Tuesday, April 8, 2014

THE MESSY BUSINESS OF BUILDING A DEMOCRACY



The political events since the beginning of the year have our heads spinning.

There has been the succession soap opera of within the NRM, the coming into law of the Anti-Homosexuality Act and the dust kicked up about it, the chaos in neighbouring South Sudan and its effect on the economy and the never ending fight by impeached mayor Erias Lukwago, who last week enjoyed a few hours back in office before the Court of Appeal sent him packing again.

If you are struggling to make head or tail of it all you are not alone.

The doomsayers will have it that the ruling party is sending the country hurtling down a dangerous path – away from democracy and its attendant freedoms towards a dictatorship, which in trying to stem it’s on implosion will become increasingly intolerant of dissent within or without the party.

Others looking through rose-tinted glasses will see everything is alright, that we are better than our neighbours, we have come a long way and at least we have stability, which is not what can be said for some of our neighbours.

Both are right and wrong with the truth lying in a composite of both views.

If it is a given that the ultimate aim for us all is an increasingly democratic society it may serve as little consolation that things are going to get messier before they gets better.

When Uganda was writing its new constitution almost two decades ago one European diplomat, let down his guard – the Nile Special must have helped, and declared that the last thing Uganda needs is a multi-party democracy.

Using his home city as an example he said that there were two parts of the city, an organised part where the streets are straight, traffic flows and is more orderly and the other side where streets are all over the place, turning this way and that with no apparent rhyme or reason triggering a head splitting traffic jams at the slightest delay.

He said that the neat side was done when there was no democracy and the monarchs would decree that a road would pass through this place or that regardless of whose house was on the way. The other side was designed by committee with numerous, long winded consultations, that went back and forth were required to chart the course of the streets. And even when consensus was reached it could be changed at the drop of a hat. Invariably it cost more to build.

Whereas he was speaking under the influence, his basic message seemed to be that while the eventual goal of a free and democratic society was noble, some things were best done under a benevolent dictatorship (an oxymoron if ever there was one). Essentially that Uganda has a lot to do in setting up the framework under which a democracy can function properly.

Fast forward to now. While on paper we have a beautiful democracy the practice of it seems to get stickier by the day.

And this how it gets worse.

Writing a good democracy into law does not guarantee a perfect practice. If any proof of this was required look at the democracies of western Europe many of which are no longer even separated by borders. They have evolved over centuries to reflect the peculiarities of the people and the political expediencies of the time. To get to the current compromise position they have gone through hellacious genocides, fought apocalyptic wars, lived through and seen off blood thirsty tyrants and been saddled with irredeemably corrupt governments.

Writing a constitution guarantees nothing, it just sets the broad outlines of a framework under which the society will be run. The people of the day determine how much they stick to the letter of the law.

In 1824 John Quincy Adams became the President of the US without winning either the popular or electoral vote in what is known as the “Corrupt Bargain”. The details of how this came about did not seat well with everybody and fortunately or unfortunately there was no international community at the time to rain down hell and brimstone on Washington. The President was decided by the House of Representatives (parliaments are the same wherever you go?)! But they learnt from the experience and except for a hiccup in 2000 have not come near to a repeat.

It is a process. Unfortunately or fortunately we are right in the middle of it, we don’t have the luxury of being born when our own processes have matured over a centuries.

The more intellectual argue that there is no need to reinvent the wheel, democracy has been around for centuries so we should just copy and paste. But democracy is a way of life, which holds when a critical mass of citizens appreciate its value and are willing to uphold and defend it by holding the government of the day accountable.

Of course with the advancements in technology and communications one can reasonably expect that progress will be and is already being made faster, the flip side of course, is that the inevitable relapses may be uglier and more intense than in medieval Europe.

The point is there are no short cuts. US billionaire Warren Buffett once said ,  “No matter how great the talent or efforts, some things just take time. You can't produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant.”

He was speaking about investment but could very well be talking about the development of democracy.

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