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Is it time to support liberal autocracies?

By Yusuf Serunkuma

What many advocates of democracy forget is that democracy is one of the many forms of leadership. All leaderships or governments aim at serving the good of the people. Democracy would have been unnecessary if it were unable to serve the common interests of people in particular geographical and political areas. So what happens if an autocracy, another type of leadership, served the interests of the people, to their satisfaction?

Writing in the Journal of Democracy in 2009, Stanford scholar Larry Diamond observed that the continuing absence of even a single democratic regime in the Arab world is a striking anomaly ” a principal exception to the globalisation of democracy. He points out religion, Islam, and an unbroken dependency on oil as the reasons for this ‘anomaly’.

Indeed, these factors have produced not democracies ” but a different form of leadership: a rule of the few, by the few, working for the majority.

Since the end of colonialism, many African countries have been struggling to embrace and understand democracy. Student debates at university often rotate around refinement of a form of leadership ” democracy and not autocracy despite its full time presence in most countries. Indeed, we have never believed that a discussion to refine the rule of the few can be helpful. Understanding democracy is an ongoing process which apparently is likely to come later, not sooner.

Often, Western democracies continue to both forcibly and persuasively ” through aid, bribes, sanctions or open invasions ” to push the democratic agenda on countries where other forms of leadership exist. Of course many of us have not asked: For aid dependent Africa, and the oil rich nations in the Middle East, isn’t the rule of the few a better form of administration as opposed to democracy ” the rule of the crowd?

Good governments are often expected to produce among others, good public service delivery; provision of healthcare, education, infrastructural constructions, free trade and a respect for human rights. What has often impeded public service delivery and respect for human rights is a list of bad manners: corruption and greed, limited skills, tribalism and sanctions. With these as the main challenges to better lives in a society, is democracy the best way to achieving them? Can’t nations thrive under liberal autocracies?

The lead and single marker of democracy in Africa has been an insistence clean election of the heads of state. This works on a rather naive assumption that all other elements of societal progress change with such democratic transition. Many author-fans of democracy even hope that freedoms and civil liberties improve naturally after a change of leadership.

Although, I do not underestimate the power and success of democracy, I have started to think it is woefully weak. And it is sometimes quietly dangerous to the lives of the people, especially in Africa and in several peasant communities such as communities where majority of the people are inadequately educated, poverty strapped, diseased, etc.

For countries like Uganda, Rwanda, Chad, Libya, etc whose budgets are over 50 per cent funded by aid or 90 per cent dependent on oil revenue, democracy is unhelpful. What we know is that democracy is demanded, not given as is oil and aid. In aid and oil dependent countries, leaderships demand literary nothing from the publics and so they are not pressed to give anything in return. This therefore seeks a mechanism to propel them to give services and the related details without being demanded.

There is a difference however between the treatment of democracy and autocracy that needs to be emphasised: as opposed to democracy that continues to receive support at all levels, autocracy is and has been a lot interrupted. Zambian scholar Dambisa Moyo writes in Dead Aid as to how Africa needs, in order to transcend its stagnation, not strong institutions but strong men; ‘benevolent dictators’. I argue that this context of “benevolence’ is a marker of patriotism- that’s being able to work and rally the general populace behind a common object, without suspicion of intent” something close to the slogan’we live together, we die together’.

Paul Kagame became president of Rwanda after the 1994 genocide. He has been so for over 15 years now. By all ‘clear democratic standard’, 15 years in office is not democracy, but rather an autocracy. The constitution aside, there is a nagging feeling that exceeding ten years for a president is not democracy. But as opposed to other autocrats, working under hatred from the rest of the world, Kagame has picked his country from near extinction to commendable progress. He has improved the standards of the lives of his compatriots” visibly better than his neighbour in Uganda whose leadership helplessly wanders between democracy and crude dictatorship. Many have hailed Kagames’s Rwanda a success story. CNN’s Fareed Zakaria wrote in Newsweek in late 2009 calling Rwanda ‘Africa’s success story’ and lauded the country’s leader, exclusively.

As is for Zimbabwe, Uganda has had a troubled politics since independence. All its leaders have tried dictatorship. 1986 brought in President Museveni who in an attempt to build a strong democracy, started with the economy and introduced various reforms. But his democracy has genuinely blundered and has had to record retardation in some cases. And because of the woes of democracy, Museveni has often tried dictatorship, but indeed shyly.

Dictators who embrace the cover of democracy pay so dearly and end with nothing. They are often filled with paranoia, anxiety and are ready to do anything to popularise their regimes. Because President Museveni heads a largely peasant community, a peasant parliament, he has had to concede to a lot of naivety in the name of liberalism. I believe Museveni would be personally opposed to creation of new districts, but being a liberal demand of the people, he concedes. A new district comes with opportunities for ‘unearned eating’: an MP, a CAO, an RDC, a Chairman of the District, a District Veterinary officer, etc. This means an extra cost on the government budget. This is the price of disrupting a dictatorship.


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