The Open Society and its enemies; can ‘Democracy’ work in Africa?
By Femi Olugbile
On Friday the fifteenth of October 2021, the Conservative Member of the British Parliament for Leigh-on-Sea, Sir David Amess was holding a routine consultation with his constituents in the hall of a Methodist Church. He was a man who liked to ‘mix and mingle’ with the people. That he was not holding the meeting in his office but in a Church Hall within the community was evidence that he, the servant, was coming to meet his ‘employers’, the public.
At just a few minutes past noon, a young man stepped towards the politician and, with great deliberation, stabbed him to death.
It was subsequently revealed that the killer was a young British national of Somali extraction, and that he was driven to his murderous act by Jihadi passion.
The whole of the United Kingdom has been in mourning since the event. It has led to a lot of soul-searching and handwringing. A lot of public discussion has been taking place concerning the future of British ‘Democracy’. Politicians have given vent to their anxieties about their personal safety within the community, although everyone is aware that the openness and continuous readiness to engage directly with the community that defined the long and distinguished career of David Amess form the very essence of democracy in action.
Many elected officials at national and local council level have been feeling increasingly unsafe while performing their duties. Some have received threats online or been personally assaulted in public places. Some have started to cut back on their interaction with the public. A number have taken security measures such as erecting barriers in their constituency offices and carrying safety devices on their person. Basic trust between the leader and the led is being gradually eroded.
The anxieties amplified by the assassination of Sir Amess have been around for a number of years. A similar incident occurred in 2016, involving Jo Cox, a Labour member of parliament. She was murdered outside her constituency office in broad daylight by a right-wing pro-Brexit extremist who hated her for her staunch support for keeping Britain in the European Union.
The open, democratic society – that ‘Western’ ideal that is being exported to the rest of the world, requires as a minimum that politicians and citizens be able to hold and express their views freely, and that they interact without let or hinderance. The people who murder other people for jihad, or because they disagree with their political views, are enemies of the open society. To succumb to them is to succumb to an attack on the innermost essence and core value of Democracy.
Some of the voices in the discussions that followed the Amess assassination have cautioned against knee jerk reactions such as introducing intrusive ‘policing’ of interactions between citizens and their representatives, or mandatory installation of barriers and metal detectors at meeting venues, or police background checks to ‘clear’ people who ‘apply’ to meet with their representatives. Even the provision of continuous police protection for political office holders, at public expense, is a major physical and psychological barrier to the Open Society. In the United Kingdom, as in many other parts of the world, increasing acerbity, ‘hate speech’ and personalization of issues are poisoning the well of mutual respect and the ultimate sense of common purpose necessary for Democracy to thrive. There has also been a tendency for people to be economical with the truth in pursuit of ideology or cause. The advent of the Trump president and his persona in the USA have served to bring these simmering developments up to the boil on the world stage.
It has been difficult to transplant The Open, Liberal-Democratic society in practice to the environment of Africa. Among the few African countries that are often described as ‘working’, based on social and economic development indices, none, except perhaps Botswana, can be described as an ‘Open, Democratic society’. Rwanda, the favourite of the international community, does not meet the criteria. For the ‘big boys’ – Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, the attributes remain aspirational, featuring prominently in public discourse, but observed all too often in the breach. Egypt under Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi does not even make a pretense at Democracy.
The failures of ‘Democracy’ in Africa are usually laid at the doors of bad leaders. Although this has some truth in it, it is a simplistic, one-sided viewpoint that has spawned simplistic efforts at solution. Among other consequences, it encourages ambitious upstarts, such as ‘Special Forces Commander’ Mamady Doumbouya in Guinea, to ‘be the change’. Over time they find themselves to be ‘more of the same’.
There is a video in circulation on WhatsApp that tells the story of a man in Kenya who rode a bicycle and started to canvass for votes among his fellows so that he could be elected to parliament. They laughed at him. ‘What do you have to offer us? Only big men who have something to give us go to parliament.’
In Nigeria, constituency meetings are well-policed, thug-secured events where selected party members seek ‘empowerment’. Citizens meet their representatives to ask for money from them. They go to collect school fees for their children, or money for their daughter’s impending wedding. A British parliamentarian would suffer post-traumatic stress disorder if he were to be confronted with the demands and expectations of the public in a Nigerian constituency. The notion of humongous salaries and allowances earned by legislators, in part to fund the demands made on them by their constituents, the expectation of ‘empowerment’ – from the public purse, as well the mainstreaming of a bizarre entity known as ‘Constituency Project’ would shock the legislator from ‘the mother of parliaments’ to the core. This predatory, irrational relationship underpins the ‘democracy’ practiced here.
Even if Nigeria is restructured, it would still be necessary to change the expectations and behaviour of the voting public, so that there may be the chance for a sustainable, ‘public servant’ leadership culture to emerge, supervening over the ‘big man’ leadership that is deeply ingrained in everybody’s psyche. The situation may not be very different in Kenya, and many other African countries.
To ignore these facts is to beg the issue.