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Talks, dialogue, negotiations and GNU - Post June 2008 "elections" - Index of articles
caricature of democracy: Zimbabwe's misguided talks
Mukoma Wa Ngugi, International
July 25, 2008
July 25, 2008
As the Zimbabwean ruling
and opposition parties finally come to the negotiation table, it
looks like the only possible outcome is one that will allow Robert
Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai to share power. But a power-sharing
agreement that brings about a "Government of National Unity,"
or a transitional authority, will in fact be undermining the most
basic and important principle of democracy: the vote.
Western liberal democracy
is based on the social contract, which for theorists such as Jean
Jacques Rousseau bound the state to managing and fulfilling the
people's general will. Failure was grounds for new leadership.
For modern day Western
democracies, the social contract is fulfilled through the vote.
Take the vote out of democracy and the contract is nullified. That
is what Mugabe did when he used violence to steal the election.
Because a government
of national unity elevates the state above the will of the people,
it is antithetical to democracy itself. The call by the Bush administration,
the European Union, the United Nations and the African Union for
a such a government in Zimbabwe is a threat to the growth of democracy
To understand what a
government of national unity means, consider how it differs from
a coalition government. In a coalition government the winning party
finds that it does not have a majority of seats in the legislature
after free and fair elections. It then invites other political parties
to join with it in the interest of passing laws and governing. A
coalition government is formed after democratic elections through
constitutional means. By contrast, a government of national unity,
where the belligerent government and a power-hungry opposition share
power, is formed precisely because democracy itself has been sabotaged
through electoral theft, violence and threat of civil war.
In Zimbabwe, as was the
case in Kenya earlier this year, a government of unity is being
pushed as an emergency measure to stop violence and a spiral down
toward civil war. After peace is restored, the thinking goes, truth
and reconciliation commissions, constitutional reforms, and finally
democracy, will follow.
But this is a pipe dream.
A government that does not respect the people's vote will not concede
power down the line. And an opposition that does not stand up for
the people, and for democracy when it matters most, is easily appeased
with a nice chunk of the national cake.
With democracy conceded
to expediency, the ground is set for future civil strife and impunity.
A Kenyan government minister from the former opposition party was
recently caught on national TV in a fit of anger, claiming "his
men" had killed over 600 people during the ethnic electoral
violence. He was not admitting guilt; he was in fact threatening
his political opponents. Nothing has happened to him.
Corruption and underhanded
political deals continue in Kenya. Already there have been calls
for a general amnesty for the perpetrators of ethnic cleansing.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission that will be formed is more
likely to forgive and forget. It is back to the usual business of
bad leadership - at the world's insistence that expediency take
the place of democracy.
African caricature democracies
are fast becoming acceptable because we have come to expect and
demand much less from Africa. Instead of doing the hard work of
real democracy, it is much easier to create a caricature of it.
We have to begin wanting for Africa what we want for the rest of
the world - and not accept solutions for Africa that we would reject
In the long run, it is
better for the United States, the European Union, the African Union
and the United Nations to demand a free and fair re-run of the disputed
elections in Zimbabwe than to let authoritarianism fester in the
folds of caricature democracy. Rather than legitimize the short-circuiting
of democracy, these world institutions should boldly declare that
the only acceptable solution is one that reflects the will of the
people, and let that be the last stand, across the board.
Yes, there will be much
more violence in the short term. But the quick caricature democracies
sprouting all over Africa are not able to deal with the myriad of
problems facing their countries, and bitter, vindictive and more
vicious violence looms in the future. Worse still, a tradition of
respecting the vote and democratic traditions is being postponed
True enough, democracy
is not everything, and can be used by the state and political elite
to suppress the general will of the people; but citizens can also
use democracy to protect or fight for their rights. It is a starting
Ultimately, it is the
societies that have the tradition of respecting democratic institutions
that survive terrible leaders, because the institutions serve as
guiding posts in the worst of times. Africa needs this tradition
so that it can survive its bad leaders and flourish under good leadership.
Quick political fixes that take Africa further from this, even with
the short term promise of peace, sets up for more Congos and Somalias
in the near future.
*Mukoma Wa Ngugi is author of "Hurling Words at Consciousness"
and a political columnist for the BBC Focus on Africa Magazine.
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