Did southern African countries jump into democracy too soon?

Democracy has many advantages. Citizens enjoy many freedoms. They are free to speak, associate and worship as they please. Most importantly, as many people as possible take part in shaping the direction of their country.

Nevertheless, the question still remains as to whether a dirt-poor country can transition to prosperity by simply adopting democracy. Today nobody can give an example of any such country. In fact most prosperous young countries were already on a path to prosperity before adopting democracy. Strong not-so-democratic leadership was required to put these countries on such paths.

The problem with southern African country is that we jumped into democracy before putting ourselves on that path to prosperity. Democracy does have its underbelly. The question is whether the ills of democracy may not outweigh the advantages in the case of poor underdeveloped countries with electorates largely illiterate. It maybe  that in such instances, democracy maybe a drag rather a springboard.

Momentous experience as President Banda meets David Cameron at Number 10 Downing Streets as members of the Malawi Delegations look on
Momentous experience as President Banda meets David Cameron at Number 10 Downing Streets as members of the Malawi Delegations look on

The US is currently passing through the so-called ‘sequester’ in which most federal workers are either losing their jobs or having their hours severely cut. It is projected that the sequester will result in loss of revenue of billions of dollars in regions whose economy depend on the Federal government. The reason for this sequester is democracy – the two major parties in the country failed to agree on very basic issues!

Democracy can be expensive and can delay or stagnate progress. While rich countries like the US can handle these hiccups, poor countries pay dearly for such bickering. We have seen our own parliament fighting over useless things and spending lots of money in the process. Also, government is afraid to take certain positions lest it should be sued. Lately, millions of taxpayers’ Kwachas have been paid to certain people including government officials through the court system.

The most laughable aspect of democracy in poor countries is the myth that somehow people in these countries choose their own leaders. We know that is not the case. Take, for instance, Zimbabwe’s last 4 elections – while the last two were marred by violence and rigging, the first 2 were clearly true representation of the people’s will. Unfortunately, the UK and the European Union were not happy with the elected president because of the issue with white farmers in that country.

These countries brought up lots of allegations against Zimbabwe because they wanted Morgan Tsvangirai to win. Why was Mr. Tsvangirai so appealing to them? This is the guy they could not themselves employ as a dogcatcher! It turns out that Mr. Tsvangirai was the person they could control easily. Thus, in the finally analysis these countries used the so-called democracy in Zimbabwe for their own interests.

We have another example much closer home. Notice how the British and David Cameron are feting President Joyce Banda. Why all the praise and admiration? What has Joyce Banda done to improve the country or what plan has she laid down for the future of the country? Zero, nothing! Our economy is still in a tailspin, and depending on how you define it, we may have political prisoners in the country. Corruption still abound – recently the president, her VP and another minister had to intervene in the affairs of the Central Medical Stores to make sure that a certain dubious company got certain a certain tender.

However, to the British, she is important because she sold the presidential plane and devalued the Kwacha. Neither of these actions is really going to help Malawi but they symbolize a nation that will jump at the British command. And this is all what matters to the British – a Malawi leader who can kneel before them. Never mind whether that leader can deliver to the people or not.

Then there is Hillary Clinton – she too came and said a lot of good things about Joyce Banda, almost promising to support her re-election. Clinton, however, did not say why she thinks Banda is good for Malawi. It almost did not matter; as far as Clinton – a lifelong feminist – is concerned, the most important thing is just to have a woman president. It does not matter whether that woman delivers for her people or not, or in deed whether she is the right woman.

So we have a democracy that in its current form appears to work only for the interests of the powers that be.

Another fad that came with democracy to these southern African countries is the concept of diversity. The quest for diversity is being waged through different forms of affirmative action programs. There is no single philosophy that will do more harm to these southern African countries than affirmative action programs. Countries that need to move from poverty to prosperity must fire at all cylinders. This means putting their best and brightest to work. Unfortunately affirmative action programs force countries to underutilize or misuse their cream.

Let me be clear at the outset – all people, all races, all genders are equal and can perform equally. But when you institute affirmative action programs, you fail to get your best bodies in the right spots. Let me give an example here: our national football team comprises of men from all over the country. Any district in the country is capable of having their homeboy on the team. In fact over the years, players on the team have come from almost every district of the country.

However, at any particular point in time, players on the team come from very few districts. At the moment the first 26 comprise players from maybe 6 districts only. These are our best players in the country. If the coach had decided to choose the first 26 by getting one player from each district, he would not have a team as good as the one we have.

There is a very important lesson in here. While people of different race, gender and region can have the same capabilities, at any point in time, nature does not distribute talents proportionally. While all people from all districts can make good lawyers, at any point in time, the top ten lawyers in the country may all be women and all from the north. Thus if you set out to recruit ten top lawyers by an affirmative action program, you will end up with a top ten that is not a true reflection to reality. This is the problem with programs like Gender 50/50 representation and BEE as in South Africa.

The main challenge we face as Africans is that we are developing at a time when the political climate in the world is pushing concepts like democracy and diversity both of which may not be ideal for moving countries from extreme poverty to prosperity. The answer to this challenge may not be turning our back on these concepts but owning them and defining them to our benefits.

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