Democracy was originally intended by the Greeks to provide checks and balances in the exercise of power. Consequently, Circa 510BC, Spartans created a four level government with two kings at the head of government, a judiciary, gerousia, with a security of tenure for life, a house of representatives that oversaw the kingsand a people’s assembly that elected the above. The Spartan blue-print for modern democracy has remained intact for 2500 years save for some tweaking by various nations to suit their needs.
Despite its noble intentions, democracy was greatly flawed from its very inception. It was modelled on a fairly homogeneous nation-state such as Sparta and Athens, yet transplanted into rabidly multi-identity and sometimes intolerant nation-states. Its greatest weakness however is the presumption that citizens will exercise power from an informed self-interest perspective.
More importantly, the transplantation of democracy in its Greek form onto the global south has meant its application to legitimize violent repression, economic exclusion and systemized prejudices.
How Does Democracy Manifest in Eastern Africa?
The wealthy can purchase the government:
Electoral democracy has made governance exclusionist in its very nature. For example, electoral victory by National Resistance Movement (NRM) in Uganda ensures that it governs at the exclusion of Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) and any other opposition party. It would be ideal if the contest for power was a contest of ideals and philosophies- social democracy versus capitalism, fiscal austerity versus economic stimulation.
In Uganda, more than 70% of the people on a list of the wealthiest in the country are either NRM/NRA- National Resistance Army, or families of the same, or people associated with NRM. The wealthiest person on the list is Alykhan Karmali, a Ugandan of Asian origin who was estimated to be worth US$700 million in 2015. His Company, Mukwano, was in 2002 investigated by a commission of enquiry for having evaded US$16 million in taxes. It was alleged in the said inquiry that the Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) had abetted his tax evasion. In the same year, residents of Zombo District accused his Mukwano group of companies of colluding with district officials to grab their land that is located in Abanga. Alykhan was alleged to have offered US$ 500,000 campaign contribution to NRM in 2001.
Violence and intimidation ensure electoral victories:
Uganda’s elections since 1996 have been replete with police and army officials firing live ammunition into opposition crowds. Opposition leaders are perennially beaten and arrested for actions such as walking-to-work or rejecting of electoral results. Notably, Bidandi Ssali, a senior NRA officer, confessed to having been in a meeting where the top brass vowed never to recognize the opposition candidate, Kiiza Besigye should he win the elections.
In Kenya, 1,133 died and nearly 600,000 were displaced from their homes following the 2007 elections. Though the scale of violence was unprecedented, the zero-sum-game nature of electoral democracy makes electoral competition desperate, and violent. In order to win elections in certain regions, electoral violence is perennially unleashed on minority or opposing ethnicities and clans to ensure that only one ethnicity is physically present to vote on polling day.
Intolerance and exclusion:
In Kenya, constituencies are almost exclusively mobilized on the basis of ethnic prejudice, fear of exclusion and fear of victimization. Voting has been reduced to tribal arithmetic. A casual audit of the ethnicities of senior civil service, directors of successful public contracting companies and awardees to lucrative licenses in historical governments indicates that the function of state is restricted to the ethnicity/ies that win an election. In Burundi, the longest ruling party in its history, the Union for National Progress (UPRONA), was always seen as a Tutsi-dominated party with Hutu members. In the same vein, one could argue that the ruling party, National Council for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) and its main opposition National Liberation Forces (FNL) are predominantly Hutu parties with representations from other groups.
Their respective Ministers, Senior Civil Servants and security officers reflected the respective ethnic support for the party in power. The historical animosity between the Dinka and Nuer of South Sudan has manifested into ethnic cleansing and insurgence following the breakdown of power-sharing by the various communities in the then Government of National Unity.
The Reality of Democracy in Eastern Africa.
Democracy and Justice:
Democracy is not an end in itself, rather, it is a means to justice. Unfortunately, democracy in Eastern Africa has been elevated as an end in itself. Thus its devastating manifestations in the lives of families are accepted as a natural price for democracy. Uganda’s democracy is militarized to the point of a farce. In 2009, the king of Buganda, Kabaka Mutebi was stopped from visiting a part of his Kingdom, Kayunga, which led his subjects to protest. Following heavy-handedness by military and the police, at least 40 people were left dead for practicing what should be a normal democratic exercise- expressing decent against a government position. NRM has regularly mobilized military and police against citizens for expressing outrage over theft of public fund, theft of Mabira forest, electoral malfeasance and cost of living.
On April 25, 2015, the ruling CNDD-FDD announced that Nkurunziza would run for a third term, against constitutional two-term limit, thereby sparking a coup, riots and murders of more than 1000 and resulting in more than 120,000 refugees. The Burundi government is recognized today as legitimate despite the travesty. The exclusionist nature of democracy in Kenya has made it one of the most unequal countries on earth. A World Bank report ”Poverty in a Rising Africa” says 62 per cent of Kenya’s national wealth is controlled by 8,000 persons in a country whose population is over 40 million people. Yet the exercise of democratic elections, religiously practiced every five years, rarely audits this dehumanizing phenomenon. Should the value of democracy be based on is ability to deliver justice, rather than an imaginary inherent value?
Democracy and Identity
A fundamental, yet unspoken, cornerstone of governance is political identity. The majority of ethnicities in Eastern Africa perceive themselves as sufficient nation-states and thus view their country as an entity from which they can extract opportunity and resources, or an entity that they must resist. Yet now that Eastern African legitimate nation-states such as the Maa, Bahima, Hutus, Digos etc. find themselves cobbled in a quilt of nationhoods of Kenya, Uganda, Burundi and others, legitimate governance needs be negotiated. Whilst inter-ethnic unity was useful in the fight for independence from colonization, the experience of it in post-independence has been largely oppressive, disenfranchising, dispossessing and violent when one is not from the ethnicity that is in power.
Democracy presumes homogeneity of identity that, with the exception of Tanzania, is grossly misplaced in Eastern Africa. Legitimacy thus entails understanding the kaleidoscope of nation-state identities. The vilification of loyalties to these identities only encourages dishonest political discourse in attempting to forge developmental states and hard-line ethnic positions that undermine nationhood.
Democracy and Corruption
Another challenge of democracy is that it is inherently expensive. To win an election entails resources that support vote-hunting. It thus, by its very nature, encourages state capture and corruption through electoral financing.
The maintenance of influence, once one is in power, entails rewarding one’s support base and deploying like-minded cadre in policy and execution. This makes it exclusionist by nature. In Kenya, public contracts, public service jobs and public infrastructure have broadly reflected the dominance of the ethnicities that have been, or are, in power.
Uninformed Citizenry and Democracy
Yet another challenge of democracy is its presumption of an informed citizenry that acts in their own best interest. But the reality is that a majority of citizens are ignorant on civic matters. Others still are apathetic or complicit even where their interests are being sabotaged like the case of Uganda where a 2015 poll by IPSOS predicted that an overwhelming 57% would vote for NRM government in 2016 despite Transparency International’s East Africa Bribery Index indicating that corruption in Uganda was a major problem for the citizens access to public service.
What way for Eastern Africa?
There is no easy answer to rethinking democracy but in forging sustainable, just and inclusive governance, we must be brave enough to ask:
If not democracy, then what?
Now that we are intolerant, fearful nation-states that must come together, how do we do it?
Who represents what constituency in rethinking democracy?
Who will lose, thus fight, the new governance dispensation?
Job Ogonda is a Senior Advisor, Open Society Foundation, Africa Regional Office.