Global Cooperation

Democracy sold out to corruption and greed. But it’s not too late to save it

Can we save democracy from itself? Image: REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

Japheth J. Omojuwa
Chief Executive Officer, The Alpha Reach
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In his prime, he was a force to be reckoned with, a phenomenon the world over. No man could defeat him. In the ring, Mike Tyson would pulverize any opponent he came up against – faster and more efficiently than anyone before him.

But outside the ring it was a different story. Even as he celebrated victory after victory, he was already on his way down. Tyson was training less, and partying and gambling more. The one thing he didn’t do eventually cost him his legacy: he stopped training hard. Long before he lost to Buster Douglas in Japan, he had stopped being Mike Tyson, or at least the Mike Tyson the world had come to know.

Even though its Buster Douglas moment is yet to come, this is the story of democracy in the 21st century. It has been reduced to a mere process whose outcome no longer matters, as long as elections are held. We used to have dictators who came to power by undermining elections. Today we have dictators who are enthroned and legitimized by elections. Democracy has lost its way and its essence.

Turning our backs on democracy

Abraham Lincoln’s definition of democracy remains the most intuitive essence of this form of government: government of the people, by the people, for the people.

In many supposed democracies around the world, this has either completely changed, or is changing right before our eyes. And an increasingly disillusioned electorate seems to welcome it.

Voter turn-out is the lowest it has been around the world in a generation. Voters have lost faith in politicians and are turning to demagogues. Donald Trump – and the things he represents – is no outlier.

Just look to the UK, where a populist party helped drag the country out of the European Union, and dragged the global economy down with it. Or look at Austria, where the FPÖ, a party founded by a Nazi functionary, could win the presidential rerun. Or look at France, where the Front National – a party with a well-known racist and anti-Semitic past – grows in popularity by the day. Apart from their appeal to dark politics and hatred, these demagogues all have one thing in common: they have a following we can’t pretend doesn’t exist.

 Voter turnout over time

The people want anything but democracy. And who can blame them when we see what it has become? When in the US, the world’s largest democracy, government can push through a trade agreement – the TPP – without so much as consulting people, never mind informing them of its monumental impact. What happened to transparency, to accountability? Is it any wonder voter confidence is falling as fast as turnout?

 Trust in US government between 1958 and 2015
This is what happens when democracy sells out

It’s not hard to figure out there’s a connection between these two trends. The less we trust our political elite, the more likely we are to take a gamble on one of these demagogues. After all, can a fear-monger be any worse than the cronyism and lies democracy has become?

Democracy was built on the power and needs of the people. It has since sold out to money. And that, experts agree, is the biggest threat to it today.

“This is one of the main reasons leading to disenchanted voters and the rise of populist parties in the United States and the European Union,” Daniel Freund, the head of advocacy at Transparency International EU, points out.

If the corruptive influence of money has left voter in the West disenchanted, it has been even more damaging in Africa.

Take Nigeria. Voters there are no longer shocked by revelations of corruption uncovered by the country’s anti-graft agency, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. Hundreds of millions of dollars have already been seized from politicians and public officials who served under the previous government, and millions – even billions – more remain to be recovered. Citizens are disgruntled and democracy no longer looks as promising as it did in 1999, when the military handed over to a democratically elected president.

It’s a similar story over in Zimbabwe. President Robert Mugabe might claim to have popular support, but regular protests against his government suggests otherwise. “The government has stolen our money. It is out of touch with the problems we have. It must begin to listen to the people and stamp out the corruption which has crippled our economy,” Pastor Evan Mawarire, the leader of a popular Zimbabwean protest group, told the Guardian last month.

For a long time, oligarchs in the garb of democrats pretended to serve the interests of the people. But the veil of deception is lifting. People are starting to recognize that the dreams of collective prosperity promised by democracy are being turned into nightmares for the majority, and monumental wealth for the privileged ruling class and their allies.

Saving democracy from itself

There is a common thread: if it does not look like democracy and does not have the outcomes we would expect from democracy, it is not a democracy.

As Francois de La Rochefoucauld once wrote, we should not trust democracy without extremely powerful systems of accountability. In many so-called democracies today, that accountability – and the transparency that goes with it – is missing. As this trend continues, democracy will continue to appear strong and ready to meet all challenges, but like Mike Tyson discovered in Japan, once an idea loses its essence, it will gradually fade away. What will take its place is a world we do not want to envisage, let alone live in.

But it’s not too late. Democracy can still become of the people, by the people and for the people once again, in process and in outcomes, in deed and in truth. Just as Rome was not built in a day, so the Roman Empire did not end when Romulus was overthrown by Odoacer. No, the fall of Rome began long before its rulers saw their world order was on its way out.

Lamia Merzuki is a member of the African Leadership Network. As far as she is concerned, “in many countries, people just don’t trust politicians and their ability to change things anymore.” To make sure this lack of trust in politicians does not translate into a complete lack of trust in democracy, we must now begin to focus on making transparency and accountability fundamental to our acceptance of a government as democratic.

The same way attending school for a day does not make one a graduate, elections should not determine which countries we recognize as democratic.

Once we accept what it means to be a truly democratic country, we’ll have started the journey towards separating democracies from their adulterations all around the world. Let’s hope we can do so before democracy fades into but a shadow of its former self.

The author is a Global Shaper in the Abuja Hub. The Annual Curators Meeting of the Global Shapers community is taking place in Geneva, Switzerland from 19 to 22 August.

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