that deliberation will always result in opinion transformation. However,
this, I think, is when we consider deliberation as a single-conversation event that immediately
transforms people’s opinions. Opinion transformations are often delayed since individuals are not
often very good at promptly admitting the weaknesses of their opinions and publicly accepting
change. Chambers (1995: p. 249) suggests stepping back from the model of single conversation,
arguing that actors re-evaluate their positions between conversations rather than within them, and
13 For detailed reading of this proposal, see Ani (2013).
South African Journal of Philosophy 2013, 32(3): 207–219 213
that they re-evaluate their world-views fragmentally rather than entirely. Also, preference change
is not likely to include fundamental normative and ontological beliefs (‘deep core’), but will at the
most affect the ‘policy core’ of participants, that is, basic political positions.14
It is now reasonable to talk of a deliberative turn in democratic theory (Chambers 2003: p. 307),
as there is an increasing need to deepen the role of deliberation in politics and social affairs. In
addition, public deliberation is gaining increasing desirability in television talk shows, radio discus-
sions and internet social sites. Admittedly, a reason for this is the advancement of media and
internet technology, but this advancement, in my estimation, will not be enough without advancing/
systematising a culture of deliberation. Media and internet technology might as well drive the
politics of ethnicity, racism and prejudice. It will be more desirable, in my view, for this extracurric-
ular upsurge to coincide (or perhaps correlate) with a rising academic interest on the subject.
Some scholars have proposed consensus as a goal for deliberation.15 However, let me clarify
that not every deliberation aims at common agreement. Some deliberative engagements are
meant to produce more information to help participants in reaching their respective decisions
and conclusions. There are situations in which these decisions are not meant to converge on a
central point, but to choose between constitutionally recognised alternatives, especially
where political pluralism such as the multiparty system is institutionalised. In this regard, I
delineate two kinds of deliberation: deliberation with the aim of reaching common agreement
(as applicable in trying to settle disputes or deciding a common course of action), and deliber-
ation aimed at enlightening participants through the information produced in the course of
arguments (as applicable in pre-electoral exchange of arguments and opinions regarding the
suitability of candidates for electoral positions). In particular, the second kind of deliber-
ation aims simply to more thoroughly inform voting. Thus, the difference between the two is
that the first not only imparts information but aims at common agreement/consensus, whereas
the second simply imparts information for the purpose of more informed judgments on the
part of each participant, whatever these judgments will be. With regard to the first kind, intrac-
tabilities exist and not every deliberation aimed at common agreement can reach consensus.
A sequel to this is that aiming doggedly at consensus can result in ignoring critical dissentions and
reaching perceived as well as genuine unanimities. Interestingly, Habermas (1992, pp. 138–139,
371) advocates consensus as a value that corresponds to the ‘non-coercive coercion of the better
argument’, but I consider the alternative possibility that consensus can also stand in opposition to
‘the better argument’ if the consensus happens to be a consensus of the majority opinion and the
‘better argument’ just happens to be held by the minority. Thus, a radical consensus requirement
or task order could primarily serve to foster group cohesion at the possible price of the epistemic
quality of decisions, and could even undermine the envisaged group cohesion or inclusivity if the
minority concedes to consensus of majority opinion but resents decision in private.16
However, if deliberation must not always result in consensus or common agreement, participants
can at least end up with more informed judgments. So what is the common denominator between
these kinds of deliberation? This common denominator, in my view, is that deliberation is capable
of transforming opinion. Here, I agree with Linderman and Mackie as cited above. This position
is also corroborated by the synchronising of two seemingly opposing arguments to reflect a
two-way influence between deliberation and opinions/beliefs/values of a participant: the dominant
values one holds will influence how one interacts with information (Elster 1983: p. 19), and the
converse will also hold: information an individual possesses will affect his or her confidence in
beliefs, playing a role in the activation of values (Palfrey and Poole 1987) or their evolution (in my
opinion). To begin with the first kind of deliberation, deliberation aimed at common agreement (or
consensus) is capable of evolving the opinions of participants toward a central position, and the
convergence of opinions on a central position is often (though not always) achieved. Elsewhere,
I propose a three-step model of deliberation to address the difficulties involved in aiming at this
14 See Sabatier (1998: pp. 104, 122).
15 Proponents of consensus include Habermas (1992, pp. 138–139) and Wiredu (1996, p. 182, 2010, pp. 1055–1066).
16 This is elucidated in Ani (2013).
goal in a pluralist context.17 Regarding the second kind of deliberation, information generated from
exchange of arguments is capable of transforming people’s choices. As an example, information
generated from pre-electoral exchange of arguments is capable of transforming people’s electoral
choices. It is this capacity (or quality) of deliberation that informs this article, and I proceed to
show its potentials in the African sociopolitical situation.
