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FULL SPEECH: Kaheru delivers paper at the second international forum on democracy

By Crispin Kugiza Kaheru

The presentation during the event held in Beijing, China, on March 22-23, 2023, below was titled: Reframing Democracy in the Context of a Diverse Human Civilization

Distinguished guests, please allow me to share my profound gratitude with the organisers of the Second International Forum on Democracy; the Shared Human Values.

I come here from Uganda and by extension Africa to share my perspective on how democracy can be reframed in the context of a diverse human civilisation.

Governments that organise communities, have existed for at least 5,000 years. And there have been many experiments to running administrations. For the era we are in, it is ‘democracy’.

Distinguished guests, my foundational and conceptual premise therefore is that genuine democracy should concern itself with protecting the best interests of the people, regardless of their race, gender, sexual-orientation, religion, economic, social or political opinion or class.

Democracy as it is (today):

Today’s widely acknowledged form of democracy continues to suffer from the consequences of its own imperfections.

It is a system of divide and rule; distinctively characterized by competition rather than cooperation; disagreement/opposition rather than consensus; hegemony rather than harmony.

The theoretical underpinning of democracy presupposes organising (through political parties) in order to capture or sustain political power. 

This preconception is not only too prescriptive, but could easily pass off as narrow in scope with little regard for context, culture and civilisation as I will shortly demonstrate.

First, the assumption that the more the competitors for a political office, the more entrenched democracy could be misleading.

Countries with no political parties or other forms of non-conventional political organising are generally seen as authoritarian in nature or categorised under ‘shrinking (civic) space’. 

However, in reality, democratic organising doesn’t have to be exclusively ‘political’ in nature neither does it have to be party-based in the convention sense. 

Secondly, it is possible to successfully organise outside the conventional ‘elitist’ spaces of political parties.

In the Global South where I come from, there’s an abundance of socio-economic existential threats, it therefore makes more meaning to organise along economic and survival interests (for instance through farmers’ formations, traders, healthcare, housing, educational cooperatives etc). 

Thirdly, it is possible to organise society without necessarily extricating the ‘elite’ from the ordinary people (peasants in our case).

Democracy should therefore not be used and defined in a self-interested, opportunistic, and holier-than-thou fashion.

What Democracy realistically ought to be:

Having briefly described the imperfections and consequences in the system we have subjected ourselves to, here are my quick takes on what democracy should be, in the context of diverse human civilisation:

The people are central:  Democratic organising should be moulded around the function of building constituencies and representing the interests of those constituencies.  Therefore, depending on the primary goal, communities can determine how they mobilise. 

If the primary goal is political, then people can organise through political configurations; if the goal is to achieve economic emancipation, then society can mobilise through economic and business-oriented formations.

 However, if the primary end game is to achieve social security, then communities can choose to mobilise through social configurations. 

The choice of how society organises and cooperates for that matter, must always be determined by the objective to be met at a particular point in time – and by the people themselves. 

Africa though not homogeneous is a communitarian continent for example.  We are communal in our concept of life.

We lie in that unique phase where the primary objective is socio-economic transformation. For us, therefore, the system of governance should be one that respects our identities as molded by community relationships – and one that propels the people to meet their vital socio-economic objectives.

Rule of law is critical:  Democracy is rooted in the philosophy that every man or woman for that matter desires to have his or her own liberties, to think and act as he or she wishes in society where one man’s desires may conflict with those of others.  This is idealist but not realist. In reality, this could be a recipe for disorder or chaos. 

If this prescribed system as was well marketed was a guarantor of stability and progress, it begs the question, how come, when applied as standardized in many parts of the world today, it, quite often threatens the very ideals of stability for which it was adopted? 

Look at the security threat level in countries going towards elections; whether in Asia, Africa or on any other continent.

With elections comes the fear of intimidation, violence, harassment and general insecurity – cyber, physical or otherwise. 

The point I am stressing here is; even though electoral democracy is competitive, it also remains integrally divisive, hegemonic and one could easily argue, it is characteristically conflict-ridden. 

Social identity tensions escalate during elections, economic disparities and exploitative tendencies come to the fore during electoral seasons. 

Democracy therefore ought to be tailored – and defined through a strict body of binding customs, practices, or rules enforced strictly to deliver discipline and order.

If for instance we were to adhere to the ideal of absolute free press, how would you then protect society against salacious content in today’s digital era?

Real democracy must therefore be better able to compel specific right behaviour from citizens.

Rule of law, stability and order is a product of strong leadership:  Distinguished members, stability and order are more likely to result from ‘authoritative’ leadership that drives compromise, consensus, cooperation and unity of purpose than from mobilizing people towards choices of ‘common good’.

In order to preserve a sense of one-ness, strong leadership must prevail, break the tie – and determine what ‘good’ or ‘destiny’ should be pursued.  

Leadership entails taking tough, sometimes unpopular decisions and not being afraid of falling out of favor. 

Strong leadership is one with insight that the electorate may or may not exercise precisely what is expected of it.

Democracy is bigger than the political class:  The guarantees of democracy are intended to ensure no ethnic, geographic or class, dominates or exploits others. 

However, the same democracy makes the choice of government an affair run through and by, the ‘political class’ — with the political class exploiting others. 

This contradicts the goal.  Democracy should be an affair of social, economic and political classes – all retaining a stake – through consensus. 

Citizens should responsibly and dutifully participate in the life of their society. Democracy should be about access to education, greater job security, more decent incomes, improved social security, enhanced medical and health services, more comfortable living conditions, and a cleaner and more beautiful environment. These are not decisions that can only be left to the political class.

Concluding Observations:

Let me wind up by pointing out the following:

  • Democracy is a social process that requires acculturation; it is not a state.  It must be organic.
  • Democracy is the right of the people in every country, rather than a prerogative of a few.
  • In the richly diverse world, democracy comes and can come in many forms & flavours, like ice-cream.
  • Each society ought to craft the democracy that resonates with its past, present & future it wants.  
  • Democracy should be given a chance to respectfully evolve as societies and the world change.
  • Through democracy, people are simply searching for something more down-to-earth: a problem-solving system of governance from within.
  • With the hindsight of modern civilisation, and given that the world today is not unipolar, bi-polar but rather multi-polar, each society can realise a system that responds to its peculiar context. 

-For God and My Country-

Kaheru is a Commissioner, Uganda Human Rights Commission

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