By Owei Lakemfa
We were gathered. Some intellectuals, social activists, journalists, serving and retired diplomats. The primary issue was democracy. Is it universal and is there just a single, or multiple roads to democracy? Is the British democracy which calls itself the Mother of Parliaments, superior to the American version; is the latter better than the Australian or the Chinese? Is Russian democracy superior to the Ukrainian?
It was Thursday, April 27, 2023 and the venue was the Cuban Embassy on Diplomatic Drive, Abuja. The out-going Cuban Ambassador Clara Pulido Escandell was presenting the report of the April 19, 2023 general elections in her country and explaining Cuban democracy within the context of democracy in the modern world.
A product of the consummate Cuban diplomatic tradition which puts people at the centre, Pulido reminded us that Africa had seven days earlier, lost one of its famous liberation fighters and internationalists, Chris ‘Che’ Matlhako of the African National Congress, ANC, and five days later, the United States, US, had on April 25, lost one of its most famous singers and a giant of the Civil Rights Movement, Harry Belafonte. She asked us to honour the duo, not with a minute silence as is traditional, but with music that represents their vocal nature in the cause of the liberation humanity.
She then played the famous song ‘Malaika’ (My Angel) a duet by Belafonte and Miriam Makeba, also known as Mama Africa. We rocked to the Swahili hit song which was composed in 1945 by Tanzanian musician, Adam Salim. Makeba had been forced into exile and made stateless by the Apartheid regime. She had stayed in the US and during her first visit to Africa in 1962 had learnt the song in Kenya, sang it at a concert in 1969 and made a duet with Belafonte who had become her mentor. They were two of the sweetest voices on both continents.
The Cuban elections into the National Assembly of Peoples’ Power had seen the election of 472 Members of Parliament by 68.56 per cent of voters. Miguel Díaz Canel Bermúdez was re-elected President, Salvador Valdés Mesa, Vice President and Esteban Lazo, as Speaker. Leaders were also elected for the Council of State. The prime minister was also ratified and the Council of Ministers appointed. The ambassador explained that the system of elections in Cuba is that the populace vote directly for parliament which then votes in the executive leadership. So democracy in Cuba is a combination of direct and indirect elections. What is most interesting for me is that unlike Nigeria where the senator is cumulatively paid some N14 million monthly and the honourable member of the House of Representatives is paid cumulatively N10 million monthly, their counterparts in Cuba are not paid a dime; neither salaries nor allowances.
The Cuban parliamentarian does his normal job after which he attends parliament to make laws. There are those who claim Cuba is not a democracy. This is debatable. I see democracy as a system of government by popular representation based on the vote of the electorate in which the will of the people prevails. A famous definition which is more descriptive, is by former American President Abraham Lincoln who said: “Democracy is the government of the people by the people for the people.”
America thinks itself perhaps the greatest democracy in the world. However, American democracy did not include the Black people until 1964 when the Civil Rights Movement and international campaigns made it too embarrassing. Although it is assumed that America is a democracy, not a few are uncomfortable with its kind of democracy in which majority vote is not what counts, but some electoral college. In its 2016 elections, Hillary Clinton with 65,845,063 votes or 48.2 per cent of the total vote, lost to Donald Trump with 62,980,160 votes or 46.1 per cent of the votes. Clinton with about three million more votes than Trump, lost!
In the follow-up elections, the sitting American President Trump tried to use arms to get himself re-elected. Until today, Trump has not been brought to book, and may well contest the next elections. Another point on American democracy is that while majority Americans are against gun proliferation, the will of the people has not prevailed. A simple reason might be that America is a country in which you need to be a millionaire to contest for congress; it is the wish of the rich that prevails. So, to paraphrase Lincoln, American democracy is the government of the rich, by the rich, for the rich. Democracy in Britain can even be more ridiculous than the convoluted American one. It runs a ‘constitutional monarchy.’ The government is called ‘His Majesty’s Government.’
There, you have a mixture of the parliament and monarchy. When Prime Minister David Cameron lost direction and his Brexit compass malfunctioned, he became a liability and had to go. One of his successors, Boris Johnson was known to be an unreliable politician who had been sanctioned as a journalist for manufacturing an interview that never took place. His ‘alternative facts’ caught up with him and Britons were fed up with him; he had to resign. The best option would have been for the people to decide through free elections who should govern them, but their system of democracy does not allow such freedom until the five –year general election circle is completed or cut short by the governing party. Until then, they must be governed by whoever the parliamentary caucus of the ruling party throws up.
The UK brand of democracy is the Westminster type in which the party or a coalition with the highest number of seats, appoints its leader as prime minister. Even if the overwhelming majority of the populace do not want an incumbent prime minister, but he can win his single constituency seat and please his fellow parliamentarians, he can stay in power indefinitely. There are no term limits in British democracy; Prime Minister Robert Walpole spent about 21 years in office and William Pit, about 19 years.
The shortest-lived is Liz Truss who spent 49 days having been appointed on September 6, 2022 and thrown in the towel on October 25, 2022. A major drawback of British democracy is that the Prime Minster needs only to be a parliamentarian voted for by one of its 650 constituencies. So he does not need to be known or voted for by the rest of the country.
A major issue about democracy is that the world tends to look more at its form and not its content. Democracy should be a system that delivers on the basic needs of the people and not rhetoric and propaganda. Democracy should not be like fashion in which ‘my democracy is finer than yours.’
Owei Lakemfa, a former secretary general of Organisation of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU), is a human rights activist, journalist, and author.