Africa Should Embrace True Democracy


President John Magufuli said recently that elections were over and the Opposition should wait until 2020 to hold their rallies.

Speaking at State House after receiving the official report of the National Electoral Commission (NEC) on the 2015 General Election, Dr Magufuli said he would not let politicians distract him from his endeavour to deliver on his campaign promises.

He urged Tanzanians to focus on building the nation, saying elections were over and there was no time for cheap and divisive politics.

But the Opposition dismissed President Magufuli’s remarks as unconstitutional, saying they smacked of political intolerance.

The head of State said politicians should either articulate their agendas and ideas in Parliament and other official forums or wait for the next campaign period in 2020.

As the President insists that opposition parties should not derail his well laid plan to build the nation, I think it is time we reviewed the tenets of true political pluralism in the country.

In competitive multi-party politics, the party that is elected to form government seeks to enact into law a number of policies and programs (oftentimes consistent with their election manifesto). On the other hand, Opposition parties are free to criticise the ruling party’s policies, ideas and programs and offer alternatives.

Democratic parties recognise and respect the authority of the elected government even when their party leaders are not in power. This is possible because democratic societies are committed to the values of tolerance, cooperation and compromise.

Democracies recognise that consensus building requires compromise and tolerance. As Mahatma Gandhi famously argued “intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit.”

The notion of a loyal opposition is central to any democracy. It means that all sides in the political debate – however deep their differences – share the fundamental democratic values of freedom of speech, the rule of law and equal protection under the law.

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Parties that lose elections become the opposition. The opposition, then, is essentially a “government-in-the-waiting.”

For a culture of democracy to take hold, opposition parties need to have the confidence that the political system will guarantee their right to organise, speak, dissent and/or criticise the party in power.

Opposition parties also need to be assured that in discourse, they will have a chance to campaign and re-seek the peoples mandate in and through regular, free and fair elections. I think this is how Tanzania should trail.

On a lighter note, African democracies are distinguished by the character of their political parties. They are easily labelled as illiberal civilian autocracies.

These features coupled with emerging so-called dominant ruling parties, demonstrate the inclination towards a new form of ‘modern’ democratic authoritarianism. In other words, the ruling dominant parties are appearing to be a ‘reincarnation’ of the one-party system and military rule that held sway for about three to four decades in Africa.

In the process of this transformation, African ruling parties have been grossly destabilising opposition and perceived dissenters through clientelism, patronage politics and extra-legal means, thereby undermining the provision of social justice in the guise of democratisation.

Sliding back

In the light of this there seems to be a theoretical and empirical lacuna in the discourse of social justice, in explaining the contradictions inherent in safeguarding democracy through undemocratic practices, such as election misconduct, manipulation of judiciary, lack of provision of human rights, assassination and victimisation of political opponents, through which the provision of social justice is undermined.

African countries have returned to democracy about a decade ago, but the continent is sliding towards a one-party system. The abuse of social justice and police brutality, defies any logic of democratisation.

For example, a former army chief and candidate in Congo Republic’s presidential election earlier last year was arrested, his opposition party said last week.

Authorities did not immediately comment on why they had detained General Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko, 69, a power broker in the former French colony’s 1990s civil war.

The government of President Denis Sassou Nguesso has accused Mokoko, a one-time security advisor to the president, of involvement in an alleged coup attempt in 2007. Mokoko’s supporters say the president is trying to stifle dissent.

Sassou Nguesso has ruled the oil producing central African nation for all but five of the past 37 years and won a disputed election in March. Most opposition parties boycotted the vote, although Mokoko ran and came third.

As the year came to a close, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame secured backing for a potential three further terms in office in a referendum with a Soviet Union-style electoral outcome of 98.4 per cent.

The Rwandan electorate is not stupid. Maybe they opted voluntary for stability and the certainty that accompanies the familiar. In other words, they chose security over liberty.

Kagame led Rwanda out of the chaos that followed the 1994 genocide, putting it on a successful course for reform. It seemed that the ends justified the means.

Analysts refer to this as ‘development dictatorship’ and there are reasons to prefer it to anarchy. But Kagame had his hand firmly on the tiller and he wouldn’t let anybody else anywhere near it.

The only genuine opposition party, the Democratic Green Party (DPGR) was muzzled in the true authoritarian tradition and it wasn’t allowed to mount a campaign against the referendum. This was a vote in which Rwandans were offered no choice.

The delicate power balance in Burundi, set out in peace accords mediated by South Africa was stalled. This followed serious political and attempts to change the Constitution so that President Pierre Nkurunziza can serve a third term.

After violence broke out among members of the Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (MSD) and police during a rally on March 8, 2014 MSD members were sentenced to life in prison. Twenty-seven other protesters were sent to jail for between five and 10 years.

Until this time Mzee Benjamin Mkapa’s attempt to restore the war-torn Burundi leaves a lot to be desired. The list of countries in which true democracy is trumped on is too long to fit the editorial space.

Indeed, with regard to the development of dominant parties, the difference between Africa and other established democracies is both technical and methodological.

Technically, in western democracies, the dominant party came last in the chronological development of democracy and it ‘presupposes an advanced stage of organisational differentiation and specialisation.

But in Africa, the emergence of the dominant one party was abrupt and sudden. This was because of the socio-cultural and economic contextual realities of the different countries, which enabled the ruling dominant parties to easily become authoritarian in character and substance.

In many African countries, post-independence ruling parties changed to dominant and authoritarian parties, which remained in power until military coups destroyed their structures. Examples abound: Benin, Burundi, Central African Republic, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Uganda, Mali, Lesotho, Rwanda, Niger, etc. I think Tanzania should not be a replica of these nations.

After the re-introduction of democracy during the third and fourth waves of independence, most ruling parties in Africa are currently ‘reincarnating’ as dominant authoritarian parties.

With this transformational ‘reincarnation’ of ruling parties, social justice and equality are in serious jeopardy.

What is new therefore about contemporary African dominant parties is that unlike their predecessor one-parties, which absolutely outlawed the opposition parties and dissenters, the modern dominant parties, perhaps in view of the changing global political economy, allowed the existence and participation of opposition parties in the democratisation process, and introduced populist policies intended to provide social justice and political equality.


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