Africa and the prospects of deliberative democracy
The project of the modern state in Africa is, in my view, dependent upon the crucial subproject of
transferring the primary allegiance of the average African from her ethnic/primordial origins to
the civic state. Given the reality of ethnic diversities/divisions, the crucial nature of this subproject
cannot be overemphasised. However, current preoccupation with aggregative democracy only
ends in producing a mere aggregation of the relative strengths of these ethnic components. This
is not surprising in a democracy that is characterised by the following: (1) deep ethnic divisions,
(2) often too little information and discussion about the antecedents and profiles of public officers,
especially as significant to leadership, (3) the dominant role of money in politics, (4) insufficient
discussions regarding national interests or the actions of leaders and (5) lack of public pressure
on leaders to justify their policies/decisions or lack thereof. These are symptomatic, not of the
absence of media structures, but (of my concern) that public deliberation is not yet fully institu-
tionalised at state national levels. Let me explore how a political culture of deliberation could
mitigate each of the listed challenges in Africa.
Challenges (1) and (2) are not only correlated, but derive this correlatedness from a collision
between the psychology of perceived difference and the weaknesses of politics: if we do not
acquire the habit of critically discussing our political office candidates’ (private and public)
past activities, then there are possibilities that ethnic sentiments (usually fanned by some politi-
cians) could gain more ground. Thus, a culture of political and public deliberation could have a
gradual withering effect on tribal and regional politics. It is not only that public deliberation needs
a fair amount of information, but the activity of public deliberation also yields lots of informa-
tion regarding issues and persons. The kinds of information that we hope to derive from a culture
of public deliberation are the kinds that are bound to actively engage the attention of citizens.
Deep insistence on issue-based politics and deep attachment to tribal politics cannot go hand in
hand. It is expected that the former will retain an effective constraint upon the latter, especially
when deliberation with and between candidates can force issues of national interest to the fore. In
extreme situations, some citizens hardly know anything about their candidates except where they
hail from. There can be no worse-case scenario than this, especially given that the existence of
active local community deliberations can often strengthen ethnic mobilisation while the low level
of public deliberation at national levels does not effectively transform this kind of cohesion into
national unity or at least check its ethnic configuration. Surely, public deliberation should begin
at the local and village level, representing the grassroots, but if this practice is not replicated at the
national level, it is a recipe for unabridged ethnic politics.
The project of mitigating ethnicity and increasing state patriotism through deliberative
democracy should derive confidence from the fact that ethnicity is not as biological as it seems.
Scholars have shown that generations of movements of peoples from place to place in the wake
of wars, conflict, conquests, commercial intercourse and search for better economic lives have
equally led to generations of ethnic interpenetrations resulting from intermarriages and cohabita-
tion, thus establishing that the concept of ethnicity, understood as grouping by common ancestry
or genealogy, is a myth.18 However, this myth has for many decades been fanned into consuming
flames by many politicians who, for want of integrity, succumb to playing cheap ethnic cards
when it can work to their favour. The case can be made that ethnicity in many parts of Africa is
an invented concept. If the notion of ethnic purity is false, and the average African can trace her
genealogy across generations to a multiplicity of ethnic groups, then it makes a more confident
17 See my article ‘Deliberation in Three Steps’ (forthcoming).
18 Confer Gyekye (1997: pp. 96–101).
South African Journal of Philosophy 2013, 32(3): 207–219 215
case for a politics of deliberation. This does not mean that confirmed ethnic purity (if any such
thing exists) is completely impervious to a politics of deliberation and inter-inclusion. In any
case, more public deliberation among citizens about candidates and policies, more information on
profile and character of candidates, more debates among candidates, more deliberation between
candidates and citizens, more debates among citizens, more opinion transformation and more
evolution of preferences are envisaged effects of a discursive politics that can mitigate this psycho-
logically orchestrated tribal politics in Africa.
