What features should a country’s politics have to justify its categorisation as a “‘democracy?”
We seem to have a general consensus, not necessarily informed by serious contextually relevant debate, that they include the following: presidential, parliamentary, and other leadership elections conducted at regular intervals; elections that involve intense, even violent competition among rival political parties; parliaments in which political parties with well thought out policy agendas are represented; tolerance for dissent, whatever form it takes; respect for freedom of media where journalists write and say whatever they like with zero restriction; freedom of speech that allows anyone to say whatever they choose, again without restriction; and complete independence of the judiciary and parliament.
Above all, there should be term limits, but for presidents only. Other elected leaders such as members of parliament can stay for as long as they can keep winning elections. Presidents should not even think about it, whatever the people they lead think or want.
In other words, Africans should not think outside this box.
I am exaggerating a little bit. However, in general, many democracy seekers, local and foreign, that think conventionally about politics and seek to sell “best practice,” tend to present these things as the very essence of “real democracy,” the kind they would like to see flourish in Africa.
And no, they do not want to wait for it to emerge and grow through an evolutionary process entailing trial and error and necessary learning from mistakes. They want it now.
As far as they are concerned, context counts for nothing. Africans, they argue, should not accept inferior forms of democracy. By this they mean political systems that some would argue are democratic in the way they work, but which fall short of possessing all the above attributes.
It is common practice within these circles to lament about the lack of democracy and about what they argue is a reversal of “the few gains” Africa has made since “the new dawn” of democracy in the late 1980s. As 2017 ended, the lamenting became rather loud and unrelenting, generating much writing on the matter.
Coming in for particular criticism was the seemingly growing popularity of amending constitutions to remove term or age limits or simply to allow for incumbents to stay longer than originally planned or envisaged.
In our immediate neighbourhood, governments in Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi have received much stick for what is supposed to be an unforgivable sin.
For Rwanda there is even the additional sin of being a “one-party state” that refuses to “open up political space.” At least there is political competition in Uganda and Burundi, so the argument goes.
There are very good reasons for questioning what seems like an epidemic of constitutional amendments designed to serve no other purpose than to advance the selfish interests or feed the power hunger of incumbents.
Two questions arise, though. One is whether when we decide that this is indeed what the amendments are intended to achieve, we know it for a fact and can absolutely rule out other possible explanations.
The other is whether the problem is the decision to amend a constitution, or the process that leads to it. Some constitutions have been amended against strong objections from key interest groups or stakeholders whose views have been ignored. Only a small, self-selected minority has decided on behalf of everybody, mostly behind closed doors, as in Uganda recently.
We have seen this lead to violent conflict when groups whose views have been disregarded or where little effort has been made to bring them on board, have decided to mount an armed challenge.
This happened in Burundi, leading to a breakdown in a delicate post-war consensus. And then there is Rwanda where the amendment was preceded by almost three years of consultation that sought to arrive at the greatest consensus possible within and among political parties, and between leaders and the general public, eventually culminating in a referendum.
The outcomes may be similar, but the respective processes differed radically. It calls for discussions about democracy and its advances and reversals to be suitably nuanced.
There are additional problems. One is the insistence on the desirability of conventional multi-party politics in contexts where what we like to call political parties are more often than not, merely vote-gathering machines for power-seeking elites.
The so-called parties are often without roots in society. Their leaders and activists are usually brought together by the short-term goal of winning power, not common beliefs or values or an over-arching ideology. Few succeed at recruiting committed supporters or members. Nor are they able to mobilise resources from the public for their political activities.
As a result for the most part they become dependent on donors for sustenance. And when conflict develops between them and ruling parties, they again appeal to donors to help finance and preside over reconciliation processes.
In their lamentations, democracy seekers disregard these challenges to desirable evolution toward the “real democracy” they want. Hardly do they pay attention to localised efforts in some countries to take pointless and resource-wasting contestation out of politics and instead get potential rivals to work together for the national good.
They would do well to try and think outside the box of conventional best practice.
Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]