The Atlantic Dialogue

1st DECEMBER 2020


Global Democratic Values and African Democratic Values

The importance of democracy is more contested now than ever. Globally, the last four decades have seen an expansion in democracy throughout all regions of the world and in recent years have been marked by a decline in the fabric of older and younger democracies as what was once thought as democracy is no longer felt.

The number of democracies around the world has continued to grow, and a vast range of countries in recent years have transitioned to a democratic system. Despite the shortcomings of democracy, the values of democracy are still by far the preferred form of government in every continent. Globally, people yearn for democracy even though they have never truly experienced it.

What is often referred to as a contestation of democracy is, in fact, a yearning for more strong democratic values. A good example is the Black Lives Matter protest in the United States of America where we see people come out to question government and register their disapproval of specific issues. People took to the streets to register their disapproval of government breaking the social contract on their rights to life. This is a at its core a democratic value and the protests addressed the failure of existing structures that have been put in place by a democratic system that they believed in. A good comparison on the African continent is the recent ENDSARS protest in Nigeria or the campaign to end police brutality in Uganda. This is another example of a campaign to highlight failure in the system and a clamour for democratic values accountable.

When democracies are threatened, citizens all over the world rally around to protect it. In fragile democracies, people yearn for democracy that works even when it seems it has not been working well for them. So, the assumption that democracy is under threat may not be entirely accurate.

Democracy, Authoritarianism and COVID-19: There is an emerging narrative around the dichotomy of having to choose between good democracy and effective governance I think that narrative is fundamentally flawed in the sense that we do not have to choose either or because a good democracy and a effective governance should ideally go hand in hand.

Looking at the pandemic, it is interesting to explore how a continent such as Africa with a fragile democracy and some leaning towards authoritarianism have been able to beat the pandemic to the barest minimum. Of course, countries in Africa reacted to the pandemic swiftly and mounted a relatively effective response to the virus by ordering lockdowns from in and out of their countries and in Asia, a couple of countries come to mind that effectively responded to the virus. Does this mean that seemingly less democratic countries are doing a better job than democratic countries in arresting the pandemic? The answer may not be so straightforward.

We must understand in tacking the pandemic; authoritarianism may have played a great role in ensuring that the spread of the pandemic is curbed but what Is most important is that the governments in Africa were able to win the trust of their citizens. The success of government social control depends more on voluntary compliance that of government enforcement. Trusted governments can effectively maintain a difficult lockdown. Trust enables some countries to convince their citizens to allow mass testing, quarantines and modified behaviours in other to stop the spread of the virus.

Though in Africa, we were able to fight the pandemic, we have a pressing issue that needs to be addressed in other for us to have good democracies coupled with stronger economies. Issues such as unsafe migrations, lack of jobs, conflicts, shaky infrastructures and a host of other issues. If authoritarian systems worked effectively, we would not see youth embark on a risky journey through the Mediterranean Sea in search of a better life in more advanced democracies.

I think the point to be made is irrespective of the style of governments, many governments are troubled with the crisis of illegitimacy.  This may be a critical reason why it is difficult for them to enforce a total lockdown to curb the spread of the disease. Also, many democracies are dogged by division, inequality and a sense of failed promises also face low citizen trust.

Several democracies and authoritarian regimes have suffered deadly outbreaks while a number of democratic and authoritarian regimes have also kept death rates low. We have to understand that in addressing the pandemic, so many different variables are at play which makes it extremely difficult to isolate the impact of political regime type. Various countries are at different stages of the pandemic and there is no common method in reporting figures of the pandemic which makes it difficult to tender definitive judgments over the impact of different types of political systems and how they have responded to the pandemic. Like with anything, responses to the pandemic have to crafted by various governments related to the context within these countries.

Government Inclusivity of Citizens and Good Leaderships: One of the lessons from previous pandemics, with Ebola on the African continent for example, suggest that citizens are more likely to comply with health measures over the longer period of time if they feel they have a voice over government decisions, they have trust in the state and in its abilities. Trust between citizens and government brings about effective policies. Trust can be more strengthened through bottom-up inclusion of the citizens by the government. We need to look into how the existing systems and how inclusive are they towards their own citizens.

What Leadership Exist: Leaders need to focus on the science and take the right decisions when dealing with the pandemic but above this we need leaders that are empathetic towards their citizens. Empathy reaches the people, it sends the right signal to the population that you see them, you hear them, and you understand how the pandemic is impacting their lives. We can see from the pandemic that empathetic leaders almost tend to have better results.

Multilateral Cooperation: I think one of the greatest lessons from the pandemic is the need to strengthen multilateralism. The pandemic has tested the limits of countries acting alone demonstrating that multilateral cooperation is the key to overcoming the threat on democracy as this safeguard democratic practices and presents an effort to harness emergent innovations. Additionally, countries are exposed to fragility outside the support that multilateral cooperation brings. In very simple terms, you cannot isolate COVID in one country as we have seen, neither can you choose to solve the problem in one country. The world needs to jointly work together to solve it otherwise, we will be locked in cycles of reinfections and waves. I think the same applies to other contexts.    

Rights and Responsibility of the Citizens: In order to fully implement human rights of citizens, we need to put emphasis on the responsibility of all actors and not just the state. To beat the pandemic, citizens and government must take action together to make sure rights are respected. While compelling citizens by staying home, wearing face mask, owing up to a professional about how they feel, washing their hands in other to make sure they do not infect others, it is important to remember that rights are paramount. This kind of responsibility does not ask who is to blame, rather what role should we play in addressing the pandemic. That’s forward-looking responsibility. As citizens have rights so also, they have responsibilities to their fellow citizens.