Understanding How African Consensus Works
featuring excerpts from “Meeting Ma’at” by David Horne, Ph.D.
“For centuries, most African societies practiced a form of “participatory democracy” based upon consensus under their traditional rulers. African chiefs did not generally impose themselves on their people, nor did they declare their villages to be one-party states and themselves “presidents-for-life.” The people were not excluded form the decision-making process. Village meetings, where decisions were taken by consensus, wee not only open but also antithetical to the precepts of a dictatorship.”
~George B. N. Ayittey, President, The Free Africa Foundation
“African Consensus is really about two things: getting to a collective agreement honorably, and handling participant opposition to such an agreement with dignity, patience and respect. Getting everyone’s voice heard who has anything to say or contribute to the discussion is one principal characteristic of the African consensus process, and coming to a general agreement on how to handle impasses in such verbal exchanges is another.”
“In African Society the traditional method of conducting affairs is by free discussion…The elders sit under big trees, and talk until they agree.”
–Julius K. Nyerere, Former President of Tanzania
“…African Consensus was a form of indigenous participatory or consensus democracy—a process in which the unanimity of community agreement was a conscious goal of discussion and debate, and in which the consent of the governed was seeb as acguevabke through a negotiation of discussion. Dialogue and discussion within the process was to get those with opposite views to reconcile towards the center, and to prevail upon minority viewpoints to accept, rather than merely to tolerate or acquiesce to, the larger community perspective.”
“When a council, each member of which was representative of a lineage, met to discuss matters affecting the whole community, it had always to grapple with the problem of reconciling sectional and common interests. In order to do this, the members had to talk things over: they had to listen to all the different points of view. So strong was the value of solidarity that the chief aim of the councilors was to reach unanimity, and they talked till this was achieved.”
~K.A. Busia, “Africa in Search of Democracy”
Overall, the African Consensus process, no matter where on the continent it was used, always had the same basic five elements:
a. Everyone allowed to participate in the discussion of the issue or issues at hand got an opportunity to say his or her piece about that issue.
b. Either extensive discussion got everyone on the same page and there was general agreement on what to do about the issue or how to handle the issue for the community, or the participants voted on it and the majority decided how to handle the issue.
c. Once there was a vote or a general agreement, there was no dissenting opinion or minority report—the decision had been made by the group for the group and that was the end of it. It was the custom for people to move on.
d. African Consensus was based on collective and cooperative decision-making rather than its opposite, competitive decision-making. (That does not mean no egos, no selfishness and no personal manipulation; there was all of that, but such behavior was most often subordinated to the larger will of the particular African community.)
e. In order to work consistently, African Consensus had to be the prevailing principle of community decision-making and conflict resolution, i.e., the goal of the dialogue and discussion, not a secondary hope or desire. African Consensus had to be accepted as achievable in order to achieve it.
“In our original societies we operated by consensus. An issue was talked out in solemn conclave until such time as agreement could be achieved.”
–Kenneth Kaunda, Former President of Zambia