The problem with promoting democracy

Saturday April 17 2021

Author, Moses Khisa. PHOTO/FILE

By Moses Khisa

In 1999, the Indian thinker and public intellectual, Amartya Sen, noted that democracy was the most important universal value to have spread around the world in the 20 Century. This was a provocative proposition but one that was in line with a widely held belief in the 1990s that Western ideals of free markets and political freedom had triumphed over the communist alternative championed by the Soviet Union (USSR). 

As the Soviet Bloc disintegrated at the start of the final decade of the last century, and the Cold War between the US and USSR receded, there was a palpable celebration of the ostensible triumph of freedom over repression, right over wrong, light over darkness and progress over retrogress. 
The American scholar, Francis Fukuyama, captured this sense of triumphalism in his famous ‘end of history’ thesis – the claim that after a long battle with its competitors, finally, liberal democracy and free market economics had emerged victorious. Question settled, for posterity.

In the decades since Fukuyama’s sweeping assertion, debate has raged. History did not after all end in 1989 especially considering that Western-style liberal democracy has not quite brought the entire world under its unquestionable sway. In fact, quite to the contrary, there have been significant setbacks and rollback including among Western nations. 

Any claim to democracy as a universal value of the 20 Century comes down to the events of the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. This war brought to an end colonial empires and the birth of new independent nations.  Colonialism was by definition undemocratic and coercive. Its formal end, thus, marked a fundamental transformation. Before and during WWII, more than half of the world’s landmass and peoples were under forceful European colonial occupation yet, ironically, the British and French drafted colonial subjects into metropolitan armies to fight Adolf Hitler’s fascism and aggression in Europe. 

European colonial power triumphed during the war, but their victory fired off intrepid demands for self-determination in the colonies. These demands swirled into movements that were both unstoppable and unrelenting. 
If we take the basic understanding of democracy as a procedure for acquiring the right to govern through the popular will of the people, expressed in an open and free election, most former colonies in Africa attained independence as relatively democratic polities in the 1960s.  However, it was not too long before a turn to different stripes of autocratic rule often overdetermined by the dynamics of the Cold War calculations. 

Fast forward to the post-Cold War era and the US as the sole superpower that assumed the moral responsibility of promoting freedom and democratic values around the world.  To those ideologically and intellectually committed to the idea of democracy, however defined, to which group I assign myself, it is unproblematic to argue for democratic practice all around the world. Yet, activities and programmes that seek to preach and promote democracy around the world reveal all sorts of practical and empirical deficiencies. 


For starters, the focus on procedure, on the motions of multiparty competition for political office and elite contestations for power without substantive impact on people’s livelihoods makes democracy open to derision from disillusioned masses. 
The thrill of casting one’s vote and getting your candidate or party to victory can be surreal and exhilarating, but the realisation that democracy does not serve one’s material needs gives way to clamours for cheap populism and dangerous demagoguery. 

Perhaps most important is the fact promoting democracy from the outside is patently doomed precisely because democracy must necessarily be an internal and organic process, borne of local contests and rooted in localised cultural landscapes. 

The feasibility of democratic practice depends on specific and contextual conditions. These cannot be superimposed from the outside. The countries that lead the way in promoting democracy, or what my colleague Dr Golooba-Mutebi characterises as ‘merchandising democracy’, did not import democracy, they grew it from within. In addition to the sociocultural environment, it is impossible to deepen democratic government without a functional state and efficient system of managing public affairs. 

This is a most basic lesson but one that advocates and activists of democracy are often blind to especially when they overzealously push for elections and competition for public offices without due regard to whether or not there is sufficient infrastructure in place to manage the processes.  No less important, from the point of view of the Western pro-democracy advocate is the question of consistence. Why does it make sense to promote democracy in Sudan and not Saudi Arabia?