False Assumptions and Beliefs about Modern democracy

Wed, 14 Apr 2010 Source: Amponsah, John

by John Amponsah

Some people on this forum (Ghanaweb), when they make comments, sound as if they are so enamoured by what they think is the empowerment of regular citizens through western style democracy that they are very quick to put down our traditional systems of government. Some of these people fail to realise that democracy has time and time again (history has shown) turned out to be yet another illusion of "government for the people by the people" because it has not been “for the people” and it has not been “by the people”. In principle, western style democracy sounds good, in practise it rarely works on the national level the way the idea purports to have it work. I look at most western democratic countries and very few of them are working democracies the way the idea is meant to work (examples – some Scandinavian countries come close to this ideal). In fact democracy as it exists among most 'developed' nations can be oppressive for some of the few individuals who really care about active governance.

In my view democracy is not sacrosanct. In an ideal democracy, all citizens will be incredibly well educated and incredibly pro-active. They will make sure that their government representatives truly represent what they say they stand for and they will also ensure that government does not exercise powers beyond what is entrusted to them by an intelligent and empowered people.

Yet democracy as it exists today in many countries has become a means for some representatives in governments to hoodwink those they are meant to represent. Why do I say this? Some people vote for presidential candidates based on what these candidates say, yet they do not then follow up on the activities of their president (if he or she is successful) to ensure that these campaign promises are fulfilled. The popular Barack Obama is yet to fulfil a good number of the high flying promises he made before coming into power: a) I will bring the soldiers home from Iraq after 16 months (broken) b) I will close Guantanamo bay (not yet fulfilled)...etc. To his credit, he is working on medicare and also on nuclear arms reduction with former soviet countries, among other things

The African traditional system of government is built upon the idea of a leader guided by his elders and other advisers. This is our system. There is accountability. Western style democracy is also meant to have accountability. However in many supposedly 'developed' western countries, smart politicians usurp the power given to them by the people by introducing insidious motions into parliament which do not represent “the will of the people” who voted them in but which represent private interest groups. In some 'developed' western countries, parliamentarians who sometimes vote on these issues do not even read some of these motions. These motions, some of which are heavily supported by private lobbies and interest groups, then get made into laws that affect EVERYONE! Who 'wins'? Those private interest groups and the politicians whose pockets sometimes get lined with £, $ or €, or in our case, GH?.

Right here in Ghana we had professor Walter Alhassan being a representative of Monsanto-Cargill's Clive Owen, head of the 'non-profit' organization ISAAA. Prof Alhassan and his cronies have been heavily involved in lobbying parliament to craft legislation aimed at making it easier for genetically modified crops to be grown in Ghana. On the other hand you had activists who try to provide facts to parliamentarians so they can make informed decisions, and who try to educate the general public.

How many citizens are pro-active enough to follow laws that are forwarded by parliamentarians and discussed by them? How many citizens who passionately vote for the few mainstream options actually follow up that vote with a close observation of the leader who has been elected to vote for them and the team working under that leader?

So if you think because the western style of government is more structurally sophisticated, it is essentially 'better' than our traditional forms of government then you probably believe in democracy, but are you pro-active as well? Do you follow the edicts of parliament that interest you? Do you make your voice felt by contacting parliamentarians who represent you if their actions in government are at odds with what they promised to represent?

What is my overarching point? In principle western style democracy sounds good. In practise, it has many potential flaws if it is not run in the way it is designed to run. It makes certain assumptions about the people who are supposed to make the system work. What often turns out to be the case is that only a few end up being pro-active about the machinations of government outside the executive body. These few tend to be activists as well as private lobby groups. The average citizen who should be checking that government remains "for the people and by the people", history has shown, becomes pro-active only during election time. Yes, they may complain when they hear something in the news which goes against what the government is doing but few among the complainers will then go the extra step to research the issue, write letters to parliamentarians etc.

Like any system of government, democracy can be abused.

Personally I advocate minimal government where individual citizens are given greater personal responsibility for handling their affairs, where there are not too many complicated laws that then start to confuse the populace and where limited government is well monitored to ensure that it correctly represents the needs of the people for which that government exists in the first place.

Unfortunately it seems to me that in some countries people become afraid of their governments, forgetting that governments exist to serve the people, not the other way round. When people are pushed too far by corrupt governments not listening to their representatives, we see situations like what recently has been occurring in Kyrgyzstan. In many western countries that I have personally observed, people have become so tamed (and are so well controlled) by their governments that you will not see something like Kyrgyzstan or Thailand happening there. I am not calling for frequent revolution to occur as the way for disgruntled citizens to get their voices heard. I am saying that it will be great for all the believers and proponents of western style democratic government to also make sure that the system they so much love and believe in works well by continuing to be pro-active throughout the tenure of any western style democratic government, not only during election time.

In spite of what I have written here I will say that Ghana as a nation is doing well with our brand of adopted western style democracy. At least during election time we have been able to show the world that we can conduct ourselves in a civil manner. In addition to this spirit of good conduct (in general) during elections, it will be an added bonus for our brand of adopted western style democracy if all who are passionate about this form of government also remain pro-active during the tenure of each government in order to ensure that “government for the people, by the people” as an idea also becomes reality.

Columnist: Amponsah, John