Our April cover story focuses on the upsurge of public protests against two of Africa’s most entrenched Heads of State, Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika ( who has now forcibly resigned since we went to press) and Sudan’s Omar Al Bashir. Writes our Editor Anver Versi
Both leaders presiding over largely dysfunctional nations, had indicated their intention of manipulating constitutional rules to allow them to run for yet another term of office. The prospect of more of the same misery, stretching out towards an unquantified horizon, was too much for their populations to stomach and they came out into the streets in their hundreds of thousands.
This has happened many times before, in Africa and in other developing regions and no doubt, we shall be talking about a similar phenomenon involving yet another leader in the near future.
Perhaps this is a good time to remind ourselves about the evolution of the the relationship between the ruled and the rulers. Time was when the distinction between the two was sharp, clear and enforced through the cutting edge of steel or the hangman’s rope or the destructive power of a bullet. This was the long period of world history when absolute monarchies held sway domestically; followed by an era of plunder, conquest and colonisation abroad.
It was succeeded by the age of the people, who after centuries of bitter struggle and sacrifice, wrested control from the absolute rulers and determined to rule themselves in a manner that most suited their own needs and desires.
This manifestation took various forms but in general, the two main systems that evolved were democracy through universal franchise and communism through cell representation.
Democracy, in Abraham Lincoln’s immortal phrase, involved “Government of the people, by the people, for the people”. Those elected to the highest offices of the land, including the President or Prime Minister ruled on behalf of the people, not over the people.
Their one and only responsibility while they hold office is to do everything in the considerable power vested in them by the people, to fulfil the wishes of the people and employ the state’s resources, including the human capital, to alleviate problems faced by their citizens and improve their standards of living. They have no other function.
In order for them to carry out their duties – to which they are made to solemnly swear in public – their office is vested with privileges and sufficient pomp and circumstance to signal its national importance. The elevated status bestowed on the leader is not for his person as an individual but for the office he or she holds.
In order not to blur the lines between the office and person, each leader is given a limited time span during which the performance of the government is put to public judgement through elections. A maximum of two terms is deemed to be right time frame to prevent entrenchment and its consequent dilution of public power and also to enable the country to make a fresh start.
Democracy in theory and practice
This is how democracy should work in theory and practice. In many instances in Africa, as in the case of Algeria and Sudan today, the relationship between the ruler and the ruled has reverted to one of absolute power where the ruler no longer rules on behalf of the people but over the people.
Fortunately, the people in both cases, are refusing to allow this reversal to take place. Every country that has fought for its independence has done so in order for the people to rule themselves, not be ruled over.
Therefore, any attempt to subvert the will of the people or thwart their hard earned desire to rule themselves through transparently democratic systems, is in a sense, reverting back to the system of colonial rule. No free, independent people can ever accept this state of affairs.
It will stand our leaders in good stead if they keep reminding themselves that they rule on behalf of the people and for the people; they will also be wise not to confuse the power and prestige of their office with their personal identities.
Nowadays, only ceremonial monarchs wear crowns during traditional activities. Political leaders do not. Those who choose to ignore the will of the people and attempt to crown themselves should recall the phrase: ‘Uneasy sits the head that wear the crown’.