The United States President Joseph Biden is set to convene a virtual group of over 100 world leaders in early December for the first-ever ‘Summit for Democracy’. The summit comes at a time when democracy in the States has undergone a litmus test in recent times.
Among this is the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement that was occasioned by the murder of George Floyd in May last year, the African American was murdered during police enforcement. This tragedy was filmed by pedestrians, spread on social networks and subsequently triggered a round of protests across the world.
The incident and the aftermath of the recent US election where former president Donald Trump disputed the results with unverified accusations of election fraud, produced a strong response in American politics and social life, allowing us to understand the political and economic plight of contemporary American society.
It is not surprising therefore that the US was for the first time listed as a “backsliding democracy” in an annual report on the state of global democracy from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, a Stockholm-based organization. International IDEA’s report, which looked at trends across 2020 to 2021, said that the US ‘fell victim to authoritarian tendencies’.
Law enforcement is a mirror of any democracy. With some law enforcement actions coming under close scrutiny and considered excessive by many human rights movement organizations in the United States, the same is mirrored in our Kenyan context. While in America such criticism stems from the application of the law based on race with perceived hardline on blacks, application of the law is seen based on one’s economic status here at home.
The said challenges that have faced the United States – largely seen as the model democracy present learning ground for young democracies like Kenya. They send a strong message that even with the adoption of perceived modern self-governing practices, the so called democracy is a process rather than a destination.
Much remains to be done therefore in transforming public perception on the application of the law towards making the quest for justice a service available to the majority while firm on the minority who opt to go against stipulated laws.
Commendably, the status of Africa’s democratic process is not all gloom. In its report, the International IDEA’s report noted that in most African countries, regular elections have paved the way for peaceful transfer of power and amidst the pandemic, election management bodies (EMBs) adapted to the rising health and safety challenges, showing resiliency and flexibility while ensuring that most national and/or subnational scheduled elections remained on course.
Some signs of democracy are emerging in Africa with several elections setting the pace for peaceful transfer of power. Zambia where opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema defeated incumbent Edgar Lungu in the presidential election is a classic example, Ghana is also a good case where the long term opposition leader is now the president after beating the ruling party. In Malawi the Supreme Court cancelled the election results and declared the opposition leader the winner.
The ground is now shifting which explains why many here were surprised by the storming of the US Capitol building in January and former President Donald Trump questioning the legitimacy of the 2020 election results in the United States without substantiating his allegations. This was followed by a series of deliberate efforts to misinform the public while undermining fundamental trust in the electoral process. Such actions caught many by surprise and soiled the image of the United States as we know it.
Kenya has one of the most progressive constitutions in Africa but implementation remains elusive. The culture of electoral violence and win at any cost is still firmly entrenched in our politics. The role of state supporting one side is also a threat. Our electoral laws need reforms to limit the use of money to buy votes and make cash handouts illegal. But besides all these, with the prevailing economic challenges exacerbated by the pandemic in the country makes it difficult to have smooth and just election outcomes.
The writer is Dr. John Musingi,
Senior Lecturer – Resource use conflicts,
University of Nairobi.