By Andrew Mwenda
As I write this article, a debate is raging in America on gun ownership – indeed it has been raging for generations. Every other day, there is carnage in America. Some crazy person grabs a gun and goes on a shooting and killing rampage – in a school, kindergarten, train station, shopping mall or church.
Tens die, many more are injured. Americans have been debating how to stop this incessant carnage in view of the second constitutional amendment that gives that nation’s citizens a right to bear arms. Opinion polls show that most Americans prefer some restrictions on the purchase of automatic weapons. Yet the country has been unable to martial a politically weighted majority for gun-reform.
For many outside of America, the fact that a nation can allow all and any of its citizens – even psychopathic ones – to carry automatic weapons with unrestricted rounds of ammunition sounds crazy. In fact, beyond the second amendment and its own culture, the failure by America to resolve the gun-ownership debate has a lot to do with interest group pressure – the gun lobby symbolized mostly in the power of the National Rifle Association (NRA).
With large sums of money to finance campaigns of candidates to congress, present its case through the American media and popular culture and to lobby Congress not to pass restrictive legislation, the NRA carries daunting political weight.
There is also something racial about American gun-culture. European Americans (read whites) are terrified of African Americans (read blacks) holding guns. They see them as a menace. So when most white Americans defend gun-ownership, it is because they see weapons as a form of self defense against imaginary (but sometimes real) crime perpetrated by blacks.
It is very possible that if “the right to bear arms” was promoted through the mass media and popular culture using faces of black men brandishing automatic and semi automatic weapons, the gun-lobby would most probably lose its political muscle.
But the lesson we learn from America’s past and present is that what seems obvious to common sense may be difficult to achieve in a democracy. It took the US 90 years from the declaration of independence (70 years from writing a constitution that clearly stated that “all men are born equal…”) to ending slavery.
It took another 100 years from abolition of slavery to the passage of civil rights legislation that actually extended the franchise to most black people. And even then, it had taken 15 years of a civil rights movement that involved legal suits, street demonstrations and reactionary terrorism by white extremist groups to pass the civil rights bill through congress.
Many reasonable people would conclude that it is very difficult to get things done through a democratic process as it calls for constant negotiation and compromise. One can imagine the number of mid-night telephone calls, lobbying, pork trading etc that President Lyndon Johnson had to go through to secure the voting rights acts. Even today, the gay-rights movement has been going through the same process in America and the Western world seeking the right of marriage.
Therefore, from the experience of the Western world, we learn that democratisation is a slow and agonising journey; its greatest achievements coming mostly through protracted and patient political struggle rather than by one great leap forward based on enlightened vision. Democratisation is essentially evolutionary, not a revolutionary process.
Yet this same process is denied when it comes to western nations push for democracy in poor countries. They do not see democracy in poor countries as a result of protracted internal political struggle and the compromise among different contending groups and interests. The West wants to dictate – using diplomatic blackmail, threats of military intervention, economic sanctions, cutting of foreign aid, etc. – that we democratize.
For Africa, whether it is gay rights or other liberal legislation, democratisation is not supposed to be a process. It must be an event. Its outcome should not be a result of negotiation and compromise among different and contending social forces and/or ideological tendencies. It must be based on copying and pasting what has happened in the West.
For example there is an attempt in Uganda by regime functionaries to pass a draconian law to hang homosexuals for being who they are. Homosexuals in Uganda and enlightened intellectuals and citizens within our society who sympathise with them, need to engage both the state and society in a healthy debate to relax their stance.
They also deserve international solidarity. But in promoting the debate, pro-gay rights activists would need to be cognizant of the deeply held traditions, biases and prejudices among the vast majority of Ugandans towards homosexuals. So the first aim of the debate should be to foster understanding in the hope that overtime, they will build a broad consensus in favour of same-sex relationships.
However, western governments and institutions do not want an internal debate that promotes both understanding and compromise within Ugandan society. Instead, they want rights of homosexuals to be realised through orders from Paris, London and Washington DC. As a result, many Ugandans feel that homosexuality is being forced unto our society by powerful nations with hidden motives.
Some Ugandans ask and legitimately so: how come Western powers are silent when opposition politicians are brutalised on the streets and when public funds are stolen with impunity? How come that it is only when gay-rights issues come up that US President Barak Obama and British Prime Minister, David Cameron, find time to call our president to complain? These high profile interventions therefore tend to undermine the legitimacy of domestic social groups affected by the anti-gay legislation.
A major reason democracy is problematic in poor countries is this attempt to realise it as an external pressure and imposition. Local elites, realising the support they get from western capitals, begin to disregard the necessity of internal political negotiation and compromise. Instead, they seek to rely on external actors to achieve that which domestic political negotiation is supposed to deliver.
What we are seeing is the development of a belief that once internal political struggle and compromise have been achieved in the West and a particular liberal legislation has been passed, poor countries are only expected to copy and paste this experience as their blue print. In many ways, therefore, a lot of Western efforts to promote democracy in poor countries are actually anti democratic.