Crowds threaten our democracy

Author: Phillip Matogo. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • We must not confuse democratic spectacle with democracy itself. For crowds create an illusion of democracy without necessarily being representative of democratic value.

Late last month, Mr Robert Kyagulanyi, alias Bobi Wine, arrived on Makhan Singh Street, Mbarara City, where he opened National Unity Platform (NUP) party offices before he began his tour of western Uganda.

The huge crowds that greeted Kyagulanyi in Mbarara were in strong evidence. He then moved to eastern, northern and central Uganda where even more crowds gathered and brought business to a standstill. 

Mr Kyagulanyi is a popular man; even though many of his crowds were partly due to the curiosity value attached to his celebrity, not candidacy. Still, his tours were also deeply symbolic.

By beginning them on Makhan Singh Street, Mr Kyagulanyi, deliberately or accidently, claimed the company of Singh, a Punjabi-born Kenyan labour union leader who is credited with establishing the foundations of trade unionism in Kenya. 

What is remarkable about Singh is that he was non-racial in his political outlook. He also, like Jesus Christ, was the son of a carpenter. 

So the symbolism of Mr Kyagulanyi’s opening NUP party offices on a street named after Singh implies his solidarity with the working class, regardless of race or political suasion. And it also charts a messianic connection to higher ideals. 

This alone constructs an underlying permission structure for us to do the same.

That said, we must not confuse democratic spectacle with democracy itself. For crowds create an illusion of democracy without necessarily being representative of democratic value.

To be sure, President Museveni was also greeted by mammoth crowds in 1986. The Washington Post, via a story written by Blaine Harden on January 30, 1986, reported how Mr Museveni spoke to “several thousand jubilant Ugandans who filled a plaza”.

Harden also reported on how Ugandans lapped up Mr Museveni’s “fundamental change speech” with “widespread applause and laughter”.

Although this speech, like Mr Kyagulanyi’s recent speeches, was rhetorically closer to former US president Donald Trump’s inaugural “American Carnage” address than Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream speech”, owing to how it harped on what ails instead of aids the country, we loved it.

Today, Mr Museveni’s regime has picked our national wounds until they’ve reopened; this is why Mr Kyagulanyi is popular. 

Thus our initial overwhelming support for Mr Museveni should bring to mind a Romanian proverb: the change of rulers is the joy of fools.

Indeed, it was also metaphorical crowds which struck up the mantra or slogan ‘four legs good, two legs bad’ in the book Animal Farm.

This is why I am sceptical about the democratic agency of crowds. 

Especially in a polity like ours where the size of the crowd does not calls the shots. Instead, it is he who acknowledges the size of the crowd at the polls who is boss.

Moreover, democracy is based on individual worth. 

Yet crowds are notorious for subsuming this worth in groupthink to the extent that individuals often lose their individuality as a                                           consequence.

When this occurs, individuals are beholden to a herd instinct and cannot take charge of their inner realties by transcending the limitations caused by their outer distractions.

Is this not the reason we are continuously reminded to be ourselves by not following the crowd?

The Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe agrees in his classic book Things Fall Apart, “God did not depend on large crowds. Our Lord Himself stressed the importance of fewness. Narrow is the way and few the number. To fill the Lord’s holy temple with an idolatrous crowd clamouring for signs was a folly of everlasting consequence. Our Lord used the whip only once in His life - to drive the crowd away from His church.”

Mr Philip Matogo is a professional copywriter  
[email protected]