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Africa: A Democracy Conundrum?

 - Wednesday 7 December 2011.

Dr. Hassan B. Sisay, Guest Writer, USA.

Democracy is often compared to a contact sport comprising lots of players with losers and winners. For it to function properly, it requires extensive civic engagement by the populace. But this can only be achieved through a proper understanding of the issues at hand, and ability of voters to distinguish among contending political parties which one is best suited to solve the plethora of problems confronting our beloved Sierra Leone.

In short, it is incumbent upon voters to understand the issues and solutions being promulgated by the various political platforms. Note that during elections, political parties spend a considerable amount of money and time trying to prove to voters that the other parties or rivals are unfit to rule. Accordingly, what is important for democracy to endure is not only for the voter to cast his or her vote, but also ensuring that one’s vote counts through one’s involvement in the promotion of democratic ideals. Voters must be assured of the accountability of elected officials, transparency in public transactions, freedom of speech, and an independent media. They must also avoid the temptation to cast their votes on the basis of ethnicity and personal gain, and instead, make choices which will benefit the nation as a whole.

Once victorious in the polls, political parties, politicians and presidential candidates are often less interested to deliver on their promises or act on the wishes of the populace. In a March/April 2008 article in Foreign Affairs entitled, “The Democratic Rollback: The Resurgence of the predatory state,” Larry Diamond, a Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution in California stated that governments, “must listen to their citizens’ voices, engage their participation, tolerate their protests, protect their freedoms, and respond to their needs.” In short, achieving respect for human rights and establishing a long term democratic society involves constant efforts by the government and citizenry. This cannot be achieved by merely holding periodic elections and announcing to the whole world that a particular leader has been “democratically elected,” notwithstanding the usual multiplicity of electoral fraud and violence associated with presidential elections.

As writer Steven Friedman maintains “autocrats old and new have proved adept at using electoral contest to legitimize undemocratic regimes.” Many leaders stay past their elected term limits by finagling and amending constitutions to suit their political needs. Such political tinkering has often rendered ineffective the necessary checks and balances in government between the Executive, Legislative and the Judiciary. French Philosopher and political theorist Baron de Montesquieu, underscores the significance of checks and balances in government stating that they are critical to prevent the emergence of “tyranny,” and the abuse of power.” Likewise, America’s James Madison in Federalist 46 maintained that "the accumulation of all power, legislative, executive, and judiciary in the same hands...may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny."

The tendency in African politics to intentionally dilute the powers of the legislative and judiciary while simultaneously strengthening Executive power does not bode well for democracy. Judges and parliamentarians should be free to perform their jobs without fear of offending the Executive Branch of government. For effective democracy, the three branches of government must be equal and separate, share power, and when necessary, also challenge each other’s powers. In fact studies have revealed that the enhancement of executive power is not only a hindrance to the evolution and nurturing of a democratic culture, but is also the single most important factor for the proliferation of dictators in Africa.

A May 11, 2010, New York Times article entitled, “President for Life, and Then Some,” by Howard W. French, “estimated that between 2005 and 2009, the presidents of three African countries, Togo, Guinea, and Gabon, died in office, after a cumulative 104 years in power; two of these leaders, Omar Bongo of Gabon (42 years) and Gnassingbe’ Eyade’ma of Togo (38 years), were succeeded by their sons.” One of Africa’s currently longest serving presidents 78 year old Paul Biya of Cameroon, recently got a new lease of seven years by winning re-election for a sixth term, notwithstanding he had already served in office for 29 years. While his re- election was marred by major irregularities and criticized by opposition groups and the international community, many Cameroonians were unfazed by their leader’s blatant abuse of democracy and term limits. Instead, they applauded their president’s perennial electoral victories, and publicly committed themselves to supporting him indefinitely. Not surprisingly, some of the loudest jubilations seemed to have come from Biya’s ethnic group, members of his inner circle, and cronies with secure and lucrative positions in his government.

