Democracy means whatever you want it to mean

04Mar 2016
Richard Mngazija
The Guardian
Missing Link
Democracy means whatever you want it to mean

JANUARY 29, 1986. What was I doing on that day? Where was I? In Dar es Salaam or back in my village in Lushoto? After so many years, and as you would expect, my memory is hazy.

These days, 30 years on, the brain cells aren’t so sharp. I would guess that I went to work (at ST) and then went home, late, had a few drinks at the Double Two Bar near Fire Brigade (now, alas no longer here), and crawled into bed in my house in Upanga.

And what about you, reader? Where were you? (If,of course, you were even born). There is, however, one event that took place on that day of which I am certain.

I have been reading about it all week. January 29, 1986 was the day that Yoweri Museveni assumed the presidency in Uganda.

President Museveni’s address on Nebanda's death of who was one of the Ugandan vocal legislator critics of his government once said and I quote:

“When I was a boy and would come from Tanzania all the way to wage the liberation struggle and who would know I had gone into danger or not”?

How long ago is that? Thirty years. How many leaders have come and gone during his time in power? Let me see if I can count them.

Mwalimu is in his grave, no-one knows where Gaddafi is buried, Mobutu is a faded and tarnished memory. Reagan and Thatcher and Mitterrand and Mandela, all of them are now history.

As my Latin teacher was fond of repeating ‘Sic Transit Gloria Mundi’ ( Everything, even fame, is temporary). Museveni, however, defies both logic and, it appears, the law.

He has won his fourth incumbency amid a storm of accusations of foul play. The question I ask is: does it matter? Would Uganda, our neighbour, be better served if the election had not been bought and if the opposition candidate Kizza Besigye had triumphed?

Immediately I can see you foaming at the mouth shaking your fist at me and asking me whether or not I had ever come across the notion of democracy and fair play.

Of course I have. But isn’t it time for us to analyse the meaning of the word democracy? Is democracy the same the world over?

Does democracy come in a fit-everyone-every-nation kit? Do some nations, those who so often like to preach democracy at us lower beings here on this continent, enjoy a higher form of democracy?

Or is democracy no more than an expensive sham, a placebo designed to keep us all quiet and in our place? Are there countries and cultures not yet prepared for democracy?

And is Uganda one of those? First, let me say that for democracy to function properly, there has to be transparency and an independent judiciary.

Do we have such a thing in this country? I will allow you to answer that one yourself. Next is democracy in Africa the same as democracy in America?

A good question because it is the Americans who never seem to cease telling us that we need to treasure our hard fought freedoms.

The Americans have a constitution that, supposedly, underpins the rights of all its citizens. And yet this same constitution allows them to bear arms.

What is the consequence of this? A trigger-happy society where almost every month there is news of yet another mass killing perpetrated by a mentally unstable member of this ‘free’ society.

The American perception of democracy differs from that of Europe which would no more allow its citizens to bear arms as a right than to expect them not to pay their taxes.

And here we come to a problem with democracy in the West. Because it is clear that the richer a man ( or a company) is, the more rights he has.

Google does not pay tax if it can help it. But the poor man does. A bank can owe billions and be bailed out by government which really means the tax payer. but woe betide a poor man getting into debt.

No-one will come to his help. Donald Trump, a billionaire with a curiously fashioned quiff, can buy his way to the threshold of the White House.

But the man in the street in Washington DC must pay his dues or go to prison or face bankruptcy and equally he has no chance of ever standing for the presidency.

So this is democracy in action (Western Style). Now, what about democracy in Africa? Let us take the case of Museveni.

What would happen to Uganda, at the hub of a notoriously fragile region, if he had not taken steps to ensure his return to office?

Washington may express its disapproval and make threats to shut off aid and even perhaps impose sanctions, but we are all aware this is rhetoric, mere posturing.

The last thing the American State Department wants is another civil war breaking out in East Africa. So we can assume there is in DC and, more to the point, at CIA HQ in Langley, tacit approval for Museveni’s florid demonstration that democracy in Uganda is a dead duck.

Ah, but what happens if street protests refuse to lie down and the opposition becomes more and more vocal, gathers strength and a wave of popular unrest sweeps the Kampala streets?

This is, indeed, the nightmare scenario that must now be keeping a few US diplomats and spy chiefs from their slumbers. And if it isn’t waking them from their dreams, then it should.

Can you imagine it? An African Spring bursting into bloom right on our doorstep. Good Lord, we’ve already got a simmering pan of hatred about to blow up in Burundi.

To the north and the west there is trouble with fundamentalist fighters who are committing atrocities under the banner of Isis or Al Qaeda.

And think of all the aid Museveni is putting into South Sudan. And now Uganda could be on the brink! So, the way I see it is simple.

The idea of democracy is not the same in Africa as it is in Europe and America. Their democracy depends on rich men being prepared to spend money (usually not their own) on getting elected.

Our democracy depends on the poor not getting too angry and upsetting the equilibrium. What is the answer? Well, it’s tricky. Can Museveni rein in all the opposition?

Can he keep the streets quiet? Can he rely upon his army? And with the oil price too low for governments, will the economy sustain him? I think it all adds up to what the intelligence community like to call a ‘perfect storm.’ Oh dear, batten down the hatches and watch this space.