Democracy is not an exclusive practice of one country

Democracy is not an exclusive practice of one country

By Allawi Ssemanda

US president Joe Biden is set to host a virtual democracy summit from December 9 to 10. Over 110 leaders from different parts of the world have been invited to attend the summit. In Africa, 17 countries have been invited to attend.

Uganda is not on the list of the 17 countries invited which has prompted discussion on social media with some claiming Uganda was left out because of alleged anti-democracy practices.

On April 16, 2021, U.S secretary of State Anthony Blinken issued a statement saying it was imposing visa restrictions on “those believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic process in Uganda.”

While it’s right for governments to criticise undemocratic practices, the U.S is not a good ambassador to be lecturing the world about democracy. While they accuse some African countries of undermining democratic practices, facts on the ground show that Washington continuously practices the same.

Despite praising self as the “city upon a hill,” scenes characterizing developing countries during elections are the same we see during U.S presidential elections. For example, money is said to have played a major role during the 2020 U.S presidential elections. Congressional and presidential campaigns saw nearly 14 billion U.S dollars, more than double of what was spent in 2016! Also, undisclosed campaign contributions and dark money increased during the 2020 polls increased.

According to the Brennan Centre for Justice at New York University, dark money groups poured in 2020 U.S elections over 750 million dollars. Such practices monetize elections which has been cited as a major setback affecting democracy in Africa.

Gallup poll released on October 8, 2020, showed that Americans’ trust in elections had reduced with only 19% of respondents saying were “very confident” about the accuracy of their presidential elections. Wall Street Journal of November 9, 2020 commentary noted that the 2020 U.S elections were a culmination of two decades of decline in Americans’ trust in the basics of building blocks for a vibrant democracy.

Arguably, it is not a surprise that November 3, 2020 polls were disputed which culminated into an open attack on the so-called beacon of democracy (capitol building attack) on 6th January 2021. German President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier responded by saying that ‘The scenes (the U.S. Capitol building violence) we have seen are the result of lies and more lies, of division and contempt for democracy, of hatred and rabble-rousing — even from the very highest levels.’

All the above shows that democracy is not a preserve of the U. S and therefore, claiming to be champions of democracy and branding those they don’t agree with as authoritarians and “rogue regimes” as they normally do is not just hypocrisy but also insulting international intelligence.

However, this should not be interpreted that I am blind to tell the difference between liberal democracy and authoritarian regimes, I of course do and if asked, yes, I have a strong preference!

On human rights which the U.S and some other countries base to attack others branding them abusers of human rights, the U.S still is not the best to lecture the world on human rights or equality.

We have all witnessed acts of racism in the West and some analysts argue it is systematic. In his statement on the death of George Floyd, who died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes, President Barack Obama lamented that “Remember that for millions of Americans, being treated differently on account of the race is tragically, painfully, maddeningly ‘normal.’”

In June 2020, Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights twice addressed the media stressing that protests which were triggered by the death of Floyd painted not just police brutality against people of colour but also raised issues of inequality and racial discrimination in the U.S’ education, health and employment sectors.

While President Biden’s democracy summit is a good initiative, one can argue that the U.S should not segregate on who attends it. Even those who they think are not democratic “enough” should not be left out. It is such summits where people meet, listen to each other, and maybe learn from each other. Possibly, the world’s biggest population – China should have been invited to share how the world should make progress towards a “functioning real democracy.” For example, while arguing that democracy is a shared value of all human beings, China proposed developing a whole-process people’s democracy. Should the world not hear how they think this will better the world and the “real” democratisation process?

We ought to know that democracy is not an exclusive practice of one country. Rather, it should be about the people ruling and the ruled in a given country. With skyrocketing monetization of politics as a study by Brennan Centre for Justice at New York University observed, like in many undemocratic countries, the 2020 U.S polls were largely influenced by money a practice that arguably makes democracy a commodity since money can influence voter’s choice.

The writer is a Research Fellow at Development Watch Centre, a Foreign Policy Think Tank, and author of Why Africa Deserves a Permanent Seat at United Nations Security Council

Quest for democracy and social equality, a mirage or reality?

Quest for democracy and social equality, a mirage or reality?

The United States President Joseph Biden is set to convene a virtual group of over 100 world leaders in early December for the first-ever ‘Summit for Democracy’. The summit comes at a time when democracy in the States has undergone a litmus test in recent times.

Among this is the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement that was occasioned by the murder of George Floyd in May last year, the African American was murdered during police enforcement. This tragedy was filmed by pedestrians, spread on social networks and subsequently triggered a round of protests across the world.

democracyThe incident and the aftermath of the recent US election where former president Donald Trump disputed the results with unverified accusations of election fraud, produced a strong response in American politics and social life, allowing us to understand the political and economic plight of contemporary American society.

It is not surprising therefore that the US was for the first time listed as a “backsliding democracy” in an annual report on the state of global democracy from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, a Stockholm-based organization. International IDEA’s report, which looked at trends across 2020 to 2021, said that the US ‘fell victim to authoritarian tendencies’.

