Development Includes Democracy

A Critique by John Bacher

By John Bacher | 1999-10-01 12:00:00

In the previous issue of Peace Magazine Ian Spears and Gerald Helleiner unfairly disparaged democracy. For instance, Dr. Helleiner says of the recently melted down Asian Tigers that, "there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the way these economies were performing." And Dr. Spears tells us that Nigeria, Somalia, and Zaire suffer from past "inappropriate" democracy.

Asia's Dictatorships

Regarding the Asian meltdown and the "crony capitalism" which Dr. Helleiner denies exists, the term actually understates the crimes of the powerful in Asia, which were hidden from scrutiny by the absence of a free press and vigorous parliamentary debate.

To say that there was nothing wrong with the performance of these Asian economies is to ignore the consequent deforestation and pollution left in the wake of economic collapse. In the summer of 1997, much of Southeast Asia was engulfed by a smog from unregulated motorized vehicles and the burning of two million hectares of forests to create plantations for the well-connected elite.

Fees collected from logging companies in Indonesia were supposed to support reforestation and fire-fighting projects, but the International Monetary Fund (IMF) later found that revenues had been diverted to establish an Indonesian national car industry. Even Time Magazine charged Suharto with robbing Indonesia of $3.5 billion.

Helleiner also ignores the fact that the most severe economic contraction since the Asian meltdown occurred in the country most repressive of human rights - Indonesia. In every other affected country, except Malaysia, where unarmed demonstrators practiced self-defence, the response to the meltdown was nonviolent protest.

The Indonesian crash was exacerbated by the absence of the rule of law. To divert protests against his dictatorship, Suharto permitted pogroms against Indonesia's Christian minority. This chaos encouraged a capital flight from Indonesia, increasing the impact of the Asian meltdown. Indonesia's powerful military still has not protected various minorities from mob rule. Death squads terrorize East Timor despite the presence of a U.N. monitoring force.

Africa's Dictatorships

In Africa the chaos resulting from dictatorship is more disastrous than what has been experienced almost anywhere in Asia, except Burma. Dictatorships have engulfed much of the continent in famine and civil war.

It is true, as Spears points out, that a free press is a good warning system against famine. However, Amartya Sen's analysis also stresses other benefits of democracy for famine prevention, especially through the power of voters. For example, Sen explains that Botswana, Africa's oldest democracy, avoided famine during the same droughts that plagued many of its neighbors. Indeed, during the drought Botswana's death rate slightly decreased. Public health and nutrition programs were given a higher priority than in normal times. But contrary to Spears' misreading of Sen, Botswana did not avoid famine through "localized making of day-to-day decisions." The key decisions were made at Botswana's national cabinet, which knew would lose the next election if it permitted starvation to continue. These democratically elected politicians over-ruled civil servants who wanted to treat famine relief as a lesser national priority.

The problem of the weak African state is epitomized by the situation in Somalia. Spears's belief that Somalia has benefited by its absence of government has been contradicted by events since he made his remarks. In early July, the Somalia Aid Co-ordination Body, representing U.N. agencies and humanitarian aid groups, reported that more than one million people are now at risk from famine.

The famine facing southern Somalia also highlights the stability of northern Somalia, which had been a British colony. Southern Somalia was ruled by Italy until independence in 1960. Although Somalia was one of the most homogeneous nations on earth - virtually the entire country are Somali speaking and of the Sunni Muslim faith - northern Somalia separated eight years ago to escape from the war-torn chaos of the southern half of the country. It has succeeded because it is a democratic state, with an impartial rule of law.

In northern Somalia, now the Republic of Somaliland, there was more resistance to the dictatorship of Siad Barre and its stronger civil society fostered a successful transition to democracy after the Barre regime collapsed. In 1998, a national congress representing various clan leaders adopted a constitution which is scheduled to be put to a referendum next year. However, no foreign government has recognized Somaliland.

Though Spears portrays southern Somalia as a vibrant and flourishing voluntary civil society, it is dominated by ascriptive clans and a harsh Islamic fundamentalist judicial system. Islamic courts commonly impose executions and amputations according to Shari'a law. According to the human rights organization Freedom House, in southern Somalia,

...rights to free expression and association are simply ignored. Autonomous civil or political groups cannot organize or operate safely. There are few independent journalists in the country and international correspondents visit only at great risk. There are no free domestic media, with a few photocopied newsletters circulating and highly partisan radio stations. Women experience intense discrimination, including infibulation, the most severe form of female genital mutilation. Armed factions have recruited children into their militia.

The armed factions in Somalia are supported by governments hostile to democracy, notably Sudan, Libya, and Iran. Although Helleiner attacks the U.N.'s efforts to intervene in Somalia as evidence of the folly of "well-meaning outside intervention," he says nothing about the foreign dictatorships that use their alliances with Somali warlords to export their exclusionary ideologies, such as repressive Shari'a law. This is a critical reason why the U.N. intervention failed.

Spears denigrates the need for a democratic state in Somalia by blaming democracy for exacerbating ethnic cleavages. But Somalia is remarkably homogeneous, comparable to Japan or Denmark in linguistic and racial uniformity. Since it has not held an election since 1969, democracy can bear only a minor responsibility for its current divisions on clan lines.

Spears also blames democracy for exacerbating ethnic cleavages in Zaire and Nigeria. Zaire's problems have even less to do with democracy than Somalia's, since it has never experienced free elections. After the country ceased being a cockpit for the Cold War in 1964, it was pillaged under the dictatorship of Mobutu Sesse Seko, who looted an estimated $10 billion from the country. Only one party was permitted in Zaire until 1990 when Mobutu briefly legalized opposition parties. But more than 200 political parties which emerged during and after the struggle against Mobuto have been outlawed by a new dictatorship headed by Laurent Kabila.

The case of Nigeria is more complicated. Before its recent democratization, the country experienced two other brief periods of partial freedom. Nigeria's civil war, its most serious ethnic cleavage, did not take place under a democratic government, but was largely a response to massacres of the Ibo minority during a dictatorship. This military government, whose atrocities inflamed the Ibo into separation, was a response to an Ibo-dominated coup that destroyed Nigeria's first democratic republic.

Helleiner's defence of one-party rule in Uganda ignores the fact that the country has not experienced free multiparty elections since independence in 1962. However, its elections in 1996 were considered free and fair. Most observers believe President Museveni would have won if he had permitted open party competition, which existed informally. His National Resistance Movement is in effect a political party whose candidates are opposed by politicians who run independently.

Despite legal strictures against open party identification in Uganda, the parties maintain offices and unofficially field candidates. Next year, Uganda will hold a referendum for a multiparty system. If achieved, observers believe it would discourage the graft and corruption that plague Uganda's "non-party democracy." There is considerable press freedom in Uganda, but less than that of most multiparty democracies. The Uganda Journalists Safety Committee is suing the government over the arrests and intimidation of journalists.

Imposition by Whom?

Finally, Helleiner cautions against "imposing parliamentary systems." This is exactly what the anti-apartheid movement achieved in South Africa. Its tough economic sanctions continued until the country's leading democratic opposition, the African National Congress, was satisfied that the country's transition into democracy had been successful. Unfortunately this degree of imposition has been almost unique.

Around the world, dictatorships are being imposed through military aid and export of repressive technologies. Much of the work of human rights groups is simply to stop this imposition of dictatorship.

John Bacher is a writer living in St. Catharines, Ontario.

Peace Magazine Fall 1999

Peace Magazine Fall 1999, page 11. Some rights reserved.

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