Alex Ndungu Njeru: Why Weak Democracy will be the Bane of the East African Community

A few months ago I had the privilege of attending an open lecture by the famous pro-liberal democracy theorist Professor Francis Fukuyama. Fukuyama, burst into the global limelight with the publishing of his book, “The End of History and The Last Man,” in 1992. Contextually set during the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of USSR, the book theorized that Western liberal democracy and Free Market capitalism had relegated communism and other forms of social economic ordering to the gutters of mankind’s history.

For the critical acclaim the book got, it did get criticism with equal measure, critics accused the Fukayama’s theory of lacking cultural relativity and venerating Western values a tad too much. Of particular concern was the book’s obsession with the evolution towards democracy as the most desirable form of human government or evolution towards “Denmark”, Fukuyama’s own quintessential example of an ideal democracy. Well, since 1992, democracies rose and collapsed in newly independent post-soviet societies and recovering Socialist states, and then China happened. China seemed, still seems to be the very embodiment of Fukayama’s anti-thesis. A colossal mass of state that has lifted billions out of poverty without either pandering to Western-style liberal democracy nor free-market capitalism. So much so that in lieu of developments spanning a quarter century after his maiden book had prompted a lecture with the title, “Is democracy under recession.”

After his lecture, one gentleman did rise up and asked whether Africa needed democracy or “visionary dictators”, citing the all too familiar Paul Kagame from Rwanda and the late Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore as evidence of the latter’s worth.

Surprisingly there is not a region that Fukuyama’s lecture could be more relevant and surprisingly timely than East Africa. The Eastern Africa Community has invested a lot of effort on the economic integration front since. Surprisingly not a lot has happened on the social-cultural integration front. There has been a conspicuous absence of the evolution of common synthesis and convergence of political culture, which is baffling given that differences of ideological and philosophical nature are the same ones that caused the original post independent community to wither and break-up in 1977. Indeed, the evolution of democratic practice beyond the often farcical ‘elections’ in the region has been lacking. The overriding sentiment has been that democracy is an unnecessary nuisance, which should be relegated to the periphery in the face of much more urgent goals of economic growth and integration, or is it? Are the values of democracy and economic growth mutually exclusive? Are societies like the Eastern African Community faced with a trade-off between the two?

Take Burundi for example, where the neo-despot Pierre Nkurunziza has elected himself beyond the constitutional two-term in office effortlessly. Although the EAC’s heads of states, did put in half-hearted attempts to put Nkuruzinza’s third-term ambitions to bed, the moral basis upon which this would have happened was questionable, given that it is that the other EAC presidents have indiscretions of their own. Kagame has all but succeeded in earning himself an extra-constitutional 7-year term in office, with the preposterous claim that only 10 voters in a country of 3.6 million voters opposed his third-term bid. In Uganda, a country the former US ambassador described as an “African Success Past its Time”, President Yoweri Museveni (71) will have spent 30 years in power by May of 2016, yet he is seeking to extend his stay in power to 35 years. Museveni who transitioned from a military ruler into a civilian president after the promulgation of a new constitution in 1996 seeks to change the same constitution to give him an extra term. A few weeks ago Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta gave a speech in the Ugandan parliament in which he chastised the opposition and then add fire to the pro-third-term tirade.

Uhuru himself has explicated all signs of a despot in the making. Save for Kenya’s unforgiving political culture, it would not be un-imaginable for Uhuru’s mandarins to suggest a third term if he does win his re-election in 2017.

On its part, Tanzania is a curious case of a country where the political elite decided it was much more economical to share out political largesse than fight for them. Although the country transitioned into a multi-party democracy in 1992, it has been turned into a De facto one-party state owing to the Chama Cha Mapinduzi hegemony over the political system. Only recently has CCM’s long-term rule become threatened by Edward Lowasa, a former Prime Minister defection from CCM to an opposition coalition after a protracted nomination process for CCM’s presidential ticket in the October 2015 election. On their part Tanzanians are unique for their political servility, unlike their neighbors up North, they have developed a submissive political culture that allows political leaders to get away with political misdemeanors without substantial political pressure.

Contrary to popular opinion, the biggest existential threat to the EAC as a functional social-economic community lies not in the economic nationalism of its people, but in the conscious lack of the cultivation of a common political culture. The EAC lacks the adoption of irreducible standards of democracy, pluralism and rule of law. Indeed some of the reasons the European Union ticks, not only lies in stringent applications of rules on such issues such as democracy, rule of law and human rights, it also lies in a pretty homogenous value system, held by majority of the EU’s citizens. Some of the reasons, fissures have started occurring from countries like Greece, lie in the latter’s wish-washy political system, that gives politicians much more discretion, than in any other country within the Union.

By Ndung’u Njeru

Research & Programs Manager: Eastern Africa Policy Centre|.