Apparently, many Africans have a different meaning for, or understanding of, what “democracy” is. As with many words and phrases some of us mindlessly regurgitate. The meaning we give democracy is not only limited in scope, it is also incongruent with our reality. Ask many of us what is the meaning of democracy, and we will answer: a government of the people, by the people and for the people.
What a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” means to us is often limited or centered on periodic elections. Because of this limitation on what democracy means, some of us have simply adopted the claim that the recent resurgence of coups in Africa is some “democratic setback” for Africa. Why most of these coups take place in Africa is not as important to us because as usual, we would rather treat the rash of coups and simply ignore the leprosy of terrible African governments leeching off the backs of the people while counting on men and women spies and others in uniform to protect their power.
That most African leaders are authoritarians perching over police states marred with extreme inequalities and poverty, somehow never registers on our “democracy setback” radar. While other people consider their fundamental human rights and freedoms to be inalienable, and are willing to die for them, many of Africans think our rights and freedoms are a gift from our presidents. And so because the president allows us to speak our minds, it means we have a democracy. Because the president doesn’t seize our businesses, it means we have a democracy. Because the media is able to criticise the president, it means we have a democracy. Because the president does not violate us, it means we have a democracy. Because we go to the polls every so often, it means we have a democracy (the electoral fallacy). While freedom of the press, periodic elections and freedom of speech are important cornerstones of any democracy, they only represent a few addends in the democratic equation and do not represent the sum total. Your freedom as a human being, to direct the affairs of your life is just as important. That is why some call democracy “rule by the people”. How many of you really think that those ruling you today truly represent your interests? And how come those ruling you somehow manage to elevate their political and economic interests while you remain poor and struggling to survive? Your children don’t go to the same schools as those ruling you, you don’t go to the same hospitals as those ruling you, you don’t have the privileges they have, and while you struggle to eat three square meals a day, those ruling you have more than enough food at their homes. And what is even sadder is that you are the ones paying those ruling you to live better than you. Where is the democratic gain for you the ordinary citizen?
For our African leaders and their supporters, as long as there are elections every so often, these African leaders can don the raiment of “democratically elected” and claim a legal mandate to basically do as they please. Forget legitimacy, that’s not as important as legality to many Africans. I doubt legitimacy even factors in our thinking. A friend used to tell me that because “Gambians voted for killer and rapist Yahya Jammeh, everything his enablers did on his behalf was therefore done legally”. That was at the height of the Janneh Commission when some shameless thieves who helped their master rob the people, shamelessly appeared before the commission to justify the help they gave to their master thief. Somehow, even stealing is seen to be acceptable by Africans because the people “elected” the thief! Incredulous! I guess those who also killed on behalf of Yahya should be hailed as heroes since they too claim to have been acting on orders from their chain of command! But back to these African leaders and this claim of “democratic setbacks” Africans love to parrot.
Knowing that they can control and manipulate elections, African leaders proscribe all other avenues of removing them from power and perfect the manipulation of elections so they remain in power for as long as they desire. They will tell you the only acceptable way to get rid of them must be through elections that they control and can manipulate. African elections don’t necessarily have to conform to democratic ideals in order for African leaders to be declared democratically elected. These leaders just have to ensure that they appear to meet the basic legal requirements. For those leaders facing some constitutional impediment, they have at their disposal bewigged men and women in black robes whose conscience long since abandoned them and are prepared to do anything to appease the leader and help him stay in power longer. Those in the governments of Africa know that their interests are moored at the same dock. They must protect each other at all costs.
Importantly, African leaders have learned that whatever means they employ to rig elections don’t necessarily have to be legally foolproof because most African judges do not have the “intestinal fortitude” to overturn elections. The abiding excuse is often that “oh but no election is perfect”. So it’s all right if the elections is a bit unfair as long as it’s not on a Charles King level cheating. And so African opposition parties come to accept these sham elections because not doing so somehow equates to being unpatriotic or undemocratic! Is it any wonder that in 2019/2020, Afrobarometer is said to have conducted a survey across 19 African countries and only 42% of respondents believe elections “enable voters to remove non-performing leaders”? 42% means less than half of those surveyed! Yet in Africa, our idea of democracy revolves around periodic elections. Even if a majority of the people did not vote for the leader, as was the case with Adama Barrow in 2016, we still claim “democracy”. No matter how terrible a leader, so long as they are “elected”, we can claim “democracy”.
The nexus between poverty and democracy easily escapes many of us Africans! In fact, most of those parroting the cliché “democratic gains” don’t see any connection between poverty, social justice, freedom and democracy. Holding elections is all that it takes for the African to be parroting democracy! The poverty and destitution of majority Africans, while the political elite grows wealthier on the backs of the poor, is not seen to be undemocratic by many Africans. The terrible hospitals that the poor visit while the political elite and their families go overseas for a mere cold, is not seen to be undemocratic by many Africans. That African representatives, including ministers, many public and civil servants, basically leech off the backs of the poor, is not seen to be undemocratic at all. Our idea of democracy is all about political rights and elections! The fact that we have very little say in our affairs never matters to our democratic gains. Your rulers can shut down your mosques and churches while allowing political rallies but you have no issues with that.
People, democratic gains go beyond periodic elections. Democracy means nothing when presidents and those within their circle can torpedo constitutions because they do not favour their political interests. Democracy means nothing when the only voices that matter are those that align with the president’s political interest. Democracy means nothing when Bubacarr Jallow can be suspended from work for simply voicing his political opinion when others aligned with the powers that be are allowed to do the same and hailed for it. Democracy means nothing when soldiers are asked to go and fight a common enemy but are denied the tools they need to fight so that the president and his inner cabal can drive in gas-guzzling super SUVs! And importantly, democracy means nothing when majority of the people are hungry and poor while those tasked with changing their lot are rich and well-fed! Our elders did warn that “as one chastises the hawk for preying on chicks, the mother-hen should also be cautioned to shield its chicks”.
The author served as head of investigations at the TRRC. He was also involved in the deadly failed attempt to topple the government of President Yahya Jammeh in December 2014.