Challenges (3) and (4) are equally correlated. If society does not deliberate on the actions of
their leaders and how these actions impact on national interests, then citizens could be more
amenable to financial inducement and money politics. This is worsened by a conception of public
office as a place to do more ‘eating’ than serving, belying some sort of rent-seeking behaviour.19
However, a culture of public deliberation practically drives us toward more urgent and relevant
debates. It promises to shift the weight of electoral choice from being the outcome of money
politics to being the effect of deliberative activities such as media, presidential and social internet
debates. The people need to deliberate much more thoroughly with (and about) their leadership
candidates (and leaders who are seeking return to office) in order to more properly ‘compare
notes’ on electoral choices and political decisions. And the multiconversation model of delibera-
tion (which I see as more effective in transforming opinions and preferences) suggests that there
is the need for as many public forums and debates as possible. Importantly, such a practice will
be best coupled with the emergence of voluntary fact-checking organisations (to be made up of
a coalition of journalists) that seek to verify claims made by political aspirants, as well as recall
promises made by leaders seeking return to office. This is because it is possible that public deliber-
ation can degenerate into mere semantic wars to the extent that can make us concerned about the
balance between claims, criticisms, promises and reality.
Politics in many African countries is presently dominated by incredibly wealthy beneficiaries of
past military regimes who take advantage of the lack of deliberative institutions to influence the
most important issues of state. They often do this by financing candidates to the point of victory
and subsequently subjecting the public officer (and the state) to personal financial servitude.
Public debate forums and other forms of discursive politics have not only a potential to play more
decisive role in citizens’ electoral and political choices, but will also expectedly have mitigating/
anticlimactic effects on money politics. This point is also particularly crucial in the light of the
deployment of colossal state funds in the bid to return to office, and the great waste of private
personal savings in the bid to defeat the incumbent or take the office in the first instance.
Money politics harbours the tendency to relegate the more urgent issue of the character of
candidates for public office to the background, especially where the capacity to win is roughly
correlative with financial capacity. This point should be quite worrisome if we consider that
there are many illegitimate ways to make money. The objective of culprits in this regard is to
attempt, as much as possible, to relegate ‘reason’ or ‘rational justification’ to the background
by means of superior and robust funding. However, among all animals, the human is the only
being that is capable of elevating rational consideration above (1) sentiment and (2) immediate
desires for self-preservation, and (critical) deliberation is the pre-eminent social tool for this. It is
my argument that the effectiveness of these extraneous and sentimental pressures on the citizen
derives from the fact that they have usually, up until now, been ‘the only serious kinds of pressure
at hand’, and that there has not been enough deliberative or informative ‘pressure’ to balance or at
least mitigate these various sociological influences. It has often been remarked that ‘information
is power’. Public deliberation with the support of fact-checking contains the potential of throwing
up more insightful information about the desirability/undesirability of candidates for public office,
and the gravity of such insight can be a great restraint on extraneous influences.20
19 See Adetula (2008: p. 28). Rent seeking refers to the attempt to seek economic rent rather than create new wealth, or to seek to obtain
already created wealth rather than generate new wealth, and to accomplish this with as little productive behaviour as possible.
20 Deeper revelations about the notoriety of a candidate might not enable a citizen to reject her ﬁ nancial overtures, but might lead to a deci-
sion to accept money and still vote for someone else.
Lastly, challenge (5) invites us to one of the greatest benefits of public deliberation: publicity.
By publicity, here, I simply mean ‘the attention of the public’. If our leaders are not subjected
to serious public pressure to give account of their stewardship, it is largely due to our histor-
ical experiences. In many parts of Africa, traditional deliberative institutions could not reach the
modern state level because of (1) colonial rule, (2) the obey-the-last-order deliberative poverty
of military governance and (3) replacement of military governance with a democracy of mere
aggregation of numbers. All of these translate to generations of governmental secrecy and
esoterism, which, in my opinion, can account for the absence of a culture of account-giving by
African political leaders. The desired alternative to this is publicity, and a particularly compel-
ling argument for public deliberation is that it will gravitate toward increasingly better ‘common
good’ decisions. It is much more difficult in public debates to make self-serving arguments
or justify one’s claims on self-interested grounds. Even by assuming that many arguments
within a debate which are based upon principles of the common good (instead of principles of
self-interest) are hypocritical, the presence of such arguments can lead to an increased readiness
to make concessions to the other side (Spöndli 2003: p. 6). This could, in turn, enable decisions
that increase the common good. According to this theory, over time, a mechanism of dissonance
reduction might induce such actors to actually adopt ‘reasonable’ positions to which they earlier
only referred to rhetorically (ibid.).
