Democracy, free elections, human rights? What are those, and who cares anyway?

Wednesday January 10 2018

A map of Africa.

A map of Africa. Most of our countries are so torn apart by centrifugal forces at the service of tribal, ethnic, racial and confessional bigotry that to call them nations is simply a charade. PHOTO | FILE 

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The countries that we call nations — even republics — continue to tell us that they are not any of these new-fangled things, concepts brought to our shores by foreign adventurers on their marauding missions.

We have some understanding of what a “nation” comprises, which includes a certain level of geographic continence, social and administrative cohesion and linguistic and cultural affinities that have been developed over time.

Even by these attributes, which we may choose to claim in a number of our countries if we want to be generous with ourselves, in many instances we would struggle to agree on the appropriateness of the term “nation” when applied to our realities.

What we can be sure of is that we are countries — bits of geography, really — at varying stages of building what can intelligibly be talked about as a nation. Or, alternatively, varying stages of undoing even what we had seemed to be building.

Most of our countries are so torn apart by centrifugal forces at the service of tribal, ethnic, racial and confessional bigotry that to call them nations is simply a charade.

The elderly gentlemen who met in Berlin in 1884-85 were haggling, not over the formation of our “nations,” but rather over who amongst them got the best piece of real estate. In the end, we became theirs, their chattels, each one of our geographically described entities a feudal possession of a master in Europe.

In the carving up of our continent, the Europeans appropriated to themselves whatever fell under their dominions, everything including the soil, the vegetation, the water, mineral and other resources, including humans, us, as we were lumped together with the landscape, flora and fauna.

Little came out of Independence to change that, except that in just too many cases, black rulers replaced white rulers and all the divisions that had simmered under the surface in colonial times acquired dynamic traction in the form of dominant ethnic groups lording it over the other, weaker ones; religious and racial formations jostling for ascendancy in bloody feuds and self-destructive civil wars at the instigation of ultra ambitious power mongers.

This has not stopped to this day, as evidenced by the ceaseless upheavals in many African countries, many of which are already failed states while many others are in the process of failing.

But the lie that we told each other at Independence, that we were “nations,” has followed us to where we are. We are still as ethnic as we were; we are still divided over things like religions, which are not even our religions; we still want power as a means of accessing the country’s resources for our pockets and those of our henchmen; we are still unable to accept full citizenship for all our people. And yet we all call ourselves “republics” when even our quality as “nations” is dubious.

In our make-believe efforts to convince ourselves and those who look at us in puzzlement, we walk around talking about “democracy,” “good governance,” “human rights” “free and fair elections,” “transparency,” “open government,” “anti-corruption” and such high-sounding phrases that make us sound good to the world, while at home we are busy dismantling even the little we had achieved in the governance sphere.

Our governors are so bad today that hundreds of thousands of African youth would rather die in the Sahara desert or in Mediterranean Sea than stay and build their “nations,” with their dictators who cannot solve the most elementary questions asked.

Ten years ago, the African Union adopted the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, which set out the African leaders’ purported commitment to a certain number of universally accepted principles in the field of good governance, democracy and human rights.

Ten years down the road, the situation is worse than it was in 2007.

So, why do the African rulers like to pretend, to live a lie? Perhaps it is their way of having their cake and eating it too. Perhaps they believe that these things they sign up to are not that important because very few of them have ever kept a promise in their lives.

I believe they need to be a little honest and declare openly that they do not believe in these things.

Jenerali Ulimwengu is chairman of the board of the Raia Mwema newspaper and an advocate of the High Court in Dar es Salaam. E-mail: [email protected]