Thursday, July 30, 2009

Democracy and a tale of two republics

RECENT political events in the West African Republic of Niger and the Central American Republic of Honduras raise the vexed issue of the instutionalisation of democracy, as a socio-political concept, and its protection by the governed through the institutions of the state. Watchers of global political happenings may be well aware of the subsisting scenarios in both countries. Experts in the field can already forecast the outcomes in both countries. While the events are worrisome, this experience is not unique to these two countries. Africa is particularly plagued by this malaise.

Let me paint a picture for the reader: a 'democratically' elected leader of a state, desirous of continuing in power for, almost always the case (or maybe the excuse), the continuation of the 'good policies and work' of his administration at the assumed request of the people, suggest to the people that the Constitution be amended to allow for his continuation in office for another term. He plans a referendum on the subject but before it holds, the Supreme Court of the land nullifies his plan as ultra vires and unconstitutional.

Wanting not to be defeated in carrying out the 'people's wish' as a committed leader, he announces the dissolution of the legislature or dismissal of security chiefs and/or arrest of anyone opposed to the idea and informs the people that the Supreme Court's decision is confined to the trash bin. Interpose Niger and Honduras into this scenario and you get two non-fictional settings for political unrest as a result of two presidents' desire to carry out their 'people's wish'. We can always tell the real reasons behind the assumed 'people's wish'.

However, two ideas are related here. Two countries impoverished by corruption and bad policies will not actively and desperately seek the continuation, beyond the constitutional limit of two terms, of leaders who have not displayed the intellectual capacity to govern. And any economic policies that have not elevated Niger and Honduras beyond their abysmal rating by international organisations as two of the least developed and least secured countries in the world cannot be the fulcrum for an agitation for extension of term. Unfortunately, leaders in most developing countries do not reason this way.

This is sadly usually done in the name of democracy; a very sexy and current political phenomenon in developing countries and advanced by the powerful overlord, America. For as long as these leaders defile the Constitution and ignore court orders in the name of democracy, the United Nations Organisation, international and regional political bodies, world leaders, particularly those of the supposed free world would race to outdo one another in condemning any conceived plots or executed plans to unseat these leaders. The poser is: when and how can the people intervene in the usurpation of political power (which belongs to the people) by their leaders?

And as corollary: Has the Honduran military acted in violation of the constitution by removing the errant former president Manuel Zelaya Rosales and replacing him with the Speaker of Congress, Roberto Micheletti? Is the military, as a security institution of the state, not charged with the task of protection the people's political power by acting as it did in Honduras? Should the act of removing the president and replacing him with the person whom the constitution recognises as a replacement in situations as this, be termed a coup de tat? Whose interest is really at stake and how is it to be protected?

These, I think, are the questions political scientists must deal with in devising solutions to the increasing practice of term elongation and disregard for unfavourable court decisions by sit-tight leaders world over. Each time world bodies and leaders sprint to condemn good-intentioned efforts to oppose unconstitutional term elongation by state institutions and groups, they invariably encourage watching leaders to perfect their plans and effectively deploy state machinery to achieve same result. Examples abound in Africa and beyond. Autocratic sit-tight leaders do conduct elections which are always won by them; they review and amend constitutions to accommodate their continued hold on power; stifle political participation by the people and discourage political education via association.

They conduct flawed periodic elections so as to qualify for the elite class of world democracies and attract foreign economic aids which are usually diverted and/or misspent. International bodies and leaders cannot be oblivious of these political subterfuges devised to hoodwink them into legitimizing these leaders' reigns. The world has to choose between entrenching functional democracy and lip-servicing adjectival democracy. From Mugabe's Zimbabwe, Kibaki's Kenya, Biya's Cameroon, Sassou-Nguesso's Republic of Congo to Gabon, to name a few, the developing world is beset by the prevalence of adjectival democracy akin to historical fiefdom.

In choosing between both, we must remember whose interest democracy serves. And as a continent least developed and least secure among all continents, Africa must realise that the concept of democracy is not altruistically preached to it as a means to greatness but as a measure of her acceptance into the comity of world democracies. The world is content with us being adjectival democracies as long as internal strife keeps us undeveloped and thus always needing high interest yielding aid.