Such a position has been opposed by arguments that deliberative outputs will be skewed to the
advantage of the privileged, because the deliberative procedure favours their speech culture.21
However, in response to this opposition, I may point out that even the pursuit of private interest
by dominant or privileged participants in a public forum cannot be entirely successful without
inevitably making common-good concessions in the process.
The other alternative—private or closed-door deliberation—can be argued as leading to
easier and smoother compromises without straining the personal ego of participants in public.
Specifically, it can be argued that private deliberation will offer more candid arguments, recogni-
tion of complexities, and more concessions. However, I may object to this argument, with the
reason that the ‘ease of concession’ that private deliberation provides seems to equally be a
breeding ground for compromises that are more beneficial to direct actors than to the common
good. In this regard, deliberative publicity is more effective because it puts more constraints of
account giving on public officers. I agree with some deliberative theorists22 that, although it is
difficult to imagine that all political deliberation could take place in public, the second-order
decision to deliberate in private should be subject to public deliberation at some stage.
In the above regard, and excepting security and diplomatic matters, governmental secrecy
rooted in unrestricted formal private deliberation seems a breeding ground for private collective
corruption. It seems, usually, that reports of government hostility to publicity and freedom of
information, heavy censorship on media and the internet, and crackdown on journalists is roughly
correlative with increasing reports of corruption. This was evident in African military regimes
and is evident in the fundamental structure of communism.23 The rising corruption in communist
governance (which is seen as the greatest threat to the future of China, for instance24) is attribut-
able to its culture of secrecy, mystery and private deliberation. The establishment of the Ghana
Public Accounts Committee (for publicly televised cross-examination of financial account-giving
by government agencies) and the enactment of the Nigeria Freedom of Information Bill (after
12 years of bitter struggle) are welcome developments in public deliberation, because deliberative
democracy requires institutions such as these. It is, however, obvious that deliberative democracy
in Africa needs a lot more regarding institutional superstructures. Public deliberation is conceiv-
ably more difficult and time consuming in the light of the challenge of changing opinions in
21 See Young (1996: p. 126) and Sanders (1997: pp. 3–5).
22 Such as Thompson (2008: p. 511).
23 See pp. 4–5 of Philips Brey’s ‘Global Information Ethics and the Challenge of Cutlural Relativism’, available at http://portal.unesco.org/
24 See Pei (2007).
South African Journal of Philosophy 2013, 32(3): 207–219 217
public, but it offers more moral accountability in return, and thus seems preferable to the moral
fluidity and reduced account-giving that endangers private deliberation.
This brings me back to the issue of deliberative platforms, where details will need to be worked
out. For example, it will be ideal if internet-based deliberation for the wider public becomes
a countermeasure to the representative shortcomings (and oligarchic nature of) parliamentary
deliberation. Furthermore, the shortcomings in internet infrastructure (as well as its informal
nature) can be supplemented by deliberation in the traditional public media. In this regard,
traditional public media can be particularly made (maybe through legislation) to tilt more toward
active and diverse public deliberation, instead of simply being one-way advertisement outlets for
whoever can pay the bill. Additional institutions for public accountability and questioning can
be considered, and it will be best if these institutions could become bastions of account-giving
and open/public inquiry. These measures will represent the boldest gravitations to the much
desired ideal of direct democracy that has for long been perceived as beyond reach in larger
polities. However, the issue of a deliberative platform deserves detailed and extensive discus-
sions, which will have to be prosecuted in another paper and taken up by social scholars, whereas
I have limited my objective in this paper to arguing for merits of a deliberative turn in the
practice of democracy.
I have argued that deliberative democracy, in acting as a supplement to aggregative democracy,
can potentially increase preoccupation with issues of national importance at the possible expense
of extraneous factors such as tribal/ethnic sentiments and lesser allegiances. This is due to deliber-
ation’s potential to lend more urgency to issues of national interest, to change or transform
opinion, and to enable democracy to transcend the mere aggregation of pre-existing, fixed prefer-
ences. The activity of public deliberation does not only thrive on information, but is likewise
able to produce information regarding the profiles of candidates for public office. It also helps in
formulating public opinion about issues of national importance and job approval ratings of public
officers. It is increasingly difficult for people (including leaders) to make self-serving arguments in
public, a point in favour of common good. Certain issues, when extensively debated publicly, can
acquire more urgency than temptations to ethnic sentiments or financial intrigues. These prospects
will be appreciated more if we consider that the notion of ethnicity as common ancestry is fluid,
and that perhaps the only common ancestry that is certain is that of being African.
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