Democracy: One Man, One Vote, Once

by Stanley Meisler

November 14, 2003

More than 40 years ago, I sat in the Western Nigeria House of Assembly in Ibadan and marveled at how well the British colonial government had implanted its democratic parliamentary system into this new African country. An African page in blue knee breeches and red stockings walked into the chamber carrying a mace. “The Speak-uh,” he cried. The Speaker, a tall African in white wig and black robes, entered, strode across the chamber and sat in his enormous chair. The page carefully put the mace on its stand on the table below the Speaker and saluted him.

After the opening prayer, a backbencher suddenly leaped up and danced across a row of chairs. “Snake, fire, snake,” he shouted. Other parliamentarians grabbed chairs and threw them at each other. One picked up the mace and tried to smash it over the head of the Speaker, but the Speaker fled in time. The Nigerian police stormed into the chamber shooting tear gas and wielding billy clubs. It was only two years after independence, but democracy and my illusions died in Nigeria that day. For decades, Nigeria would be racked by states of emergency, war, coups and military rule. Only in the last few years has democracy revived in Nigeria, and it is still in fragile state.

Images of that Nigerian parliamentary frenzy flit across my mind these days whenever I hear President Bush and his ideologues talk about forging a democratic state in Iraq that will serve as an inspiration to the rest of the Middle East. “Iraqi democracy will succeed,” the President told the National Endowment for Democracy a few days ago, “and that success will send for the news from Damascus to Teheran that freedom can be the future of every nation.” This hope defies history. Democracy never took root throughout most of the Third World in the 20th century, and one reason was the extraordinary difficulty of implanting democracy by imperial rule or military occupation. These are inherently undemocratic experiences that provide a poor setting for tutelage in democracy.

That difficulty was underscored in Iraq in early October when L. Paul Bremer III, our version of a colonial governor, briefed the Iraqi Governing Council on his plan to train 35,000 Iraqi police officers in Jordan at a cost of $1.2 billion. An American spokesman said the council had agreed with the plan. But several council members told the New York Times afterwards that it was a waste of money to train the police outside Iraq. “If we had voted,” Naseer K. Chadirji said, “a majority would have rejected it. He (Bremer) told us what he did; he did not ask us.”

Some democracies have emerged from colonial rule. Although both have had patches of authoritarian repression, India, after almost two centuries of British rule, and the Philippines, after a half-century of American rule, maintain reasonable democratic governments. But these successes are far outnumbered by scores of failures, and no one is advocating an occupation of Iraq as long as the British Raj in India or our rule (which included a pacification that killed 200,000 insurgents) in the Philippines.

The White House likes to boast about all the provincial, municipal and district councils sprouting up under the American occupation. They are taking “responsibility for management of local matters like healthcare, water and electricity,” the White House says in its special report, Renewal in Iraq. There is no doubt that a healthy democracy needs local councils taking care of local matters. But in four decades of foreign travel as a journalist, I have listened to countless boasts from countless spokesmen for countless dictatorships about their local councils taking care of local matters.

That boast about the right of people to speak out and take charge of local issues is the usual dictatorship dodge against critics. In Havana several years ago, I asked an editor of Granma, the Castro regime’s official newspaper, if he had the right to criticize the government. He insisted that he did and, as evidence, pointed to news columns reporting the complaints of Cubans about local problems like infrequent garbage collections.

But democracy is about power not garbage. When those inside government allow those outside to campaign for power, when a fair electoral system is set down that determines an exchange of power, and when those inside turn power over peacefully to those outside, then we have democracy. That is why it is hard to get excited about Saudi Arabia’s recent promise for elections of municipal councils within a year. It may be very significant, but it sounds more like the Castro garbage dodge than a fateful step toward the dismantling of a dynasty.

Peaceful exchange of power has proven the bugaboo of democracy in the Third World. The British and French have set scores of former colonies on their way after fair elections only to see governments fail to ever relinquish power unless forced by a military coup. This happened so often in Africa in the 1960s and 1970s that cynics said the African nationalist slogan of “One Man, One Vote” should be changed to “One Man, One Vote, Once.” The prospects for democracy have proven even slimmer when a country is riven by ethnic or religious differences. Chaos and killing - like in present day Baghdad - make prospects even worse.

United Nations administration has not provided any panacea. After a year of UN supervision, Cambodia held democratic elections in 1993 and created a coalition government with two prime ministers. This arrangement collapsed four years later when Prime Minister Hun Sen led a military coup that ousted the co-prime minister and killed more than one hundred of his followers. Hun Sen now runs an authoritarian state rife with human rights abuse, but neither the UN nor any foreign government seems to care.

With the odds against creating democracy from scratch so difficult, the audacity and naivete of the war hawks in the Bush Administration who continue to push the Iraq-as-a-model-of democracy theory is astonishing. What lies ahead will probably be much different: a constitution, an election, the trappings of democracy, a lot of self-congratulatory talk in Washington, and, after the US and other foreign troops leave, a collapse of democracy into a military dictatorship or an authoritarian Islamic state. By then, of course, American minds will surely be focused on something else.

November 14, 2003
Washington D.C.

see also:

Removing Tyrants
October 4, 2004

The Chaos of Iraq
June 7, 2004

Depressing Thoughts on Our Victory
April 29, 2003

Badgering the United Nations
March 2, 2003

A Frightening Performance on Iraq
October 16, 2002

Impasse in Iraq
December 11, 1998

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