ELECTIONS are scheduled for early next year and Kenyans are holding their breath. Will there be violence as in the 2007 elections? Will we become IDPs? Should we leave now? Should we employ more askaris? The anxiety is palpable. One thing we can be sure of and that is that the economy that we have so laboriously tried to revive, will take a downturn. And is there any guarantee that the final outcome will make our lives any better? Billions are being spent, we are told, on the preparations for this election – meanwhile the poor are getting hungrier and the hungry are dying. Why this fixation on ‘the election’, I ask myself?
I am told it is all in the name of ‘democracy’. Democracy for whom? For the people? Do we vote to keep ourselves in bondage? A Bill of Rights was written in England in 1689, the American Declaration of Independence stated that ‘all men are equal’ in 1776 and the French Revolution declared ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ in 1789. But none of these rights extended to the colonised, to women, to the toiling classes. The implementation has been a long time coming and we are still waiting, hoping against hope that that road we are travelling on will get us to the Promised Land. Meanwhile democracy takes on strange garbs. Fascists call themselves democrats, Hosni Mubarak’s party in Egypt was known as the National Democratic Party. The reality is that despotic rulers have learnt that to rule the people you have to rule ‘in the name of the people’. Elections every few years is a great placebo for the restless masses.
The truth is that Parliamentary democracy is a façade which serves the interests of the ruling class and its allies. Even in the countries of its origin, the West, Parliamentary democracy is by no means the perfect solution. Right now the Eurozone is struggling to keep its defaulting members afloat. The instability of the Euro is threatening the global economy. And yet, in these dire circumstances, the politicians are more concerned about securing votes for their election bids than for the plight of their country men and women whose lives are being destroyed by the austerity measures. Greece’s present prime minister is an international technocrat who is accountable to the European Union and the IMF and not to the people of Greece. Such is the fate of ‘democracy’ in a country that is (or was) an iconic nation in the evolution of Western civilization. Very radical policies are required if the needs of the people are to be prioritised but so far it is only France’s newly elected socialist leader, Francois Hollande, who is attempting to shift the focus. And it is proving to be an uphill struggle for him.
On our continent perhaps the country with the greatest hope and promise of a government of the people, by the people and for the people was Nelson Mandela’s South Africa. In 1994 the death of apartheid was heralded by South Africa’s first multi-racial parliamentary elections in which more than 22 million voters turned out to cast their ballots. But sadly the recent goings-on in the ANC, the ‘elected’ ruling party of the government, is at the very least shameful – a cruel betrayal of the people’s hopes and aspirations.
India is touted as the world’s ‘greatest democracy’. It is a country where 85% of the workers are in the informal sector and the combined wealth of the 100 richest Indians almost equals a quarter of the GDP. Where the legal system bears no relation to justice and inter-communal tensions are stirred up by those seeking power. Where a boy apologises to his boss when his arm is mangled in a shredder because he is more terrified of losing his job than his hand!
Nana K Busia (Jr), a Ghanaian Pan Africanist, says: ‘The more I watch elections and the accompanying violence and the ‘do-or-die’ mentality they have brought about, the more I am impelled into suggesting that they (elections) should be placed under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter as events likely to constitute threats to regional peace and security. The Kenyan situation has proved this beyond any doubt.’
So are we doomed to endure hardship or is there another way? Whenever I have raised the question, ‘Why Elections?’ I have generally received a sympathetic response. However, it is invariably followed by ‘But what is the alternative?’ I do not pretend to have an answer to this question but I do have some thoughts on the subject. They stem from the realisation that not ALL countries select their governments using the Western model of a ‘liberal electoral democracy’. Yes the majority do but there are a few which do not – China, Cuba and Eritrea for example – three decolonised countries often vilified by the West and its sycophants for their lack of human rights and democracy. And yet China, which today is preparing to send humans to the moon, is considered the world’s second greatest economic power (next to the USA). Cuba, in spite of the American blockade, holds one of the highest (if not the highest) rates of literacy and life expectancy and the lowest infant mortality ratio.
Some interesting observations, which we might consider, have been made by Prof. Zhang Weiwei in his book The China Wave: The Rise of a Civilizational State. It challenges the conventional wisdom of national structure, democracy and what constitutes good governance. China’s astonishing re-emergence on the global stage has thrown into confusion traditional western-dominated theories of modernisation. Weiwei is very sceptical of the West’s ‘liberal electoral democracy’; he says that China is very aware of the weaknesses (and strengths) of the West and it would be foolish for China to follow in its footsteps. He points out that the West’s ‘one man one vote’ ethos is as recent as the 1920s (female suffrage came later) i.e. AFTER modernisation. ‘China still needs a neutral, strong government which can shape national reforms for modernisation’ he maintains.
