Between Democracy Development: What Gives?

by Michael Oluwagbemi II

An abiding fallacy amongst civil rights campaigners, their non-governmental organization surrogates and their world financial institutions is that somehow democracy begets development. In the minds of these folks, democracy (read: an election, a free press and a free society) somewhat equals good governance. There is no doubt that good governance (read stable leadership that begets sensible policies and secure society) is sine qua non to development, but same cannot be said about good democracy.

What is good democracy? A strong democratic society should have a free press, fair elections and representative government. These three elements are fundamental to the ideals of a republican democracy. However, the underpinning chaos in this utopian idea of good democracy is that, most advanced democracies today did not begin as good democracies. These democracies started with only an oppressive few being truly free. They gradually expanded the boundaries of freedom as the society developed and could afford the multiple voice of dissent that often characterizes democracies.

Certainly, a case can be made for full blown democracy being an instrument for slowing down development. Case in point is most African nations (especially those freed in the 60s from British colonialism The British left in Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and Zimbabwe a semblance of democratic societies modeled after Westminster ideals. The problem with this arrangement is that it bred chaos. Indeed, as soon as the promises of democracy (“dividends” as they are so called) are not delivered on bread basket, agents of destabilization moved in via coup d’état, counter coups and civil wars. Anarchy rose from the ashes of failed democratic experiments across the continent, and Africa is worse for it today.

Contrast this evidently with the limited (but expandable) form of democracy the revolutionary founders of America bequeathed to their country. Under this system, only rich white land owners were empowered at the onset. However, the system was designed in a way that the sphere of freedom could slowly expand as the advancement of the American society in wealth, and enlightenment sets on the young nation. Slowly but surely, poor white men (in the 1800s), white women (in early 1900s), colored people (in the 1960s), and the young (after Vietnam War) were empowered to fully participate in the American system of democracy. Underlining this system was a cruel, but pragmatic realization that full blown democracy can be counter productive to development, which should be the priority of any society, or government.

Another example that proves the point that democracy is not necessary for development is what I call a tale of two countries in the Island of Hispaniola. Both countries (Haiti and Dominican Republic) have similar history of exploitation, slavery, imperial subjugation and above all dictatorial government. However, all dictatorships are not made equal. The dictatorial regime of the Duvaliers (Papa Doc and Baby Doc) could not wait to loot Haitian treasury a la Banda, Mobutu and Abacha style. Stealing and carting away millions to foreign lands (some estimate in the billion dollar range) was in style under the Docs’ reign. Their family even sold 20,000 Haitians to slave labor in Dominican fields (after killing thrice that number), and sold gallons of Haitian blood and cadavers to western medical school for shameful monetary rewards. This was dictatorship meld with bad governance.

On the other hand, Dominican Republic had General Trujillo. Trujillo was no George Washington. The man was born the day the word “mean” entered modern diction. His absolute reign “was accompanied by absolute repression and the copious use of murder, torture, and terrorist methods against the opposition. Thousands died under his rule. Moreover, Trujillo’s megalomania was on display in his renaming after himself the capital city”! However, what stood Trujillo apart from his Eastern Hispaniola pair was his passion for development. Under Trujillo’s reign, there was considerable economic growth. There was progress in healthcare, education, and transportation, with the building of hospitals and clinics, schools, and roads and harbors. Trujillo also carried out an important housing construction program and instituted a pension plan. Indeed, Trujillo left the country debt free even after helping himself to some of the wealth (after creating it!). In Dominican, a dictator saw the country permanently outpace her neighbor under similar dictatorial circumstances. What mattered was leadership and governance

From China, to Singapore to Malaysia, time and time again, it has been proven that non-democratic governments with good leadership, lofty visions and a disciplined and organized followership can achieve great things. The strong growth Russia has experienced under Putin’s iron fist pseudo-democratic control as opposed to the free for all democracy era of Yeltsin is yet a proof that full blown, unrestricted democracy can in fact be an enemy of development! A democracy where every Tom, Dick and Harry seems to have a say, when focused rapid development and hard work is required is never productive. Of course, in centuries past some of the most blood thirty emperors, czars, conquerors and kings somehow were able to propel their nations to advancement. Indeed, South Africans today lay claim to the most developed economy in Africa due to the sheer progress made under apartheid, as difficult as it is for an African to swallow that truth.

Just as a footnote, this essay is not a work praising and/or recommending brute dictatorship. Consider it an anthology on development begetting democracy, and not the other way round. Indeed, you may be correct to file this under the title, “benevolent dictatorship”. I am remise to say, that an understudy of world history and governments, will make a case for gradualism and evolution into full democracy instead of sudden burst of democratic fervor (in form of elections, transitions and multi-party transformations) that have characterized Nigeria, and other sub-Saharan nations in recent years. These developments indeed, might have elongated the long nightmare of underdevelopment in the region.

In Nigeria, one with the benefit of hindsight may realize the missed opportunities in 1960, 1979, 1993 and 1999 to do the proper thing and bequeath to our country a limited but expandable form of democracy; one where not every literate and illiterate can vote, and pretend as if they both have equal stake in this nation.

Indeed, a survey of the chaos now called democracy in Nigeria, where votes are manufactured, and bought piecemeal with stolen money and thugs will reveal a better way. Perhaps a system that granted participatory rights to only university graduates with full military training (say in the National Service) will be more responsive. A democracy where only those who understand the challenges of building a free society, who can create wealth, who are disciplined and exposed enough, who can compete and build a lasting superstructure, who are trained to resist stupidity at all levels and who are empowered intellectually to do so will be a beautiful thing than the utter charade that is currently ongoing in Abuja! Yes that society will not be egalitarian, but it will be sane!

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