From the Editor’s Keyboard

Welcome to Democracy: What works and what does not

24 October 2011 at 06:03 | 480 views

By Dr. Hassan Sisay, Guest Writer, USA.

The drum beat from the great Western powers is for African nations to implement democratic reforms that result in majority rule through the ballot box. Nations that fail to heed this call risk certain global isolation, volatility in foreign investments, and erosion of international goodwill and amity. Too often it appears that the great powers are unpretentiously impatient to see majority rule in emergent African nations regardless of the relative absence of institutional infrastructures to support and protect the vital habits of democracy in those nations.

Many have only just made it to 50 years post- independence, many have populations that are largely illiterate, many have media systems that are closed, many have only a few among the educated elite and they use their influence among the unsuspecting masses for selfish reasons, and perhaps more than anything else, many are endemically prone only to ethnic allegiances and loyalties in their political decision making processes. These realities of the African political landscape ought to raise serious questions about the status and meaning of democracy for African people. Yet, many observers and commentators fail to note that democracy is an evolving, incremental, and gradual process as evidenced in the ongoing electoral reforms in the great Western nations.

Typically, they have ignored the fact that in some African countries there are majority ethnic groups who use their demographic prowess to dominate the electoral landscape and come to believe in their electoral invincibility under majority rule. Under these conditions, ethnic polarization has a debilitating effect on the building of sound democratic institutions and very severely limits the advance towards national identity, national consciousness, and protection of minority groups and their interests

On the eve of the 2012 presidential and parliamentary elections in Sierra Leone, one is tempted to pose a few questions. Is democracy possible without an enlightened electorate and a stable middleclass ? Does the holding of frequent elections automatically translate to democracy? In practice, does democracy work without the appropriate institutional infrastructures? Most experts define democracy as “power of the people,” and imply that whoever garners the majority support of the people in a given election becomes the president. But who are the so-called “people”? Your ethnic group or mine? Is membership in the majority ethnic group a qualification and carte blanche for one ethnic group to govern indefinitely? How do we protect the interests of the minority in a system that is based on majority rule? As we examine this conundrum, it is instructive to note how some other African leaders have responded to these challenges.

Let’s assume you prefer democratic governments in Africa, based on so-called “clean elections” and majority rule. How do we guarantee that concept? What are its implications? How do you respond to the cynic who says, “I do not care who does the voting as long as I do the counting.”? What are your views about a One Party system of government, or rule by “strong men” or so-called “men of clenched fist.” Take the case of Rwanda, according to Yusuf Serunkuma, editor at Fountain Publishers, Paul Kagame assumed the leadership of Rwanda following the 1994 genocide., and has ruled for 15 years. Serunkuma maintained that by all “clear democratic standards 15 years in office is not democracy, but rather an autocracy.” Serunkuma posits “ as opposed to other autocrats, working under hatred from the rest of the world, Kagame has “picked his country from near extinction to commendable progress.” Overall, Kagame’s achievements have been spectacular. He has improved the standard of living for his people, and won worldwide admiration for his uncompromising stand against corruption and ethnicity.

In an article by Richard Grant in the Telegraph entitled “Paul Kagame: Rwanda’s redeemer or ruthless dictator,” Grant maintained that “Kagame…is widely considered to be the most dynamic and effective leader in Africa today,” but also added that he is “ ruthless, repressive and intolerant of criticism.” Grant noted that ” Rwanda is now the safest, cleanest country in Africa, with no slums and virtually no begging or street crime. It has one of the highest sustained rates of economic growth on the continent, the least amount of corruption and red tape, and it is the only country in the world to have a majority of women in its parliament.” Kagame’s popularity is so overwhelming that even his political foes concede to the difficulty of defeating him at the polls. “Beating Kagame is almost impossible,” declared opposition parliamentarian Dr. Alvera Mukabaramba of the Party of Progress and Concord (PPC) “ He has done so well for this country, rebuilding it from scratch after putting an end to the bloodiest page in our history”, she added. To combat ethnic politics and hatred , Kagame publicly warned that “any politician or citizen who makes a statement encouraging ethnic animosity, or expressing ethnic solidarity, risks a lengthy imprisonment for the crime of ’divisionism.” Further he outlawed any references or affiliations to Hutu and Tutsi, Rwanda’s two ethnic groups. And according to Grant “ if you ask someone which group they belong to, they will usually look uncomfortable and reply as the government has dictated: ’We are all Rwandans now.”

