By Andrew Barungi
In early September 2017, the Supreme Court of Kenya annulled the presidential elections held in August. Many celebrated this verdict and were confident that Kenya was progressing democratically. The celebration of the verdict may have come too soon because it did not prevent Kenya’s political problems manifested in clashes and violence before and after the repeat election.
The late 1980s and early 1990s can be described as the “second liberation” in much of Sub-Saharan Africa. Many autocrats were ousted either through the barrel of a gun or the ballot. New and costly Constitutions were written and promulgated.
Many African elites boasted about the new Constitutions in their countries, the number of women participating in politics as well as economic growth. Today, many elites are crying foul about the perceived lack of constitutionalism, violations of human rights and curtailing of civil liberties. Could their conceit after the ‘second liberation’ be responsible for their indignation?
I think some African elites lacked foresight. They assumed that the promulgation of the Constitutions and symbolic verdicts by judiciaries would curb authoritarianism and corruption. Many of these elites complaining about the current democratic deficit used to support the current administrations religiously, because they believed that their countries would be on the ‘Road to Damascus’.
Democracy was not built in one day; it has to be refined periodically. I think many elites were happy with a paper constitution without strong and independent institutions to defend it. Did many elites overlook the role and strength of institutions? Many institutions are weak and fall victim to authoritarianism – a form of government in which the governing body has almost absolute control, typically rules by force and pays little heed to public opinion or the judicial system.
If I can be simplistic, Britain, an industrialized state has no written Constitution, but an unwritten one formed of Acts of Parliament, court judgments and conventions. But one has to acknowledge that Britain has been building institutions since Magna Carta – a charter establishing the rights of English tycoons and free citizens, granted by King John in 1215 and regarded as the basis of civil and political liberty in England.
Belgium, another industrialized state, did not have an elected government for almost 600 days from the early 2010s because the opposing Flemish and Walloons tribes were unable to agree on policy issues and form a governing coalition following national elections. The state was functioning and citizens were getting on with their lives.
Who needs a government if institutions are functional? Again, Belgium has been a state for over 150 years. Isn’t it time African elites advocated for the abolition of governments and suspension of (paper) constitutions, in favour of strengthening institutions so that citizens are not dependent on government?
All is not be lost in Africa though. Incumbent political parties and presidents have lost elections in Ghana and Nigeria, for instance, and human rights and delivery of public services are implemented in Botswana and Namibia. Constitutionalism and delivery of public services can be sustained if citizens demand it and if the powers that be, choose to be a government of the people, by the people, for the people.
The question to the Ugandan and African elites is, is it necessary to spend a lot of money on Constitutions and forming governments when many have failed to deliver services to citizens? May be Africa will have Constitutions and governments that can deliver services to its citizens in the next 100 years when it is industrialized and has a GDP per capita of more than $2,700. Just maybe.
Mr Barungi is a Social Scientist