Democracy. The mere mention of this word can induce joy and hope, rage and violence. Like love, democracy is a word that is used and abused by good and bad folks alike, depending on one’s perspective.
Last week, democracy and its contradictions were on full display in Britain. Free to choose their fate, the majority of the British people voted to leave the European Union.
Whereas I wish the Brits had chosen to stay in the EU, I was delighted to watch citizens of a country enjoy the freedom to determine their fate, even a transiently foolish one at that.
Democracy is a risk worth taking all the time. The wishes of the majority must always prevail as long as they do not trample the rights of the minority.
Like all good things, though, antidemocrats frequently appropriate democracy as camouflage. Just like those Bible-waving, dollar-chasing crooks that call themselves pastors and prophets, many dictators don the democracy label and put their people through meaningless rituals of campaigns and voting.
How many men and women have terrorized fellow humans, in the name of democracy? Even some fields of blood and pain are called democratic states.
There is the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of North Korea, the People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria, the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal. All these are certified non-democracies.
Which brings us to the question: what is democracy? This is like asking, what is love? One can recite the standard issue definitions by some of the greatest minds through the ages.
Trouble is that everybody thinks theirs is the last word on the meaning of democracy. To many rulers and subjects, democracy is “the right to support me, my view, my candidate or my party.”
Many Brits who subscribe to this definition are mad at those who voted to leave the EU, calling them rather uncharitable names. “How dare you not support my view!” Happily, we do not expect to see masked men beating up the Brexit souls who exercised their democratic right.
I delight in keeping a journal of fascinating comments that show that democracy is in the eyes of the beholder. Here are a few by two of my favourite African democrats.
In 1984, President Daniel arap Moi of Kenya, after declaring that KANU was the most democratic party in Africa, told a journalist: “I would like Ministers, Assistant Ministers, and others to sing like a parrot after me.” And sing they did.
In October 1991, while celebrating the thirteenth anniversary of his rule, Moi told an audience of politicians: “I do not want to quit. I want to go on. I will be here for perhaps another 20 years. My critics will be tired.” His listeners gave him a standing ovation.
To the South, Robert Mugabe told the Commonwealth Heads of State Conference in Harare on October 16, 1991: “We must recognize the urgent need for democracy throughout the commonwealth and the insistent demand by millions for social justice and respect for the fundamental rights of people and nations.”
The Zimbabwean President, already eleven years on the throne, added: “Indeed, when we ourselves individually or collectively betray our principles, we cannot proclaim ourselves as champions of human rights wherever they are being violated.”
The following day, 2000 University of Zimbabwe students marched downtown to protest the Government’s recent takeover of their University.
Police truncheons, rifles and tear gas persuaded the students to go back and quit disturbing the tranquil conditions under which democracy was being discussed in the people’s hall. Many students ended up on the trauma wards of Harare Hospitals.
When a journalist asked Mugabe to comment on the students’ demands, he replied: “They are a few drunken louts.” He then gave a tear-inducing speech about the need to protect the fundamental human rights of all citizens of the world.
Twenty-five years on, the 92-year-old Mugabe continues the struggle to establish democracy and to defend the human rights of his people.
Many African commentators are irritated by our incessant demand for this “imported concept that is ill suited to our culture, our history and our realities.”
However, we believe that where a people are determined to live in freedom, they can successfully adapt democracy to their situation.
British-style democracy, warts and all, is messy and can be very annoying when your side loses a vote. But it is far preferable to authoritarianism and all the alternatives that masquerade as “democracy.”
Notwithstanding the disfigured variations that have been imposed on many peoples, genuine democracy is worth pursuing.
Bernard Crick, author of ‘In Defence of Politics,’ puts it well. “Democracy is perhaps the most promiscuous word in the world of public affairs. She is everybody’s mistress and yet somehow retains her magic even when a lover sees that her favors are being, in his light, illicitly shared by many another. Indeed, even amid our pain at being denied her exclusive fidelity, we are proud of her adaptability to all sorts of circumstances, to all sorts of company.”
The struggle for democracy, real democracy, must continue, even when all one sees are dark clouds on all horizons.