Democracy can be a confusing thing. On the Mid-Northern British archipelago, a small group of reclusive, flavour-starved and disease-ridden islands off the coast of sub-Scandinavian Europe, the authoritarian-leaning Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is clinging to power despite “resigning”. After a revolt by ruling party legislators, led by ethnic minority Members of Parliament, Johnson has formed a transitional administration, which includes many of the same people who are trying to topple him. While hanging on to office, Johnson has promised not to do much work, not to introduce any new policies, and seems set to actually spend much of his time planning his wedding.
This is not what most of us imagine rule of the people, by the people and for the people, is meant to look like. A country with an imaginary constitution and no mechanism to remove a sitting ruler would, if located in less inhospitable parts of the globe, probably attract other appellations from the international press. When it is up to a central committee of the ruling Conservative Party to decide on rules for appointing the next leader through a vote by party members, it starts to sound like the system practised by countries like China that most would agree, are not exactly democratic.
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Add to that Johnson’s three-year reign of terror that has left nearly 300,000 people dead, his ineptitude that has tanked its economy, his populist antics, the corruption and criminality that flourished under his rule, as well as his concerted push to undermine political freedoms such as the freedom to protest, and it starts to resemble another group of Central American and Caribbean countries that are usually identified by yellow fruit.
The way language is deployed by the world’s media to segment the world has always been fascinating to me. In her 2011 book, Professional Communication: Legal and Ethical Issues, former lawyer and journalist, Professor Rhonda Breit, notes that journalists “engage in boundary work and community construction” that distinguishes between the society they are accountable to, and “the other”. Language is one of the tools that journalists use to make this distinction. There are phrases and descriptions, usually benign and familiar, that are reserved for the societies they consider themselves a part of, while others, usually derogatory and alienating, are appointed for those they consider to be different.
Whether it is describing disasters, natural or man-made, or political events, the framing chosen many times reflects these biases and prejudices. If the events in the tribally divided United Kingdom were happening in Africa, for example, one would expect to be regaled with tales of tribal tensions, predictions of violence and descriptions of the natural resources that make these countries worthy of attention.
Yet such discrimination does a profound disservice to the societies the journalists believe they are serving, leaving them believing that they are somehow intrinsically different from the rest of the world, immune to the issues that afflict it. When those problems intrude into the fantasy, they are treated as anomalies, not symptoms of systemic failures. Thus, the experience of Donald Trump does not inspire talk of reform in the similarly disease-ravaged, gun-ridden US, a top banana exporter. Neither does that of Boris Johnson likely to inspire the same for the UK.
In fact, the air of superiority can even lead journalists down ridiculous paths such as when US Fox News host, Emily Compagno, makes up “alternative facts” about pregnant Kenyan women not being allowed to leave home or vote, in order to prop up her position that US women are not oppressed.
Yet, the two countries have been eagerly dispensing advice on democratic reform to so-called “third world” nations for decades, many of which have strengthened their institutions as a result. Meanwhile, back at home, their own systems and guard rails, which have never been particularly strong at protecting minority rights, have been allowed to decay and atrophy. So convinced are they of their superiority that the idea of needing to reform centuries-old practices and codes built for a different age, and which embed the beliefs and prejudices of previous generations, does not appear to cross their minds.
Today, it is perhaps the turn of countries like Kenya, and continental organisations like the African Union, to repay the favour and send democracy experts to the US and UK. We should be looking to support grassroots organisations working towards constitutional and electoral reform, as well as help conduct civic education for populations that seem to too easily fall prey to the charms of demagoguery. Most importantly, we should focus on media development and education. As Africans, we should realise that it is our duty to stand with the people of America and Britain, and to support their aspirations for democracy, and accountable and transparent government.
By Patrick Gathara