What Democracy Is and Isn’t In A Few Choice Quotes

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November 15, 2012 By DavidFK

If there was a competition for best title for a modern non-fiction book, one of my favourites to win would be the title to Ken Livingstone’s autobiographical memoirs: “If Voting Changed Anything, They’d Abolish It![1]”  I like the way it tells a simple and near universal truth, with subtle humour and an intelligent economy with words.  You do not have to agree with Mr. Livingstone’s politics to agree with the thrust of his proposition that in this day of media-driven simple narratives, too many people have been fooled into believing that democracy is coextensive and coterminous with voting.  Another contender, mostly on grounds of ironic humour, would be “All In: The Education of General David Petraeus” by Paula Broadwell, but that’s a story for another day.

Let’s concentrate on democracy in African context. It is not in doubt that most countries in Africa now have regular elections for the Presidency, through the Legislature, and right down to local government officials.  But can we describe what we have as “democracy”?

James Bovard, the libertarian author said, “Democracy must be something more than two wolves and one lamb voting on what to have for dinner.[2] A true democracy cannot simply be about arbitrary majority rule.  Democracy implies and entails more than simply having elections to determine the will of the majority.  True democracy enables the expression of the will of the majority of the people through regular free and fair elections but at the same time is sensitive to, and indeed promotes and protects, the rights of individuals and minorities.

Lord Acton highlighted the danger of the tyranny of the majority as well as democracy’s susceptibility to subversion when he said “The one evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather of that party, not always the majority, that succeeds, by force or fraud, in carrying elections.[3] Here we get a flavour of what happens when the rule of the people, by the people for the people gets subverted by an aggressive, fraudulent and/or violent party.  In this scenario posited by Lord Acton, “democracy” takes the form of rigged elections and lip service to constitutionalism and the rule of law.  A minority short circuits the system and uses the façade of regular elections to gain legitimacy for what is essentially a brutal, kleptocratic, neo-patrimonial regime.

This pseudo democracy is prevalent in Africa where, following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the neo-liberal ideals pushed by the West demand that every country should be a democracy. To fit in wi

General David H. Petraeus, Commanding General Multinational Force – Iraq (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

th the new prevailing trends, many putschists and armed “revolutionaries” who would have otherwise simply declared themselves presidents for life in the past, had to shed the combat fatigues and pretend to engage in democracy. Through force and fraud, they perpetuate themselves in power, all the while professing to be democratically elected.

The finally, a quotation in the form of excellent exchange between two characters, Arthur Dent and Ford Perfect, in Douglas Adams’ science fiction book, “So Long and Thanks For All The Fish, which I must reproduce here, in extenso:

“It comes from a very ancient democracy, you see….” “You mean, it comes from a world of lizards?” “No,” said Ford, who by this time was a little more rational and coherent than he had been, having finally had the coffee forced down him, “nothing so simple. Nothing anything like so straightforward. On its world, the people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people.” “Odd,” said Arthur, “I thought you said it was a democracy.” “I did,” said Ford. “It is.” “So,” said Arthur, hoping he wasn’t sounding ridiculously obtuse, “why don’t the people get rid of the lizards?” “It honestly doesn’t occur to them,” said Ford. “They’ve all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they’ve voted in more or less approximates to the government they want.” “You mean they actually vote for the lizards?” “Oh yes,” said Ford with a shrug, “of course.”

“But,” said Arthur, going for the big one again, “why?”

“Because if they didn’t vote for a lizard,” said Ford, “the wrong lizard might get in.”

Here we see democracy gone cynical. With all the choices being false choices between candidates or parties who or which are more alike than they are different. It is a situation that causes apathy and abject resignation in the majority and causes them to be effectively locked out from the process. This is the case in some countries in Africa and elsewhere in the world, where a small, usually rapacious and unprincipled elite, entrench themselves in power and fool the people into believing that  they can only ever have to choose between the wrong lizard and the right lizard.

Genuine democracy requires more than just elections – and certainly more than false choices between the lizards you know and lizards you don’t.  Democracy requires that people have the genuine and free choice of how and by whom they will be governed.  There must be constitutional limits on governmental power, respect and guarantees for individual and minority rights. There should be  an independent judiciary and responsive institutions that are accountable to all citizens and protect their rights, as well as enforce their obligations, equally and fairly. Certainly no democracy is perfect, but most of the professed democracies on the African continent are very far from perfect.


[2] James Bovard, p. 333 Lost Right :The destruction of American Liberty (1994) ISBN 0312123337 

[3] Lord Acton, The History of Freedom and Other Essays. Section III: Sir  Erskine May’s Democracy in Europe p. 76

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