Pop Goes Democracy

Bono and his iconic sunglasses

When culture and politics come together, you can hear the sizzle.  In his recent e-op/ed for the New York Times, Bono described the harmony he’s hearing in Africa coming from two, traditionally distinct sections of the pro-democracy choir:  business and civil society.  He states that “[t]he reason is that both these groups — the private sector and civil society — see poor governance as the biggest obstacle they face. So they are working together on redefining the rules of the African game.”

What are these new rules?  “[D]emanding accountability and transparency, rewarding measurable results, reinforcing the rule of law, but never imagining for a second that it’s a substitute for trade, investment or self-determination.”  Importantly, all of the above are defined, demanded, and enforced by Africans themselves, not international aid givers.

Youssou N'Dour, son of a griot, business man, civil society booster

Being who he is, Bono writes about the catalytic role that cultural luminaries play in making this happen.  Senegal’s famed singer, songwriter, and now political entrepreneur, Youssou N’Dour  is featured front and center.  Says Bono:

“Now this might be what you expect me to say, but I’m telling you, it was a musician in Senegal who best exemplified the new rules. Youssou N’Dour — maybe the greatest singer on earth — owns a newspaper and is in the middle of a complicated deal to buy a TV station.  You sense his strategy and his steel. He is creating the soundtrack for change, and he knows just how to use his voice. (I tried to imagine what it would be like if I owned The New York Times as well as, say, NBC. Someday, someday…)”

Yesterday’s Le Pop, one of Dakar’s several daily newspapers, featured a piece on N’Dour’s work with a well-known local imam to educate Senegalese about the importance of maintaining their 2002 constitution, treating it as a bedrock document rather than one than can be transformed at a sitting president’s will.  Grassroots constitutionalism, using the catalyzing power of music and religion.

Senegal's next generation of voters and leaders.

Although not created by a musician or artist, the Ibrahim Prize has a similar aim to increase respect for constitutional democracy but in a very practical, top-down way.  Mo Ibrahim, a businessman who founded Celtel International, a mobile communications company in Africa, has created an endowment for African leaders who serve their people well and then leave office when they are supposed to; in this way, these sub-Saharan presidents avoid what he calls “third-termitis,” when, looking at a bleak future, they trample democratic governance by becoming presidents for life.  The Ibrahim Prize consists of $5 million over 10 years and $200,000 annually for life thereafter. The first two prize winners are Joaquim Chissano and Festus Mogae, and the Ibrahim Foundation’s Honorary Laureate is Nelson Mandela.

N.B.  This in from my most loyal reader and uber-researcher, Bill Riley:  today’s Guardian ran an article on Youssou N’Dour’s “launch[ing] a political platform” last week when he formed a “public information” partnership with opposition politician Mansour Sy Djamil:  “People do not know the constitution well enough. They need to understand that power has its limits. There should be no tinkering with the fundamental law of the land,” he told journalists gathered at his Thiossane nightclub in Dakar.


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