A few years ago, I responded to an advert in the media for a political leadership mentorship programme that was sponsored by a country in the region of the world we like to refer to as “the West”. I cannot remember all the questions in the application form but there was one on democracy. My take was that the African culture does not support democracy which is the reason why it is taking ages for democracy to take root in the continent. My solution was to build democracy onto a communal (tribal) based governance system. I missed out on the training opportunity.
The core of democracy is governance “for the people, by the people”. That is the ideal democracy. In reality, facts point to a different scenario. French philosopher Joseph de-Maistre said that people tend to get the government they deserve. If democratic governments were truly about government of the people, for the people by the people, then the people will deserve their government. Because that is not achievable, more often than not, people get the government (and leaders) they least deserve.
The idea of democracy is the process (note the action word) of creating a self-determined society of free and equal individuals with equal rights and obligations. Representative or indirect democracy presupposes that people delegate political business to the elected politicians. Because direct democracy will be expensive and time-consuming, representative option is the lesser evil that people can live with.
Labelling democracy as a process in a way washes away the responsibility of the custodians of power in a State from upholding democratic ideals to the letter. A process means you can never get to the end of the spectrum which is deemed as perfection. This has left the “masters of democracy” to vet their democracies on their good intentions rather than actual results.
Inside the details of representative democracy, especially in the developing world, is where you find the devil that absolves the people from the blame of bad leadership and governance though it leaves them with the responsibility of maintaining it. Rule by the people is not practical so what the process of democracy gives us is a pseudo autocratic rule by politicians.
Cultural determinism argues that cultural values determine social and economic organisation of societies. It also influences patterns of political participation and governance. Looking at Asia and Japan, the Republic of Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore in particular, and a “second string” of countries comprising Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, one sees economic growth devoid of liberal democracy.
In the early sixties, the years of independence, East Asian states were typically authoritarian in terms of governance. It slowly changed to soft authoritarianism and lately many countries are slowly embracing some democratic ideals. However, their democracy has been characterised by single dominant party systems; but, as we said earlier, democracy is a process.
The Asian culture of discipline, diligence, honour and loyalty is not synonymous with democracy. In the early years of their independence, majority of their population did not understand democracy. The leaders were wise to build their nations on the strength of their cultures. With the support of a United States keen to keep them away from Soviet Union’s grip, they grew their economies. As the population turns to a more modern and sophisticated demography, the governments are slowly embracing democracy.
Did colonial masters short-change Africa? While the west supported undemocratic Asia, they insisted on democracy in Africa. Very few of African cultures, in the sense of behaviours, practices and norms that define the ability of a people to govern themselves, and not literature and art, were democratic. Our nationhood struggled with coup after coup and where elections were held, they were choreographed to mark an electoral cycle.
Where democracy professes equality before the government and the law, very few African communities were egalitarian. In Kenya, the Luo and the Maasai had an egalitarian social system that can be termed as democratic. It was a culture shock to ask Africa’s majority, which did not have formal education, to elect credible leaders. In the early years of independence, we set into the democracy path with leaders we did not deserve, and our fathers are not to blame.
Democracy is elitist
The elitist model of liberal democracy is practiced in the UK and US. It is a democratic ideal that emphasises the importance of elections, thus excluding citizens from active decision-making process which then serves to justify authoritarian political programmes. It holds the non-intervention of politics into the economy, which works for the elites who own the means of capital.
Two professors of politics at Princeton and Northwestern Universities commissioned a report in 2014 outlining how the United States of America is ruled by oligarch elite.
According to them, the common man in the US has zero influence on policy formulation and application. After examining about 1,700 policies, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page realised that the USA is not a democracy. According to them, groups organised around business interests have substantial influence on US policy, unlike common man-based interest groups.
In a capitalistic society that practices democracy, economic interests push the core while the interest of the people pulls the edges of governance. This has led to the election of leaders who can impress the business elite to be elected into office even if it means beating the electoral system. It gives us a good definition of a politician – the leader who gets votes from the poor and money from the rich, with the promise of protecting them from each other.
When former Gatundu South MP Joseph Ngugi passed away in 2014 and his wife decided to contest, there was confusion in the ruling TNA party. It is common practice among the political class to support a relative of a departed member of parliament so as to cushion the families from the effects of financial commitments they get into upon election. When TNA hawk Moses Kuria declared his interest in the seat, the party went into confusion.
It is believed Uhuru Kenyatta wanted the loose- and sharp-tongued Moses Kuria in parliament to keep the opposition Cord in check. The late Ngugi’s widow Joyce Ngugi “lost” the TNA nominations but it is believed she was paid enough money in line with the “common law” of by-election politics in Kenya. Upon his clearance to run for the seat, Moses Kuria claimed that he had the support of Joyce Ngugi to string along emotional voters.
In the end, a Joachim Kamere of New Democratic Party, who was a close confidant to the former MP, pulled out of the race citing pressure from TNA. He had decided to run also on the claim that he had the support of Mrs Ngugi. There being no other challenger, the election was cancelled and Kuria declared the new MP. The people of Gatundu South ended up with an MP not of their choice but the President’s.
This is the case in almost every region in Kenya, where Raila Odinga determines who goes to parliament in Luo Nyanza, William Ruto does the same among the Kalenjins while in Ukambani, you have to be Kalonzo Musyoka’s good books. The people of Kenya rarely get the leaders they deserve.
Democracy is a capitalistic system of governance so it fares poorly among poor people. No wonder Asian Tigers flourish while the “African Lions” are languishing in foreign aid. We must build the people’s economic power for them to be able to fully participate in democratic process. The Asian countries’ governments controlled their economies and protected their people as they took baby steps in economic growth. Now they can comfortably embrace democracy.
Africa, according to the UN, has a median age of 19.5 years, which means Africa has the youngest population in the world. Yet, one has to look really hard to find a president below the age of fifty.
People don’t always get the leaders and governments they deserve. The young people in Africa have not come from democratic cultures either at home or the society. They begin to take part in democratic processes when they are adults, yet they don’t control the means of capital. This leaves them at the mercy of the rich who control the media hence the dispersion of information.
The two factors above have contributed to the slow growth of democracy in Africa. When the majority of people lack the capacity to take part in and influence the process of democracy, it leaves them at the mercy of the political elite.
This is why at some point the West got obsessed with creating a middle class in Africa. It was reported that DFID, Britain’s international development agency, was instrumental in setting up a huge shopping mall along Thika Road, in an attempt to push Kenya and Kenyans into the middle class culture.
It is a typical case of putting the cart in front of the horse. We got it wrong from the start which sometimes makes us look like we are running in the opposite direction within the carriages as our train is moving. This calls for selfless transformative leadership from an informed and empowered population.
If you look at it within the background of the political class belief that democracy must be guided, then the people are innocent; at the end of the day, the rich get the leaders they want in office.