Can you have democracy without democrats?

In one province in Gabon, the stronghold of President Ali Bongo, the results declared by the Gabonese Electoral Commission indicated  that 99.83% of the electorate turned out to vote, and that 95.46% of them voted for Ali Bongo! The question is: how can we ensure that election results in Africa are not dependent on an electoral commission or constitutional court that is in the pocket of the incumbent?

Democracy is not a concept that is too difficult to understand. It allows for what can be put in the Ghanaian language,  Twi, as  ‘ka-bi-ma-me-nka bi’: (literally, “You say your piece  and let me too say mine”.)

But “saying one’s piece” throws up several problems. What should be the content of my piece? Should it be allowed to contain insults to your person? Should it be allowed to include words that could incite hatred against you and which could therefore cause physical harm to be inflicted upon your person or your property?

It is in order to ensure that the exercise of one person’s democratic rights should not end in the abuse of another person’s own that society has invented “referees” who can listen to both sides, when a dispute arises, and come to a fair and unbiased determination of the rights and wrongs of particular cases presented to them for adjudication. These impartial referees can be either judges appointed to the judicial “bench”, or institutions, members of whose boards are selected by a laid-down procedure. In all these processes, the assumption is that those who are selected or appointed would, as soon as they become designated as official “referees”, jettison their personal predilections and act as unbiased assessors of facts, and thus arrive at conclusions that can be acceptable as fair to both sides in a dispute.

But what happens if the people who are put on such independent institutions are self-seekers who do not, in fact, believe in the impartial processes they are supposed to observe in their task of adjudicating issues? What if they turn out to be what, in the parlance of Ghanaian village football spectators, are known as a “referee konkonsa” (a referee with a pre-determined agenda)? At a village football match, what usually happens is that there is a pitch invasion, during which not only the referee but members of the team who have benefited from his biased rulings may be beaten to within an inch of their lives.

This creates an unhealthy situation whereby referees refuse to officiate at village football matches. (That partly explains why village football is dying out in rural Ghana and why everyone these days tries to find a TV set with a satellite dish, on which Real Madrid and Barcelona, Arsenal and Spurs, Manchester United and Manchester City, can strut their stuff.)

In many ways, modern African society is organised like a village football match: independent referees (judges) are needed to serve on the courts; on the boards of institutions such as the Universities, the publicly-owned media, and above all, the Electoral Commission. The Ghana Constitution, for instance, tries, as far as possible, to devise ways in which such bodies can operate in a manner that can make them independent of the Government of the day. But a lot depends on the individuals appointed to these institutions. Some people are “afraid of democracy”– even  the mere “spirit” of it —  and no matter what the ideals  the Constitution espouse, they would much rather  act either on the express instructions of a cheque-wielding executive, or in a voluntarily sycophantic manner, if they have secret affinities to the executive.

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By Cameron Duodu