The transformation of democracy from a political form to a religious movement
THE LAST WORD | Andrew M. Mwenda | Last week, I had an encounter with a democracy jihadist called Jeffrey Smith during a debate on Twitter (X) Spaces. The next day, he took to Twitter (X) accusing me of supporting despotism in Uganda. Smith, a white American, thinks he cares more about freedom in Uganda than me. Never mind his fellow black American citizens, after 300 years of slavery and another 100 years under apartheid now live under a regime of mass incarceration. There are more blacks in American jails than in college. This is not to mention native Americans who suffered genocide under America’s “democracy,” and today live in native reserves considered “dependent nations” without any constitutional guarantees but as wards of congress.
Yet Smith does not see the need to struggle for the rights of his fellow citizens in America. Instead, he, and many of his ilk, see themselves as saviours sent by (God-knowswho) to save Africans from despotism. While democracy in America has kept blacks under an iron fist, and native Americans in reserves, Smith finds his moral calling in Africa. His role is to fight and liberate us from our leaders. He does not see Africans as active participants in the struggle for their emancipation. Instead, he sees them as passive spectators receiving international charity from him. This is colonialism 101 but he cannot see the parallels between him and his forebearers.
In the 19th Century, white people came to Africa and colonized us claiming it was for our own good: teach us Christianity (to emancipate our souls); Civilization (to save us from our primitive ways) and Commerce (to liberate us from poverty). Many spent their fortunes, expended their energies and risked their lives to realize these noble goals in their imagination. Behind these high-sounding intentions lay the power of their governments and business interests who wanted to dominate us in order to exploit us. The result was colonial terror and genocide.
This attitude of white saviours has not gone away. Instead, it has changed from the religious to the secular, from Christianity and Civilization to Democracy and Human Rights. Democracy has been elevated from a political system specific to a particular time and place to a universal system applicable to every country regardless of history, culture and circumstances. While the secular priesthood (activists and academics) promotes democracy ideologically [perhaps driven by high ideals], its governments and their business interests exploit this idealism to mask their agenda of domination and exploitation. Thus, behind the idealism of Jeffrey Smith (the David Livingstone of our time) lies more sinister motives.
Smith speaks like a religious crusader. He pulls “evidence” from thin air and makes wild assertions. In the Twitter (X) debate, he claimed that there is “a lot of evidence” that democracies grow faster economically and deliver better healthcare and education than despotic governments. Here, Smith, reduces governments to a dichotomy of democracy and despotism. He also seeks to justify democracy by its outcomes. Sadly, historic and contemporary evidence disproves his thesis. All of today’s rich countries (US$25,000 in per capital income) became rich before they became democracies. Democracy was a byproduct of economic development not a cause of it
Today, China, a non-democracy, has been growing much faster than India, a democracy. The “despotic” state of China also outperforms its democratic Indian counterpart in the delivery of health, education and infrastructure; and is even more active and effective in fighting corruption. According to the IMF, the 10 fastest growing economies in the world over the last 5, 10, 15 and 20 years have been dominated by governments that are “despotic.” In Africa, the 10 fastest growing economies of the last 5, 10, 15 and 20 years have been dominated by Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Mozambique and Uganda that are “despotic.” Democracies, such as Kenya and Ghana appear in a minority.
Historical and contemporary evidence suggests that when countries gain a certain level of development (with a larger educated middle class) they tend to grow towards democracy. Our countries are agrarian and poor, with nominal per capita incomes below US$2,000, low levels of education and high levels of ethnic fractionalization. Their aspiration is to grow into rich countries with per capita incomes above US$25,000. Prof Paul Collier, basing on statistical evidence from around the world, concluded that democracy tends to be destabilizing when per capita income is below US$2,800. Above that, authoritarianism becomes destabilizing. For democracy lovers like me, this is disappointing, even depressing. But it is important to separate one’s values from one’s analysis.
During the Twitter (X) Spaces, I asked Smith to name just one country that was poor, began as democracy and became rich. He named Ghana and Mauritius. Sadly, Ghana has a per capita income of US$2,000, Mauritius, US$11,500. None qualifies to have grown rich at least not in the way Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan transformed under some form of despotism. But even if we were to accept Mauritius, it is clearly an exception that proves the rule. There are 42 countries with nominal per capita income above US$25,000. None transformed through democracy
I don’t think Smith is a bad person with evil intentions against our country. Neither do I think he is a racist – at least not consciously. He may be a good person with a genuine desire to see Ugandans live in freedom. I share his aspirations. I am a Westernized African in my intellectual tastes. However, I recognize that my aspirations have to be tempered by reality. In an ideal world, I would love to see liberal democracy everywhere. But it is wrong (and even dangerous) to insist that such an ideal can thrive in every country at any time and under any circumstances. Besides, none of the Western countries that preach democracy practice it according to the ideal.
Smith and other democracy mongers need to learn before they lecture. No political form is eternal with universal application. All are products of their time and circumstances. Democracy was born in a very specific context. It has worked there because it evolved organically out of that context. Yet is not clear its future is certain or guaranteed. The factors that produced it and have sustained it cannot continue indefinitely. Democracy became dominant only after 1945 in large part because of continually rising incomes and reducing inequality. Since 1980, we have experienced growing income inequality and growing frustration with democracy in the West. Right wing movements hostile to it are surging. Before the West can prescribe democracy for everyone, let them look at themselves first.