Law enforcement is a mirror of any democracy. With some law enforcement actions coming under close scrutiny and considered excessive by many human rights movement organizations in the United States, the same is mirrored in our Kenyan context. While in America such criticism stems from the application of the law based on race with perceived hardline on blacks, application of the law is seen based on one’s economic status here at home.

The said challenges that have faced the United States – largely seen as the model democracy present learning ground for young democracies like Kenya. They send a strong message that even with the adoption of perceived modern self-governing practices, the so called democracy is a process rather than a destination.

Much remains to be done therefore in transforming public perception on the application of the law towards making the quest for justice a service available to the majority while firm on the minority who opt to go against stipulated laws.

Commendably, the status of Africa’s democratic process is not all gloom. In its report, the International IDEA’s report noted that in most African countries, regular elections have paved the way for peaceful transfer of power and amidst the pandemic, election management bodies (EMBs) adapted to the rising health and safety challenges, showing resiliency and flexibility while ensuring that most national and/or subnational scheduled elections remained on course.

Some signs of democracy are emerging in Africa with several elections setting the pace for peaceful transfer of power. Zambia where opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema defeated incumbent Edgar Lungu in the presidential election is a classic example, Ghana is also a good case where the long term opposition leader is now the president after beating the ruling party. In Malawi the Supreme Court cancelled the election results and declared the opposition leader the winner.

The ground is now shifting which explains why many here were surprised by the storming of the US Capitol building in January and former President Donald Trump questioning the legitimacy of the 2020 election results in the United States without substantiating his allegations. This was followed by a series of deliberate efforts to misinform the public while undermining fundamental trust in the electoral process. Such actions caught many by surprise and soiled the image of the United States as we know it.

Kenya has one of the most progressive constitutions in Africa but implementation remains elusive. The culture of electoral violence and win at any cost is still firmly entrenched in our politics. The role of state supporting one side is also a threat. Our electoral laws need reforms to limit the use of money to buy votes and make cash handouts illegal. But besides all these, with the prevailing economic challenges exacerbated by the pandemic in the country makes it difficult to have smooth and just election outcomes.

The writer is Dr. John Musingi,
Senior Lecturer – Resource use conflicts,
University of Nairobi.

America’s democracy and its deficits of substance

America’s democracy and its deficits of substance

By Charles Onunaiju

NEXT month, between December 10 and 11, the United States presidency intends to convene what it called “leader’s summit for democracy.” According to a statement on the summit, which will hold virtually, President Joe Biden will use the platform “to rebuild our alliances with our democratic partners and allies, rallying the world to stand up against human rights abuses…”

It is only hoped that the platform would be one of mutual learning and experience-sharing and not of hectoring, lecturing and posturing. However, the narrow framework of the meeting, down to “our democratic partners and allies”, already foreclosed an inclusive and broadly participatory process, and which by itself, is an indictment on the democratic credentials of the organisers.

However, the following brief discourse is an uninvited memo to the platform. Broad human aspirations for peace, security, sustainable development, and even prosperity is absolutely no doubt, universal and pointedly connects to the enduring collective human yearnings for happiness and better life.

However, the mechanisms, organisations and processes to attain them must give due diligence and context to specific circumstances, historical conditions, and other factors that shape the social outlook of a given people and also give proper effect to the conditions of their developmental stage.

Without adequate understanding of the historical process which poses the question of the existential reality and its challenges in the way, it actually exists and unfolds, gaining substantive leverage over the process and drive transformative agenda that opens the path of sustainable and inclusive development would be deprived of the refreshing tonic of historical far sight and foresight.

In the real and practical sense, democracy which is the broad spectrum of people-centered political organisation and process, must find context out of its generalised concept to the specific nature of the different challenges, circumstances, and reality in which a given people find nurture their respective experiences.

Without this concrete expression in a particular context, democracy in the developing nations and Africa in particular would function as mere rhetorical flourish or at best, a philosophical abstraction, irrelevant to the routine strivings of the majority of the people.

A well-known anti-colonial fighter and one of Africa’s foremost thinker and theoretician Amilcar Cabral said that the mass of the people do not fight and make sacrifices in anti-colonial struggles and national construction efforts for the ideas that exist in any one’s head, no matter how lofty but rather to bring concrete material improvements in the quality of their lives.

Democracy is served best when it engages and resolves practical questions regarding the improvement in the quality of lives of the people. It is even consolidated on a firmer ground if it delivers the human security and guarantees better life which poverty and extreme material deprivations are the greatest threats.

In contemporary times, the debate about democracy, especially in the West focuses on procedures and rules, with very little about the people, which is the real substance of democracy. In the new context of re-emerging cold war thinking and outlook in the West, democracy has fallen victim again as mere ideological tool to further the purpose of hegemonic and power politics.