In a liberal democracy, accountability is every four or five years when citizens queue up for the ballot. In China accountability is wide ranging: economic, social, political and legal. The policy of job creation and economic growth is embedded in every small unit. On the subject of ‘human rights’ – the West’s most favourite punching bag – Weiwei makes a very profound statement. In the UN, not the USA, definition of human rights; social order is given a higher priority than individual rights. In the USA, freedom of expression and independence of the individual is more important. Without question the approach in China to individual human rights is ‘inhuman’ and dismal. And yet ‘any Chinese anywhere will say that human rights are better now than ever before’. Ever since the Opium Wars of the 1840s China has been torn apart by civil wars, upheaval and chaos - now, more than anything else, the Chinese appreciate social order. And popular support for its government is much higher than in the West.
China is developing a growth model that reflects the long-range decisiveness of an authoritarian regime, which may lock up and beat its critics but which still gets things done big-time: a can-do system that contrasts favourably with the can’t-do democratic politics of the West. ‘400 million or more Chinese have been lifted out of poverty’ – this is only one statistic that proves the point.
Eritrea which does not hold elections has, it is said, made remarkable progress in areas such as HIV/AIDS, malaria eradication and maternal and infant mortality. It is reputed to be the fastest growing economy in Africa and is on track for achieving the Millenium Development goals. Life is still hard for most, but the very poorest are the priority and their lives have changed dramatically.
We can see the logic of this argument on our own continent. The Arab Spring is surely the best example of this truth. Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Libya have been most un-democratic states ruled and controlled by the most corrupt and despotic dictators with no qualms whatsoever for human rights. Yet, surprisingly, the standard of living of the North Africans is much higher than that of us East Africans – the per capita income of Egypt is $5,400; that of Kenya is $250, the rate of urbanisation and therefore modernisation far outstrips our own. The lesson is that it is only AFTER people are assured of their food, health, education and housing that they can begin to aspire for freedom, justice and democracy. Today, politically, the Egyptian youth are creating new forms of struggle and new ways of organising.
Traditionally Africans have practised their own form of democracy usually via a council of elders whose mandate was to persuade all parties to arrive at a consensus where everyone got something. It was not a win or lose situation as in the western style electoral process. Peace was maintained and the community’s unity preserved, no doubt with some disservice to the rights of women and children and individual expression. It is Mwalimu Nyerere who said: ‘the rights of the community take precedence over the individual’.
Yash Tandon, a writer on development theory and practice, states that ‘Broadly speaking, while most “Western” civilisations of antiquity and of the present time, stress the worth of the individual; most “Eastern” civilisations stress the worth of the collective in relation to the individual. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UHDR) was largely a product of the “western” notion of “rights” with very little input from other cultures and civilisations. In the Cold War period the Soviet Union had challenged the UN’s heavy emphasis on the political as opposed to the economic and social rights.
According to Horace Campbell, international peace and justice scholar, ‘The human rights debate has acquired a new layer of critique in our own times when the West (especially the NATO countries) flout human rights in a duplicitous manner, using it as a flag to intervene in the affairs of other nations when it suits their political and strategic (and military) interests (as in Libya and Syria) and keep benign silence when it does not (as in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain).
‘To be able to move Africa in a direction of real unity requires the kind of boldness that was manifest in the commitment to struggle against colonialism and apartheid.’ He asserts that, ‘there are no justifiable reasons to maintain the artificial borders that were established in 1884 . . . . advances in solar energy technology, harnessing the underground water resources, the electrification of Africa and an infrastructure of canal systems await Africa 2025 when Africa breaks from Western intellectual and political hegemony’.
He is convinced that ‘revolutions are not decided by elections’ and it is in East Africa where the experience of demobilizing the people through elections has been most developed. Democracy cannot come from simply voting and progressives cannot hope to make real change within an electoral system that reinforces neo-liberal economics and low intensity democracy. We must accept that Western-style liberal electoral democracy is destroying Africa and that we need to explore new social, economic, political and legal models. Who we think we are defines what we think we want. We need to boldly experiment and eventually a new model suited to our needs and conditions will emerge.
Zarina Patel is the Managing Editor of Awaaz, a human rights activist and an author.