While Kagame’s autocracy and no nonsense approach to governing has generated enormous international support, the jury may still be out on the durability of his reforms. What if following his death the Hutus comprising 85% of the population reject continuing dominance by the minority Tutsis? How will the Tutsi minority react to a Hutu president? The above notwithstanding, it is clear that there are some situations which require firm leadership, and implementation of harsh and seemingly undemocratic measures in order to minimize inter-ethnic conflicts and unify the nation.

Perhaps in order to emulate the above tactics and promote self- justification for “strong man rule” or One party politics, some African leaders have argued that the current evolution of democracy and party politics in the continent reflects what had previously happened in developed nations. That when faced with serious national problems parties in developed nations unite for the common good of everybody. For Example, between 1817 – 1825, Americans embraced One Party rule under the Republicans, and declared that period, the “Era Of Good Feelings,” based on the political cooperation, and the unifying nationalist spirit that then existed in the country. Thus when Julius Nyerere was once asked by an American why Tanzania had only one political party, he allegedly responded: "Well, in the United States, you too, have only one political party, but with your customary extravagance you have created two versions of that one party." Forget about the humor in the above statement, and ponder momentarily on Sierra Leone’s main political parties (APC and SLPP), and their proclaimed objectives and political platforms. Are they truly different, or do they merely represent a struggle within the educated elites for a bigger slice of the national pie through the exploitation of ethnicity and the hapless masses? Does their very existence at this crucial and formative years of Sierra Leone’s history foment needless ethnic and regional polarization? Let individual readers react in their own way to the above questions.

Meanwhile, the democracy and majority rule we embrace and strive to attain in Africa is perhaps best explained in simple mathematical terms by the following illustration, albeit, we sometimes gloss over its implications: “If Jack and Jill are two prospective candidates for the presidency, and 10 people take part in the elections, then, if 4 people vote for Jack and 6 for Jill, Jill will be elected president.” Similarly , “if among a group of 10 people 6 people vote that the next time they will meet on Tuesday and 4 people vote for meeting on Wednesday, it will be decided that the meeting will be held on Tuesday.” At a glance, the above seems to be logical, simple and easily perceptible. However, experts believe that problems of majority rule and democracy arises if the issues to be resolved involve regional and ethnic balance, combating deep-seated gender biases, and determining issues of right and wrong.

For example, “ if nine people decide to take over the house of one person who is against such decision, then such decision would be unjust, because it would violate the property rights of that single person, but it would be democratic, because it will be implementation of the will of the majority.” Larry Flynt, may have put it more bluntly when he allegedly stated that “majority rule only works if you’re also considering individual rights. Because,” as he acknowledges “you can’t have five wolves and one sheep voting on what to have for supper.”

Further, in a family setting, if a husband with a single wife wishes to marry additional wives, and calls on his family to vote on the issue and loses, that decision should be binding on him based on democracy and majority rule. Sadly, this is often not the case. In many homes husbands act like dictators, and any attempt by the children or wives to challenge their authority is quickly dismissed either on cultural or religious grounds. While we all want democracy and majority rule in the national level, regrettably, we resist its implementation in the family levels where children learn from their elders crucial lessons about leadership, tolerance, compromise, and related democratic values. Often those anti-democratic fathers who oppose criticisms at home, and subject their families to perpetual authoritarian rule are frequently the champions of democracy in the national scene. Author David Mukholi in a recent publication on democracy in the Ugandan Vision newspaper stated that, a politician “could be a wife beater but is quick to cry out when the police forcefully disbands an illegal assembly, …he could be cheating on his wife but is quick at accusing a political opponent of rigging elections.” Do we only embrace democracy and majority rule when it is convenient to do so?

