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On a Friday afternoon in Ghana’s capital of Accra, teams comprised of some of the continent’s most respected politicians, policy makers and business leaders, faced off in an attempt to answer one question at this year’s first, Africa Report inaugural debate,

“Should economic development take precedence over political democracy?”

Ghana’s President John Dramani Mahama (@JDMahama) set the tone for the debates, by speaking on what he said are the many nuances to democracy in today’s Africa,

“Democracy will never be a perfect system because people will always be imperfect beings. Also democracies are not a one size fit all. The democracy of the United States is not the same as the democracy of the United Kingdom.

Every country must, through trial and error allow its democracy to evolve into a system that is representative of that culture, those people and their stated goals for the future. In a democracy, the citizens of the nation do more than decide who their leaders and their representatives will be. They also decided what their priorities in nation building should be.”

While the President’s opening remarks were in line with the event’s theme, some in attendance may have found his message inconsistent with comments he made earlier this year when he likened himself to a proverbial ‘dead goat’, undisturbed by demonstrations and protests from Ghana’s public sector workers.

As the debate got underway, there were other ‘uncomfortable moments’ for those on stage and in the audience but that’s exactly what organizers from The Africa Report said they wanted. Patrick Smith (@patrick_africa), editor-in-chief at the magazine and the event’s moderator, described the #ARDebates as, “a no-holds barred contest where no idea is too hot to handle” and said this was just a first in a series of, “tough talks”.

L to R: Trevor Manuel, Dr. Carlos Lopes, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Patrick Smith, Mo Ibrahim, Professor Audrey Gadzekpo

L to R: Trevor Manuel, Dr. Carlos Lopes, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Patrick Smith, Mo Ibrahim, Professor Audrey Gadzekpo, Jay Naidoo

After President Mahama’s opening address, the audience was asked to consider the forum’s critical question and vote whether strengthening a country’s democracy or its economic development should take priority. As the votes were counted, the room appeared to be close to evenly split with 78 people voting for ‘democracy’ and 69 for ‘development’.

Two teams were then formed from the event’s panelists to begin leading the debate on what was presented as two competing ideas. Mo Ibrahim (@Mo_IbrahimFdn), Jay Naidoo (@Jay_Naidoo) and Audrey Gadzekpo argued for ‘democracy’, while Carlos Lopes (@ECA_Lopes) and Trevor Manuel (@Official_Manuel) took up the cause of ‘development’.

As the intensity of the debate increased, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (@DrTedros) decided to form a third team of his own, describing democracy and development as the, “alpha and omega” in his country of Ethiopia, and said, “one can’t do without the other”.

Dr. Lopes and Mr. Naidoo continued on with the debate, presenting their teams’ two different points of view to the audience. Dr. Lopes argued the definition of development is “clear”, describing it as a nation’s level of industrialization, its infrastructure and economic sectors. But he said, the same is not true of democracy,

“The definition of democracy as we know it, is vague” – Dr. Carlos Lopes

Mr. Naidoo countered Dr. Lopes by offering this definition of democracy,

“Democracy is not the right to vote. The nexus of power is corrupting government and undermining democracy. We are seeing electoral authoritarianism.  Democracy should be the participation of the people in decision making on a continual basis” – Jay Naidoo

While these two definitions may have shaped the forum’s debate, many in the audience found themselves backing Dr. Ghebreyesus’ belief the two ideas are inseparable when it comes to building a successful society.

Whether this was an ‘easy out’, by the audience or a testament to Dr. Ghebreyesus’ rhetoric, the debate provided those in attendance with much to consider when evaluating priorities for nations with goals of achieving an equitable, democratic society and aggressive development to support a sustainable, economic foundation for its future.


ICYMI Catch up on all the tweets from The Africa Report debate and enjoy these moments.