“For forms of government, let fools contest. Whatever is best administered is best…” These are the words of Alexander Pope, the 18th century English poet and satirist, who is considered one of the most prominent figures of the Enlightenment era. This phrase syncs perfectly with the present times even if it didn’t hold much in the past.
Against the backdrop of the sentiment that democracy is the best form or system of government ever created by man, it’s highly desirable and expedient to explore whether democracy merits that depiction, especially in the contemporary political context.
Fundamentally, there is neither a universally recognized best system of government nor a most effective form of administration. All systems have their strengths and weaknesses.
Democracy and autocracy are two contrasting forms of governance that have shaped the political landscape throughout history. While democracy emphasizes individual freedoms, equal rights, and popular participation in decision-making, autocracy concentrates power in the hands of a single ruler or a small group at times without public accountability. The debate between these two systems often centers on issues of legitimacy, effectiveness, and their ability to foster stability, development and protect human rights.
Democracy places power directly or indirectly in the hands of the people. It not only allows citizens to participate in elections but also guarantees various rights such as freedom of speech, assembly, and the press. The fundamental principle of democracy is that decisions should be made collectively, reflecting the will of the majority while respecting the rights of minorities. Proponents argue that democracy is the most legitimate form of governance but often times elections are rigged or manipulated in favour of the ruling class as it provides a platform for minority rule and perpetuation of the elite as being witnessed in Western societies.
In contrast, autocracy, also known as authoritarianism or a dictatorship, concentrates power in the hands of an individual or a small group. The ruler governs without democratic checks and balances. Examples of autocratic regimes include monarchies, military juntas, and one-party states. Supporters of autocracy argue that centralized power enables quick decision-making, stability, and effective policy implementation. They claim that autocratic leaders can make tough decisions without being hindered by bureaucracy, gridlock, and undue influence from special interest groups.
In the last two decades, the world has witnessed the erosion of liberal democracy after it enjoyed a period of surge in the early 1990s following the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. The rise of authoritarianism across the globe due to the shortcomings and limitations of the liberal democratic system has fanned the debate of which form of government guarantees more stability, progress and human development.
Despite transitioning to multiparty elections in the 1990s after being hollowed out by nearly three to four decades of military rule, democracy doesn’t seem to have held much sway in the continent. Africans aspired for democracy but not much of it is held across the region. We saw what happened in Algeria, at the dawn of democratic fervour in the continent, when the Islamic party FIS led by Abbas Madani won the first multi-party democratic elections in the North African nation’s history in 1992. The results were annulled and France along with its Western allies instigated the military to seize power and thwart the emergence of an Islamic government in Algeria, thereby trampling on the country’s popular wishes. What followed was a brutal crackdown and a prolonged period of violence and civil unrest. The events in Algeria set the tune and tempo for Africa’s awkward experimentation with liberal, multi-party democracy. From 1990 to date, many Western-backed governments emerged in Africa through less credible and
fraudulent multi-party elections. Yet, the Western countries, the champions of liberal democracy, did little or nothing to check the trend which suggests that they are only concerned about their primordial interests, not democratic rule.
But now things are beginning to unravel in astonishing fashion. Africa is experiencing a new wave of military coups in clear response to the cascading charade called liberal democracy that was preposterously foisted on the continent.
The coup in Gabon, which occurred on Wednesday, is the latest in a series of military takeovers in Africa in recent years, coming just weeks after soldiers seized power in Niger. Other countries currently ruled by military juntas include Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, Central African Republic, Sudan and Chad.
While announcing the military coup, the soldiers in Gabon announced the cancellation of the recently held elections and the dissolution of all institutions of the republic.
“After observing irresponsible, unpredictable governance resulting in a continuing deterioration in social cohesion that risks leading the country into chaos… we have decided to defend peace by putting an end to the current regime,” the media quoted one of the soldiers as saying.
Toppled President Ali Bongo was announced the winner of the election held on August 26. President Bongo’s family has ruled Gabon for over 53 years.
Bongo, who ruled the oil-rich central African nation for 14 years, was set to govern for a third term.
Hundreds have taken to the streets to show their support for the Gabonese Army. However, the European Union (EU) and Gabon’s former colonizer France have condemned the coup.
The Western establishment is reeling over the spate of military coups in Africa and the fact that it’s gradually losing grip on the continent’s political leadership
Reports said the European Union defense ministers will meet to discuss the situation in Gabon.
The bloc’s foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell said on Wednesday.
“If this is confirmed, it is another military coup which increases instability in the whole region,” Borrell said, during a meeting of EU defense ministers in the Spanish city of Toledo.
Borrell stated that coups in other parts of the continent are “a big issue for Europe.”
“The whole area, starting with Central African Republic, then Mali, then Burkina Faso, now Niger, maybe Gabon, it’s in a very difficult situation and certainly the [EU] ministers… have to have a deep thought on what is going on there and how we can improve our policy in respect with these countries,” he said.
If the collective West is disturbed by the developments in Africa, I think they should acknowledge that the people are fed up with liberal democracy as it is being practiced in the continent. Africans should decide what system best suits them based on each country’s cultural peculiarities and historical antecedents.
Now, back to the basics: Between democracy and autocracy, which one guarantees better governance, stability and development? In my understanding, democracy is simply a mechanism of electing a government. Going by Alexander Pope’s satire if fools are dangerously allowed to contest and get into public office, then whatever is best administered (either democratic or autocratic) is best. Frankly, it’s not the system of government that matters. It’s more of the character and calibre of individuals that form the government whether democratic or autocratic.