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Kenya Reveals Africa's Mask of Democracy
[Opinion] 'Democrazy? Dem all crazy, what a crazy demonstration!'
Masimba Biriwasha (simplebiri)     Email Article  Print Article 
Published 2008-01-03 14:58 (KST)   
In Kenya as in many parts of Africa, elections are a messy and bloody affair, often geared to promote the interests of "big political men" rather than the public good.

According to media reports, so far more than 300 people have been killed and 100,000 people displaced because of widespread violence following the election results in Kenya.

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As Kenya totters in its own blood, its neighbors are beginning to feel the heat.

"Kenya's economy, one of the biggest on the continent, is unraveling -- with fuel shortages rippling across East Africa because the roads in Kenya, a regional hub, are too dangerous to use," reports the International Herald Tribune.

The elections which were supposed to signal democratic maturity in Kenya have only exposed the fissures of the democratic process itself. There appears to be no let up to the chaos that is currently raging across the country as Kenya셲 opposition leader Raila Odinga continues to call for mass protests and unwilling to either negotiate or recognize the presidency of Kibaki.

If anything, Kenya셲 mayhem, triggered by incumbent President Mwai Kibaki's disputed recent re-election is symptomatic of the numerous challenges that face the democratic project in many parts of Africa.

The electoral fallout in Kenya echoes many of the institutional and politico-cultural problems that have bedeviled Africa셲 democratic aspirations via elections.

In particular, the Western model of political democracy has largely served to promote antagonisms rather than unity of purpose within African societies, already fractured by "divide and rule" policies of the colonial past. The competetive nature of elections in a place where poverty is endemic has meant that only those with access to national coffers have a large chance to be elected.

The nature of politics is usually very vindictive and lacking in substance to project the national vision.

In a revealing statement, when Nigeria's late popular musician Fela Anikulapo Kuti was asked what he thought of elections in Africa, he fumed "Democrazy? Dem all crazy, what a crazy demonstration!"

In the 1990s, many African nations -- previously under military or authoritarian civilian governments -- were hailed for holding multiparty elections. But from Angola to Zimbabwe, though there has been a huge investment in democratic processes, elections are more often than not a cause of social, political and economic disharmony.

Many of Africa셲 ordinary citizens lack trust in the electoral processes of their countries because as history has consistently shown those in power manipulate electoral systems to their favor.

Elections are usually fraudulent and violent putting the Western type democratic project in serious jeopardy. Incumbent governments design institutional and legal instruments that promote their own survival in an election.

During elections, ruling parties engage in stuffing of ballot boxes, vote-buying and intimidation of voters using state apparatuses, including the armed forces. Incumbent political regimes are so determined to win elections that they forgo civil liberties that are so critical for building a democratic state in the first place. Media and freedom of expression is often stifled and the political playing field favors only the incumbent.

To complicate matters, political parties are often organized along tribal lines which only serves to expose antagonistic differences as opposed to addressing real issues that affect the ordinary people. Politicians regard elections as a fight to have access to national coffers as opposed to seeking a mandate to serve the common good.

Clearly, in Africa, the idea of multi-party political participation, elections and free market economics is not sufficient to build a sustainable democracy. What is required is an institutional overhaul that will help to enrich and broaden democracy in the continent.

There is need to engender a culture of openness, accountability, and tolerance, and an attitude that holds public office up to the highest ideals of serving humanity.

"Democratisation is not only a concept, nor is it synonymous with multi-partyism," states Professor Ben O. Nwabueze's book in a book titled "Democratisation."

"It is also concerned with certain conditions of things, conditions such as a virile civil society, a democratic society, a free society, a just society, equal treatment of all citizens by the state, an ordered, stable society, a society infused with the spirit of liberty, democracy, justice and equality."

The mask of democracy which Africa has experienced in the last two decades characterized by competitive, periodic, inclusive and definitive elections has not served the public good.

According to Reverend Jose Belo Chipenda, General Secretary, All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC) Western-style democracy "places people into artificial antagonistic boxes, turns friends into enemies, and aims at arousing unnecessary competition."

Africans need to look seriously to their own traditions for political development, and incorporate that into the Western-style democratic framework. In other words, Africans must build the behaviors, practices, and norms that can help to foster the democratic culture.

Prosperity, progress and peace is indeed an African possibility but the Africans will have to define it by critically looking at themselves. In particular, Africans need to re-examine how history and Western actors have shaped African institutions and political cultures to the detriment of Africans.

Hopefully, the struggle in Kenya is not in vain and will open a new chapter of compromise and tolerance, but more importantly, of utter respect for democratic processes in Africa by all its citizenry.
©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Masimba Biriwasha

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