Democracy which should serve to attend to human’s existential needs in a specific historical context and national condition is being abstractly generalised as a set of rules to be imposed by Western powers superintended and by a self-select few who ascribed to themselves the monopoly of wisdom to define its templates and enforce complaints on others by the tumultuous and dangerous mechanism of regime change.”

It is no gain saying that while the high tempo of human aspirations is universal, the democratic temperament of procuring and processing its feasibility is local and it is in the local application of the democratic process that its results are best maximised and its effects on people made more tangible and practical.

However, it is not difficult to understand that America would hardly see the platform of this type as mutual learning and experience sharing process which will feed into various efforts by different nations to nurture and consolidate their democratic practices against the background of their respective unique national conditions and histories.

Already designed as framework for rebuilding alliances, the Washington’s organised summit on democracy will be little more than regurgitation of cold war political alliances that defined the world between “US and them”.

Democracy and its implications for mutual learning and experience-sharing cannot be discriminatory but would rather integrate the experiences of all countries with different outlooks as a totality of collective human heritage and put them on offer for objective and honest interrogations. Designating some values as democratic and others as authoritarian can hardly fit into any serious definition of democratic temperament and ethos.

The United States, whose democratic practices are hardly measurable to its professed democratic values nonetheless deliberately, weaponises its ideals as foreign policy instrument to project and secure its national interest. From what the U.S preaches to the world about the sanctity of “one person, one vote,” its electoral college system, by which the votes of few electoral college delegates trumps over the majority votes of electors is nothing short of abrasive and rude affront to majoritarian electoral democracy that the American establishment unabashedly dictates to the rest of the world.

Because, America’s democracy is basically, a transactional system, in which majority of Americans have very little leverage over legislation and policy outcomes, crucial issues including such life and death issues as gun violence, are left to the antics of vicious special interest groups who mobilise and pay for huge campaign expenses and dictate policy choices according to their special interests with ordinary American watching helplessly.

Despite the surge in gun violence and the usual national grief and outcry that follow each incident of deadly gun violence, politicians and government can hardly reach a consensus on modest gun control measures that can address the perennial and vicious circle of gun violence. If any democracy does not address issues that are of concerns to the majority of its people, how then does it conform to the practice of democracy and in tandem with its values and ideals?

Despite the glamour that has been politically festered on America’s democratic ideals, the substantive practice of democracy in the U.S has revealed not only inbuilt exclusion of minorities, especially of blacks, Latinos and Asians but outright hostility to them. With the economic conditions of white middle-class Americans becoming more precarious, race, its conflicts and hostilities are re-emerging as the new frontier of America’s political battles. Broad and inclusive democratic practice can narrow the gap and blunt the sharp edges of racial tensions, but since American democracy is not broadly inclusive enough, it is yet to be enriched by the beauty of the different colours of its own people.

The U.S democracy remained fundamentally challenged by inclusive social process in which the fruits of its high scientific and technological achievements can translate to broadly shared prosperity. Like the presidential aspirant of the Democratic Party, Senator Bernie Sanders always said, the situation where the national wealth is owned by less than one percent of the American population is not acceptable.

From the outlines of U.S summit on democracy, which Africa is expected to participate, issues most critical to the region especially building the necessary framework for sustainable and inclusive development would be conspicuously missing. No meaningful construction of democracy in Africa would be possible without taking issues of extreme poverty into account and how best to raise people from extreme material deprivations.

The way to enable millions of Africans overcome poverty through massive investment in infrastructures like efficient transportation network featuring sea and air ports, railways and highways. Additionally, power and low carbon or clean energy is a basis on which Africa social stability and democracy can thrive and survive. Unfortunately such key issues that are strategic to securing in democracy in Africa does not feature in U.S engagement with the continent.

China, however, mainstreams these core and fundamental issues in her cooperation with Africa and both in the two main mechanism of engagement with Africa, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, FOCAC, and Belt and Road framework of International Cooperation, BRI.

These critical and enabling infrastructure needs for Africa’s sustainable and inclusive development has been the driving force. China’s support for democracy and social stability in Africa is practical, tangible and solution-driven while Washington pays lip service to the challenge of consolidating and enhancing democracy in Africa.

Democracy beyond abstractions needs tangible and practical measures to establish and consequently internalise and diffuse its values to the broadest section of the population.

Without establishing the existential material basis for it to survive and thrive, democracy would not only remain hollow but would be divorced from the real challenges and concerns of the broadcast section of the human community. A democracy must resolve the great question of social equity and inclusion.

America’s democracy despite its political glamour, struggles to contend with numerous substantive issues, germane to Americans and obviously need to improve itself. Despite this, the American establishment does very little at home to renovate and innovate its democratic practice but  rather engages in worldwide political subterfuge, plying democratic rhetoric as mere weapon of foreign policy.

The existential reminder that America’s democracy needs urgent structural reinvention and reforms, was the fascist’s audacity to grab power last January by the daring invasion of the capitol, that houses the U.S legislative chambers and this shows that colourful rhetoric is no substitute to profound soul search.