Democracy forums a waste of time

Joe Biden

US President Joe Biden with African Heads of State during the US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, DC, on December 15, 2022.

Photo credit: AFP

Kenya is among 120 foreign governments “and other partners” invited to participate in this year’s Summit for Democracy that went on from Tuesday to yesterday this week in five different countries simultaneously.

The first such summit was held in December 2021, the brainchild of US President Joe Biden, a year after his election. This year’s meeting, which was co-hosted by the US, Zambia, the Netherlands, Costa Rica and South Korea, comes at a time when the Western version of democracy is in full retreat in more countries than are embracing it.

This raises serious questions as to whether such a summit really makes any sense considering that many of those countries invited regard democracy as a Western concept foisted on the rest of the world.

Efforts to find out whether Kenya actually participated - virtually or physically - bore no fruit, but in this regard, one wonders what would have been the point anyway at a time of great turbulence when crowds are pouring into suburban streets and byways, teargas and water cannon being liberally used, while a clique of politicians actively planned and executed primitive retributive measures against their rivals for alleged financing and leading protests against high prices of food.

As matters stand right now, African countries have grown wary about initiatives of this nature sponsored by the Americans, and this is for two good reasons. First, the Cold War seems to have returned with a vengeance after sustained forays by the two Communist powers, China and Russia, into the continent.

This time, the competition is not about ideology; the three nuclear powers are now competing for the continent’s natural resources, especially minerals, which are still in plenty. The second reason is that the US has at long last realised that its “benign neglect” of Africa has been counter-productive, for it has allowed other global players to stake claims to the continent’s resources.

At a time when the Chinese are investing a great deal in building huge, easily visible infrastructure projects like roads, bridges and stadiums – albeit through very costly loans to recipient countries — and while Russia has reportedly become the greatest supplier of sophisticated arms to many countries, most Western countries have stuck to preaching the virtues of good governance to regimes that thrive on violence and chaos.

African governments, once in power, do not want to be told how to carry out clean elections when the poll numbers don’t favour them. They do not want to be preached to about the need to fight corruption if this is what gives them the muscle to hang on to power.


Most of all, they do not want the hypocrisy that classifies them as autocrats as long as they know their neighbours jail more opponents, harass more journalists, commit all kinds of atrocities, and all they ever get is a slap on the wrist.

They want to know, for instance, why the US insists on supplying them with GMO food, and why Russia supplies them with arms to kill one another, and why “smaller” countries like Ukraine supply them with grain and cooking oil.

They also want to understand the subtle ways in which the second scramble for Africa is taking place, and what they can do to save their natural wealth from those who would grab it while offering platitudes in return. This fixation on Africa cannot be for the continent’s own good.

In fact, many people, including some US foreign affairs experts, do not understand this preoccupation with summits or forums meant exclusively for African leaders held in Western or Asian capitals, assemblies that have become nothing more than inconsequential talk-shows. African leaders know that no penalties will be exacted on them for abusing the human rights of their subjects. Indeed, they know that they will be feted as budding democrats who occasionally lapse so long as they have unexploited natural resources that must not fall into the hands “enemies”.

Although it is a fact that more African countries profess to be democracies than ever before — carrying out elections after every four or five years — it is also a fact that half of them are democracies only in name.

Quite a number have done away with term limits and have, in essence, become life presidents, while others have so brutalised their people that ordinary men and women can only criticise their governments in whispers.

This is a more insidious form of dictatorship than the overt kind, but you cannot tell, judging from the way such leaders are welcomed at global events with open arms, which only encourages them to be even more despotic.

During this summit, President Biden announced a $690 million package for “programmes that support free and independent media, combat corruption, bolster human rights, advance technology that improves democracy, and support free and fair elections”.

The only problem with that pledge is that during the first summit in which he promised $424.4 million to support virtually the same things, it is not clear how the money was spent. Maybe it would have been better to finance programmes that support financial transparency and responsibility as a starting point.

Mr Ngwiri is a consultant editor; [email protected]