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Idang Alibi: Public Square Democracy



There is a new form of democracy that is fast spreading like cancer. And like cancer, it sometimes takes a benign form and if addressed in time or smartly, it is nipped in the bud. Sometimes, it is malignant and proves too difficult to handle and goes ahead to spread and envelopes the body politic and tries to destroy the type of democracy the modern world has come to accept as the real standard form. Since I am not an expert in the science and theory of political science, I will like to describe the tendency I am talking about here as Public Square Democracy. It is a form of democracy in which some aggrieved members of society decide that they have had enough of the ‘nonsense’ of an incumbent government and that they must take steps to get rid of it. It does not matter how the government came into being. It may in fact have been democratically elected to stay for a defined length of time and its tenure has not yet expired. But it does not matter in the least to those who have decided that it must go. Go, they vow.
These aggrieved members who in Africa will be called ‘agitators’ or ‘disgruntled elements’, proceed to any popular public square in the capital of that unfortunate country to vent their anger against the sitting government in a noisy, rancorous and sometimes violent manner. They set up tents and vow to remain in that temporary abode forever unless their demands are met and like terrorists, they proceed to make outrageous demands some of which the best government under the best of times is not likely to meet. As if pre-arranged, in no time they secure the co-operation of prominent opposition figures some of whom lost in the most recent election to the government now in power.
Since even in a theocratic state where the party of God is in power and rule is supposed to be according to Godly principles, you are always sure to count on some people who for whatever reasons are disaffected, in a matter of days, these demonstrators or protesters begin to increase in size and in the significance of their noise.
Since company bolsters courage, the demonstration that started with motley crowd soon snowballs and becomes a real potent threat to the incumbent government. The small crowd that started with placards, graffiti and other arsenal of non-violent warfare, begins to change to more militant or violent ways. Molotov cocktails, barricades and arson on public buildings and infrastructure may begin to feature. The demonstrators will become more daring as the days pass by. Some of them will vow to paralyze social and economic activities and generally make the country ungovernable and actually proceed to take real steps to do so. As I said earlier, they present a set of ‘democratic’ demands almost impossible to meet. Some go as far as demanding that the government that was elected by the majority in the country should resign. When the government tells them that they should wait for the next round of election that in some cases may not be far away, the demonstrators will say no; that they do not have faith in the election to be held.
I have some reasonable cause to suspect that the demonstrators often get their staying powers from foreign powers who are hostile to the regime in the country they are protesting against. This is because for days on end and whether in freezing temperatures or in hot humid climate, the demonstrators never get tired to want to give up and go home to rest. They are no doubt well motivated by the money, media support and other goodies that come from their sponsors and supporters in and out of the country. Since the police and other law enforcement agents are duty bound to maintain law and order and to protect public and private property, they will not fold their hands and allow anyone who says he is aggrieved to take the laws into their hands and do as they please. They will sooner or later receive an order from the sitting, legitimate government in power to confront the demonstrators and restore order.
What inevitably follows is that in the course of the struggle, some of the demonstrators and sometimes some members of the law officers are killed as happened a few days ago in Ukraine. When any of the agitators are brutalized and bloodied by the police, cameras of powerful world TV stations can relied upon to bring home to billions of viewers across the world the gory sight as happened in the case of one Ukrainian opposition leader recently. But when the police are abducted, injured or killed that is just mentioned as a footnote.
One interesting thing I have noticed about this emerging form of street democracy is that it usually takes place in countries where modern majoritarian democracy has not yet taken firm roots. Ukraine, Thailand and Venezuala are a few examples of where this new type of democracy has been played out. The one in Syrian has spiraled into a full blown civil war in which hundreds of thousands have perished. Yet instead of established democracies frowning against this fast rising trend that some call the triumph of electoral minority over the majority, they seem curiously to be very supportive, if not indifferent to, it. I am waiting for one day soon when this type of thing will happen in any of the major democracies and you will be sure to see hypocrisy in full action.
Electoral democracy usually prescribes peaceful, legitimate and constitutional ways a government that has been elected into office can be gotten rid of it. If you want to adopt some other way you consider more convenient or expeditious, you would be committing high treason. Yet public square democrats are somehow seen as heroes.
My fear is clear: we Africans are copycats. Sooner or later our self-appointed patriots and activists will begin to occupy our public squares demanding that one elected government or another whose term has not yet expired should be sacked. I pointed out in my recent series on African leaders that they are like pharaohs of ancient Egypt. Although some of them do not exercise full pharaohnic powers like their counterparts of old, they still have some pharaohnic instincts. If public square democracy gains ascendancy here, it will surely be deemed as a coup against the government in power and its participants will be treated as coupists.
Since what usually starts as a peaceful demonstration almost always ends in violence in our clime, public square democracy will be a frightening development on our shores. Blood may flow too freely on our streets and squares. And we have shed too much blood already in the course of our nation building.
But there is also the question of the morality of public square democracy in which a vocal but very small minority disproportionally gains concession at the expense of the majority. They use intimidation, blackmail and the sympathy of the media which always lies with the underdog to destabilize some societies. The truth about the modern world is that there is hardly anything to choose between incumbents and rebels. The rebellious or revolutionary heroes that overthrew an incumbent government yesterday sometimes turn out to be worse than the men they shoved aside recently.
What is even worse is that they become more resentful of the very method they used in removing the previous government. The people who have now removed Victor Yanukovich in Ukraine will they surrender their seat tomorrow without a fight should another group of ‘democrats’ rise up tomorrow to demand that they resign?
I have not been in government but I can tell from my vantage position as a keen observer and commentator that some challenges confronting certain societies do not admit of quick-fixes. Take the economic challenges facing Venezuala for instance which have made thousands to take to the streets in protest against President Nicolas Maduro. Even if the protesters succeed in ousting Maduro, the 56 per cent inflation that is at the root of that country’s problems, will not disappear overnight. What is more, unless the new men become friends with the USA, the situation of Venezuala may even worsen. That is why those who get fed up and want to pour unto the streets in protest must learn the virtues of patience, prayer and co-operation with their leaders to fix whatever problems their country is confronted with. Nation building is not an easy, quick-fix project. It requires time and patience.
Article written by Idang Alibi and can be reached via mail: [email protected]


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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Angela Martin

    2014/03/30 at 12:40 pm

    Hello. I saw this article useful. I would like to share your article to my website.

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