I struggle daily to understand the term democracy and to live up to its principles.  I believe in the concept but I question myself constantly on whether it is indeed the best way of governing especially as the proponents of the term are not really the best example of its application.  The USA 2016 Presidential elections raised more questions for me than answers.  The imagery, rhetoric and outcomes of the election greatly undermined my faith and that of many across the globe in democracy.

I struggle to see the actualisation of the term ‘for the people by the people’.  To see a system of governance that is supposed to be inclusive of as many people and views as possible to feed into the functioning of a fair and just society. Societies where people enjoy their fundamental rights and freedoms and where elected leaders are accountable to their people and are not in leadership for their own selfish interests.  Leaders  whoare legitimately elected to serve as representatives of the people through free, transparent, and fair elections.

The term democracy is appealing to many people, many who don’t even know what it means have embraced it anyway.  Just as the people in a taxi on their way to Banjul (The Gambia) interpreted the term to suit their interests.  Coming out of a dictatorship and having found their new freedoms amidst assurances from the new leadership that The Gambia is a democratic country and the government would do everything necessary to keep it that way, people are applying their understanding of the term to their own contexts.

At the request of one of the female passengers in the taxi to reduce the volume of the radio, the taxi driver replied “we live in a democracy and everyone is free to do what they want.” He continued the journey with his car radio on full blast.  Arriving in Banjul, the first passenger to get off walks away without paying her fare.  Calling her back the driver asks for the fare.  She replies “which fare?  We live in a democracy and everyone does what s/he wants.” From this anecdote it seems that the passenger who refused to pay the fare had a better knowledge of democracy and was trying to teach the driver that democracy was not about the abuse of the rights of others but a respect of each other’s’ rights.

From the taxi cab to the highest levels of world governance we see how the word democracy is applied only in name and not in principle.  Looking at the UN system for instance where it is stated that all nations are the same and deserve equal and fair treatment one discerns a bias in favour of the richer nations.  For example the veto powers of the permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) gives them overwhelming power over international opinion or even votes by the UN General Assembly.  The co-opting in of a few poor countries to the Council is celebrated by the countries who are selected to serve and used as an indicator of openness and transparency by the UNSC while in reality they have little influence if any over the proceedings.

Looked upon as a model of democracy by the UN system the Word Trade Organsation (WTO) has been criticised for the arm twisting of some of its members.  The use of pressure tactics by richer delegations against poorer ones is acknowledged even by the leadership for example  In 2003 in Brussels at a civil society meeting when the then EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy confirmed the “arm-twisting and blackmailing practices” which take place at the at the WTO.

The necessity of having a G8 or G20 group of countries has been questioned by many Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) who see these groups as a means of excluding poorer nations in global decision making.  Selectively inviting a few of them to their exclusive group meetings even if they are perceived to be the more democratic countries undermines the poor countries even further for it brings divisions within groupings rather than unity.  It is unlikely that these reforms will take place as powerful nations will always do what they can to preserve or extend their power and it would not be in their interest to extend power and privilege to too many others.

This division of ‘us and them’ is further reinforced at UN meetings.  This time it is not rich and powerful nations against poor and powerless nations but governments and civil society.  Given the diverse nature and large numbers of civil society organisations it is understandable that all of them cannot attend UN meetings.  While some CSOs enjoy excellent access to UN meetings and official delegations for many the space is restricted and effective advocacy is fraught with challenges.  There is a constant battle for some NGOs who go from one meeting venue to another only to be pushed away with the excuse that these areas are designated for government officials only.

At a Commonwealth Universal Periodic Review for Africa, held in Namibia in 2012 the language used by the facilitator strongly butressed the seperation of CSOs from government.  He was so engrossed with government engagement that he failed to take into consideration the strong CSO presence at the meeting. The UPR’s raison d’être is to promote and deepen respect for human rights through the provision of feedback to member states on their human rights performance. A lot of horse trading also goes on at the UPR.  As articulated by a participant who suggested that African states view UPR as a means ‘to protect and support each other, especially in the face of criticism emanating from mainly Western European and Other Groups (WEOG) states. He would think twice before producing a criticism of western states who are donors, such as the U.S. and the U.K’.

The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) has been monitoring the behaviour of Commonwealth countries at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) since the Council’s inception in 2006. CHRI has used the ‘Easier Said than Done’ (ESTD) series to report on the performance of Commonwealth members of the UN Human Rights Council, in the context of their domestic and international human rights obligations.

At its 60th Anniversary in December 2008, the then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon in his speech showed that this was indeed ESTD as ‘Many members continue to vote on the basis of regional groupings and/or political alliances. Major human rights abusers still sit on the Council, and the responses to several serious abuses have been undermined by politicization’. This is despite the fact that many Commonwealth countries voluntarily pledged to promote and work positively to support the Council.

This same observation can be applied to regional groups like the AU and ECOWAS.  It is disheartening to see so many leaders who claim to be democrats constitute the leadership of these bodies yet they violate the principles of democracy with impunity.  The President of Togo and current ECOWAS Chairperson, Faure Gnassingbe, has for weeks quelled violenty peaceful protests calling for Constitutional reforms, including a presidential term limit.  Dictators, corrupt leaders, despots and oligarchs sit in the same spaces as good and honest leaders and participate in decision making processes making it difficult to separate the ‘wheat from the chaff.’ This has led Freedom House to aver that ‘while most countries claim themselves to be democratic, the degree to which they are varies’.

At the individual organisational level I have experienced the hijacking of institutions and organisations by interest groups and all in the name of democracy?  How many organisations with potential and promise have lost their focus due to individual efforts to derail the institution with their own counterproductive ideas?

Having said all this I still believe in the ideal of democracy? That is a functioning, democratic society or organisation that includes all segments of society or the organisation and makes a genuine attempt to address issues of inequality; respects peoples freedoms and rights and that is open and accountable.

Adelaide Sosseh

The Gambia