Saturday April 26 2014

Educate citizens about civic rights and duties

By David F. K. Mpanga

Ask anybody who knows anything about marketing and they will tell you that branding is as important as the quality of the goods or services under the brand. The Baganda of old had an idea about this and came up with a saying, which can be loosely translated as “Poor branding will leave you with unsold product”. As marketing became more sophisticated, branding and labelling started tending towards aspiration, hyperbole and even mischievous falsehood. Soon branding and labelling became so disconnected from the product being sold that a British woodstain and dye manufacturer run a long advertising campaign under the simple slogan “It does exactly what it says on the tin”. The campaign was so successful that the slogan became a colloquial way of describing something that is without frills and is as it appears or claims.

When it comes to politics, every state brands itself as a democracy. International legitimacy requires that government of the people of any country should be by the people and for the people. However, as in the market for goods and services, the label “democratic” does not necessarily connote that a country is run on true democratic lines. In fact, if you see the label expressly on the tin, as it were, then chances are very high that the country is not democratic at all. Thus, by way of example, the Democratic People’s Republic Korea, which is the formal name of North Korea, is actually a military dictatorship presided over by family dynasty in which dissenting officials are executed by being fed to a pack of hungry dogs. By way of further illustration, the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo are beacons of many things to many different types of people, but they are not exactly world renowned models of democracy.

For a long time, the United States of America has popularly branded itself as the model democracy. It was founded upon the Declaration of Independence of 1776, which is an eloquent statement of the inalienable rights and freedoms of the people being guaranteed by a government of the people. Yet a new study conducted by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, academics from Princeton and Northwestern universities, suggests otherwise. The wide ranging study, entitled “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups and Average Citizens”, whose results were published last week, found that of 1,779 key U.S policies, put in place by politicians between 1981 and 2002, overwhelmingly favoured economic elites and organised groups representing business interests over the average citizen.

The findings of the study suggest that the U.S doesn’t quite do what it says on the tin. It is an oligarchy, a country run by and in the interests of a small economically dominant elite, and not a democracy.

The Declaration of Independence, for all its rights based rhetoric, was signed by white male slave owners, who described the original inhabitants of the land they came to occupy, in that very document, as “merciless Indian Savages”. The U.S has ended up being what it originally was.

Back home, I am not aware of any studies but it is clear from lived experience that, whilst we have many of the trappings of democracy, what we have substantially fallen short of the branded image of Uganda being a constitutional democracy.

There is a party in power which has an army, a police force, as well as an extensive secret security and local government infrastructure. It is called a party but in reality it is indistinguishable from the State and its interests are also hard to distinguish from those of few individuals. It is opposed by entities that brand themselves as parties, but whose behaviour suggests that they are often little more than individuals brought together by a common dislike for one individual but with little else in common. The behaviour of politicians from the ruling and opposition parties when things do not go their way in party primaries or in the distribution of “juicy positions” in the government or shadow government gives the lie to the “political party” brand.

So if true democracy is in short supply both at home and abroad what should we do? Should we simply resign ourselves to military or oligarchical rule dressed up in democratic branding? Are we doomed to live forever in countries that have what Prof Gilbert Khadiagala called “fraudulent elections and resultant pseudo democracies”? Call me a perennial optimist but I do not think so. Let us start by educating all of our people about their civic rights and civic duties. Pseudo democracies thrive on ignorance and a lack of vigilance amongst the majority of the population. Once the majority are informed and vigilant, no minority regardless of how violent or rich it may be, can subvert democracy to its own ends. twitter @dfkm1970