Sometimes best practice in achieving democracy is unrealistic
11 months ago, 12 Jan 13:23
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. The questions 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 ...
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