To truly understand the tortuous trajectory of democracy in the African continent one needs to also carefully analyze the disingenuous role of the elites. In his book “The Wretched of the Earth,” Franz Fanon described the elites as a “racket…a sort of little greedy caste, avid and voracious, with the mind of a huckster…, ” Elites feed on the government and relies on it to provide them and their families with all their needs, in exchange for unquestioned loyalty. East African writer O. Kalinge – Nnyago, appropriately characterized them as “sycophants, and opportunists,” and openly aggressive in their support of African leaders. Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka blamed the same group for negatively impacting the process of democracy in his home country of Nigeria. He noted that , “ the Nigerian people have always approached democracy, and the elites have always pushed them back.” Always indifferent in the midst of positive discussions on how to protect the rights of impoverished citizens, unaccountable to no one but the regimes they serve, elites are often quick to jump on their heels in defense of unprogressive leaders and policies. By protecting and justifying undemocratic behavior, and always shouting for no change in government leadership or administrations, elites undermine democracy and helps perpetuate the politics of impunity and prolongation of dictators in office. Patrick Keenan, a scholar at the University of Illinois College of Law fittingly identified the primary reasons for elites’ self-centered behavior when he wrote, “What we are seeing is what happens in places where the only way to get rich or to stay rich is through political power…the people in these regimes hang on for dear life.”

To maintain their perceived indispensable positions, dictators once in power, according to Hoover Institution Research Fellow Paul R. Gregory, “cannot appear to be mortal. They cannot name successors, unless the successor is a personal extension, such as a son;” and I might add, other familiar successor preferences have also included a close friend, or trusted member of the armed forces. Most dictators tend to be tone - deaf to the realities around them, and often end up being forcibly removed or killed in office. Some even take their own lives. The list of such dictators is long and includes both African and none African leaders, namely: Adolph Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Saddam Hussein, and more recently Libya’s Moamar Gadhaffi.

Of course, it’s not only professional elites whose behavior is detrimental to democracy in Africa. For starters, let’s focus on some of our musicians who through their songs are often guilty of bestowing undue praises on leaders, and advocating for their indefinite rule. Take the case of Zaire’s former president Mobutu Sese Sekou, whose corruption is not only legendary but widely documented. Mobutu spent a life time allegedly acquiring expensive homes in France and elsewhere in Europe while the majority of his people lived in squalor and abject poverty. His lifestyle seems to have paralleled that of France’s queen Marie Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI, who when told that the French people were hungry and had no bread supposedly responded, “qu’ils mangent de la brioche,” meaning “let them eat cake.” Similarly, Mobutu’s favorite slogan was ’débrouillez-vous’ or ’fend for yourselves’. Mobutu viewed Zaire as a huge personal pan cake, to be sliced up and devoured by himself and his corrupt cronies, while the nation endured frequent lack of medical care, a poor educational system, and woefully inadequate infrastructure. And yet, despite the above glaring leadership failures, writer Kalinge-Nnyago, noted that famed Zairian musician Franco Luambo Makiadi, composed a masterpiece in praise of Mobutu with the following incredible lyrics:

“Mobutu azongisa la paix na Zaire” (Mobutu has returned peace to Zaire).

“Abebisa ata moke te” (he has not made any mistake)

“Alembi naano te” (he is not tired).

“Nzoto naye ezali naano makasi” (his body is in good health).

“Pona nini toluka candidat mosusu?” (Why should we look for another candidate?).”

Sadly, nature provided a definite and resounding response to Franco’s last question: as Mobutu the despot, and self-proclaimed “Father of the Nation, Savior of the People, and Supreme Combatant,” died on September 7, 1997, and supposedly left an estimated personal fortune of $5billion stashed in Swiss banks.

Given the above, how can we best promote African democracy and minimize corruption and the tendency of leaders to stay indefinitely in office? First and foremost, I suggest we put education at the top of our development agenda. According to political analyst Khwaja Aftab Ali: “uneducated voters are far easier to fool, to buy with empty promises or to sway with fears, …and far more likely to focus on short –term desires,” than their educated counterparts. I would also add that they are easily manipulated and often used as cannon fodder in the inevitable violent confrontations between political parties especially during national elections. Hopefully, the more educated our electorate becomes, the more the transparency, the lesser the violence, and the better for democracy.

Bill Gates recently described education as, the engine of social mobility and a guaranteed path to a successful future. Education is crucial in training judges, lawyers, politicians, engineers, and a host of professionals needed for the development of the nation. Citing China as an example, Gates indicated that countries with a good educational system, are also usually good at creating products that the rest of the world requires. He attributed his own success to good teachers, who were well grounded in their fields and willing to inculcate knowledge to folks like him through best teaching practices. Gates advised nations to use their resources to build robust educational systems in order to adequately respond to impending development needs. Therefore we should be re-structuring Sierra Leone’s, educational system and incorporating in the school and college curricula 21st Century teaching methods to prepare and produce the appropriate work force with skills required in a fast changing world.

By viewing education as the lynchpin of national development, our leaders would find it much easier to solve the mammoth problems of poverty, disease, hunger, corruption, ethnicity etc. Indeed, improving education is our only hope of building a strong and united country. This is my take on the topic, what’s yours?