Nations are also equally ambivalent about their commitments to democracy and majority rule. In the Ivory Coast, Zimbabwe, and Kenya, candidates who lost presidential elections either ignored the results or embraced “power sharing” rather than leave office. Some countries have women majorities in the population but are reluctant to implement policies that would increase the number of female legislators. Despite repeatedly telling small nations that democracy and majority rule are good for them, some big powers seem to have historically implemented inconsistent policies at home. For example, in America there have been four candidates who won the popular vote but lost the presidency because of constitutional provisions. The most recent being Al Gore who won the popular vote but lost the election to George W. Bush in 2000. Earlier in 1787, when the founding fathers wanted to resolve issues of representation and taxation, they included in the U.S. Constitution the infamous “Three-fifths compromise” which designated each Black person the equivalent of “Three-fifths” of a human being (article I, section 2. The same constitution also stated that American presidents were to be selected not by the people but by an electoral college, (Article II, Section I), which according to Michael Parenti’s highly acclaimed text, Democracy for the Few, was, “ composed of political leaders and men of substance who would gather in their various states and choose a president of their own liking.”

Further Parenti maintained that initially in the United States, “half of the adult population was denied suffrage because they were women. American Indians had no access to the ballot, and that property qualifications for voting may have disfranchised “more than a third of the White male population.” On the role of the masses and participation in government by poor folks or the so-called “propertyless majority,” some framers of America’s democracy were unambiguous in their opposition. Roger Sherman reportedly stated that, “the people should have as little to do as may be about the Government…” To Alexander Hamilton, another framer of the American Constitution who subsequently served as the first secretary of the Treasury, “the people are turbulent and unchanging; they seldom judge or determine right.” Earlier in America, property qualifications for voting, and serving in legislatures were rampant. In fact, prior to 1913, the U.S. Constitution had provided for members of the Senate, America’s Upper House, to be selected not by popular vote but by state legislators (article 1 section 3). To America’s credit some of these odious and anti-democratic provisions in the Constitution have gradually been amended.

One would therefore argue that if these step-by-step approaches to the extension of democracy to the American population were deemed necessary for its society to function effectively, why not in Africa. Some experts affirm that America’s slow democratization process may have ensured the emergence of a middle class, an educated public, a free press, and an effective judicial system - all important building blocks for the creation of strong democratic institutions. In short, America embraced gradualism in its democratic pursuit. That process began a very long time ago and it’s still evolving. In 2005, a Commission on Federal Election Reform headed by former president Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James A. Baker submitted a report containing 87 recommendations on how to improve America’s electoral process. To reiterate, Africa needs similar incremental steps toward sustainable democracy.

On the contrary, as earlier stated, while most African nations gained independence only about 50 years ago, yet, they are constantly being bombarded by the West to quickly democratize or face harsh economic sanctions. This pressure ignores the possibility that democracy is not the panacea for all political problems. Some nations require liberal autocracy and or strong leaders who can relate to their people and are willing and able to solve their mammoth problems.

And so, as Sierra Leoneans and the rest of the world observe the election process as it unfolds, these issues should not be lost in the analysis: the effect of ethnic polarization, the fragile infrastructure for democracy, the high levels of illiteracy; the infancy of the republic; the Machiavellian motives of the elite, the forces of corruption, the watchful eyes of the world demanding “clean elections,” and after the dust settles, who or what will constitute the majority? Whatever the outcome, it will reflect one more place marker in our ongoing evolution and incremental steps to attain “democracy.” Sadly, as I write this piece, the peddlers of instant democracy are already packing their suitcases and heading for Libya.

Editor’s note: Dr. Hassan B. Sisay is Adjunct Professor, Shawnee State University, Portsmouth, Ohio.