By definition, democracy is a form of a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections. It also presumes that the people have the authority to choose their governing legislation. Some cornerstones of democracy include freedom of assembly and speech, inclusiveness and equality, membership, voting, right to life and minority rights.
Democracy places power on the people than the elected leadership. And the leadership that arises from democratic leadership is supposed to be servant leadership, which answers to the wills of the electorate.
It is a concept that rose to challenge many centuries of unchecked autocratic leadership which was based on either ascribed leadership of the monarchies or religious institutions of governance. The problem with this mode of governance was in its lack of guarantee that progenies or heirs apparent of these institutions would produce people capable of effectively running the affairs of a nation. Because of this astrictive nature, it meant that competition or alternative ideas towards national development were not allowed space.
While democracy has a much longer history, it gained momentum during the second industrial revolution when labour movements, academics and industrialists protested calling for the introduction of a people-driven democratic system of governance independent from traditional institutions of governance. Traditional government systems were seen as barriers to emerging capitalism, technological revolution and competition of ideas.
Modernisation, an offshoot of industrialisation, has become a pillar of social change and economic development. Once industrialisation is allowed to flourish, it triggers a penetration into all aspects of life of a society, creating social, economic and political opportunities, which together transform and improve the standards of life of a society. And these together result in self-reinforcing processes that transform social life and political institutions, empowering the masses to participates on issues to do with their lives – thus growing democracy.
In Africa, since independence, there has never been a time when the people’s political will has been respected and allowed to dictate the course of a country without powerful politicians meddling in the electoral processes. In fact, politicians have exercised more power over the people than the other way round. If political power retention delivered economic growth, perhaps, there would be less qualms, but most if not all the time, it delivers poverty and destitution.
In most cases, where people’s will be at logger heads with the powerful politicians, there has tended to be impasses which have held most countries’ progress hostage for no other reason than political power.
People argue, through the voice of the opposition parties, that they have disapproved the status quo through vote casting. They often appeal to the regional and international community to intervene and rescue their stolen wishes from the autocrats who wield the means of political power.
Once this happens, all doors to escape the political impasses shut as the sitting and yet unpopular governments claim interference by external forces in its domestic affairs and that becomes an excuse for adopting an arrogant attitude, human rights violations, plunder of national resources and a deliberate disregard for national development. Political opposition in Africa is the biggest excuse for plunder and abuse of national resources.
The international and regional community may be tempted to react by imposing sanctions on the sitting government as a means to force behaviour change, while funding civil society organisations to sabotage the sitting government into submission. Both sanctions and internal protests have had the effect of disrupting the normal functioning of a nation, but most importantly, they create a situation of insecurity which dissuades investment and economic growth.
A government whose power is sustained by plundered national resources is now pitted in a long standing battle with donor-funded opposition parties and civil society organisations. The tendency of investors has been to either wait until this battle or impasse is over, or fund one of the sides to access free natural resources. Again, the biggest loser is national development.
There are several examples of these impasses across Africa which perpetually block progress. In South Sudan, the major political problems oscillate between President Salva Kirr and his former vice-president Riek Machar. They often drag their tribes into what looks like personal differences to give it national significance. This has led some analysts to argue that South Sudan can only have a new and promising beginning if both leaders left the political arena. Zimbabwe is in a similar situation where the opposition, civil society organisations and the West are pitted against Zanu PF and the African leadership. And again, it can also be argued that if Zanu PF and the MDC vacate the political arena, Zimbabwe will see better days.
The challenge with these arguments is that vacation from political office must, in most cases, occurs through an electoral process which is managed by the same people who need to vacate political office. Democracy favours outcomes from its processes. It is these processes that African leaders have mastered and are manipulating to retain power. In the absence of an alternative mode of changing power, most African countries will remain in the throes of destitution because democracy is unable to rescue them from these impasses.
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