When Britain granted independence to the majority of its African colonies in the 1950s and 1960s, it attempted to hand down Westminster's parliamentary system as an institutional legacy. Today, the Westminster model in most of these colonies has all but disappeared. As Britain haggles over the prospect of reforms to its political system, there is room for dialogue with former African colonies about how to improve government models.
One of Britain's justifications for colonialism in Africa was that it sought to "civilise the natives" by preparing them for democratic government based on the Westminster model. At independence Ghana, Somalia, Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Zanzibar, Zambia, Malawi, Gambia, Lesotho, Botswana, Swaziland and Zimbabwe had as one of their institutional legacies this model.
However, institutionalising our parliamentary system among the "natives" had not been a dominant pursuit throughout colonialism. British colonial government had been undemocratic. As Barry Munslow writes, "from 1910 to 1948 Sir Roger Furse controlled all applications to civil service posts. He went to Eton and Balliol College (Oxford) but confessed that he owed his success more to his training as a cavalry officer. After the first world war, new recruits to the colonial service tended to be ex-officers and later were drawn from the public schools and Oxbridge. The result was that the ethos of a ruling class, that in Britain was fast losing its exclusive claim, became the ethos of the colonial service".
The Westminster model was, with the exception of Ghana, belatedly transplanted during rapid decolonisation processes in Africa. Britain did not consider that it could not be handed down to African colonies regardless of historical, cultural and education contexts. Transplanting the Westminster model also meant that there was no real ownership of the system in African colonies. There was no emphasis on the necessity of having a significant transition period during which it might have taken root in Africa.
In view of this, it is unsurprising that the imported political system collapsed in the vast majority of former British colonies in Africa. Single-party rule and military coup d'états became the norm. The blame was often directed at the Africans. The British model was not the problem: Africans were not ready for democracy. It is, however, more accurate to say that the system of the colonisers was unworkable in many former African colonies for the reasons outlined above. And despite ongoing problems, parts of Africa have democratised considerably since decolonisation.
Most former British colonies in Africa now have presidential systems of government. The presidential system has its merits: presidents are elected directly by the people and it offers stable and decisive government. Nonetheless, concentration of excessive powers in the presidency has caused dictatorship, and is a hindrance to leadership change. Democracy activists have worked hard for the introduction of presidential term limits. They continue to work towards the reduction of presidential powers.
When Britain promotes government models in Africa, it is prone to assuming that its system is better. This is not to say African systems are of a higher standard. However, the flawed nature of the British political system, which became most evident in the 2010 elections, behoves us to be less paternalistic. It is fitting that we seek dialogue on political system reforms – as equals – with former African colonies. There is much we may learn from their experiences, just as they can learn from the British system's current problems.
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