Democracy: Are countries walking the talk?

guest column:Tendai Makaripe

WRITING in his book, The End of History and the Last Man, political scientist, Francis Fukuyama describes democracy as “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution”.

He argues that the universalisation of Western liberal democracy is the final form of human government.

To him, the fall of the Soviet Union signalled the death of communism and the rise to supremacy of democracy championed by the United States.

The rise of the US as a global hegemony was seen as an opportunity to universalise democracy as the most attractive form of government.

This resonates well with former US secretary of State, Henry Kissinger’s assertion that: “Almost as if according to some natural law, in every century there seems to emerge a country with the power, the will, and the intellectual and moral impetus to shape the entire international system in accordance with its own values.”

However, democracy did not originate in the US, but its roots are etched in the political philosophy of ancient Grecian thinkers.

These thinkers prescribed solutions on what ought to be done to attain a virtuous society.

Plato was anti-democracy, calling it a “rule by the rabble, unfit and unwashed” while Aristotle believed in the wisdom of crowds.

Derived from the Greek word “demos” meaning people and “kratos” meaning rule, democracy has been associated with a type of governance that is people-oriented, a reasoning popularised by former US President Abraham Lincoln who noted that: “Democracy is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Some of the basic tenets of democracy include primacy of the law and the exercise of human rights, a genuine partnership between men and women in the conduct of the affairs of society, the existence of well-structured and well-functioning institutions, holding of regular, free and fair elections and public accountability, among others.

These traits have made democracy attractive as it is preached on political podiums, enshrined in national constitutions, international charters and conventions.

Even countries deemed authoritarian prefix their names with “democractic”.

Political scholars classify North Korea and China as authoritarian regimes, but they are termed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Democratic People’s Republic of China respectively.

Democracy has become “fashionable” in the words of theorist Fareed Zakaria.

Many want to be associated with democracy which is why some have derogatorily called it a “mistress” word.

However, questions rise when discourse about democracy is tabled.

If democracy is an ideology that promotes fundamental human rights and liberties and is a darling of many States globally, why then is the world grappling with human rights issues?

The answer lies in the realisation that theoretically, democracy is favoured, but realistically very few, if any are religiously practising it.

Alexis de Tocqueville, a French liberal political thinker, greatly envied and defended democracy, which the revolution had failed to bring to his home country by the 1830s.

He travelled to the US, “the laboratory of democracy” to learn about this form of government.

Tocqueville realised that American society was democratic, but it had many features that were not intrinsic to democracy.

He thus argues that when left to its wild instincts, “democracy acquires some superpower and humanity would submit to its caprices”.

University of Zimbabwe lecturer Prolific Mataruse, concurs: “Despite multiparty democracies increasing; liberties have increasingly been violated by regimes purportedly birthed by and using democratic processes.

“People’s liberties have shrunk as democratic procedures like elections have become popular. You can draw examples from arguments made by the #BlackLivesMatter movement after the killings of George Floyd this year and Eric Garner in 2014.”

The script is no different in Africa.

Democracy promotes freedom of expression and does not criminalise the holding of a divergent view or speaking out against a socio-economic or political ill.

Unfortunately, in many countries on the continent, speaking the truth to power is almost treasonous. Attempts to take those in power to account are often ruthlessly dealt with by “democratic” leaders.

Frantz Fanon foretold this as he penned The Wretched of the Earth.

Writes Fanon: “In the aftermath of independence, faced with the human consequences of colonialism, it (new government) wages a ruthless struggle against the lawyers, tradespeople, landowners, doctors, and high-ranking civil servants “who insult the national dignity”.

Democratic dictates call for transparency and accountability, but some African leaders who purport to follow democracy are not accountable to anyone.

They engage in grand corruption with their acolytes, milking State resources dry, but get away with it because they wield political power.

Similarities can be drawn between them and the pigs in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, which enjoy unquestionable benefits.

The baton of corruption and looting has been handed to some of the current crop of leaders from past presidents like Idi Amini, Mobutu Sese Seko, and Laurent Kabila, but this has come with catastrophic consequences.

Health delivery systems are crumbling, access to basic amenities like water become a pipe dream to the suffering populace yet those responsible for this decay seem to care less.

Economies are tottering on the brink of collapse compromising various rights with those in power appearing to be running out of ideas.

“They mobilise people with the slogan of independence, and anything else is left to the future. When these parties are questioned on their economic agenda for the nation or the regime they propose to establish they prove incapable of giving an answer because, in fact, they do not have a clue about the economy of their own country,” writes Fanon.

Are we practising the democracy that is a fundamental pillar in African constitutions?

Conflation of the ruling party and the State is prevalent in Africa. It seems many African leaders have taken a leaf out of former Guinea President Sekou Toure’s book on the supremacy of the party over government.

Toure assumed the presidency in 1978 and left office on his death in 1984. He ensured that the revolutionary party was preeminent everywhere.

Under him the ruling party directed all State organs while the State was simply the Executive arm of the
party.

Kwame Nkrumah also argued that his Convention People’s Party (CPP)’s supremacy could not be challenged.

“In fact the CPP is Ghana and Ghana is CPP,” Nkrumah said.

This is the case in many African States where the party is above government and its members immune to prosecution which leads to the degeneration of countries.

Regular, free and fair elections are an integral part of democratic societies.

Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that: “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”

However, more often than not, elections are disputed in many “democratic” countries with electoral violence, allegations of vote buying, rigging among others being levelled against incumbents.

The desire to cling on to power when the masses have spoken against a leader is a common trend in global politics, but even surprising is the fact that such leaders claim to be democratic.

Democracy is not concerned about penning colourful speeches and conventions about human rights and liberties, but about practically respecting people’s views not degrading them for speaking out against vices.

Democracy has its flaws but if earnest attempts to practise it are made, the world can become a better place.

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