We as citizens of the United States observe politics from afar and the vast majority of us may participate in the political process only to the extent that we go to the polls once a year to vote. We may endeavor to follow the news accounts of our nation's politics as they unfold, and of the consequences those political actions yield, but we have little power to influence our "democratically" elected officials. Perhaps we write an occasional letter to our senator or representative, but we almost inevitably receive a vague and impersonal response explaining why they will vote in our opposition.

Over the decades, our representative democracy has been systematically undermined and has ultimately failed in preserving the well being of the people of this nation. The system that the founding fathers painstakingly devised in order to best serve the interests and the will of the people has been corrupted and the systems of checks and balances on power that they instituted have been stripped away. Most of us accept this reality as being beyond our control and continue to observe, comment, and complain without aspiring to achieving any real change, without any hope of instituting a new system of governance that would instead take directly into account your views, and the views of your neighbors, and would empower you to make real positive change possible in your communities.

This site will attempt to explore in depth the places in the world where people are successfully bringing about that type of change in the face of similar odds, where an alternate form of democracy, which is called participatory or direct democracy, is taking root. Initiative, referendum & recall, community councils, and grassroots organizing are but a few ways in which direct/participatory democracy is achieving great success around the world.

Our system of representative democracy does not admit the voice of the people into congressional halls, the high courts, or the oval office where our rights and our liberties are being sold out from underneath us. Our local leaders and activists in our communities, and even those local elected officials who may have the best of intentions are for the most part powerless to make real positive change happen in our neighborhoods, towns and villages when there is so much corruption from above.

In places like Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Brazil, South Africa, India, and the Phillipines, new experiments in grass roots community based governance are taking place. There is much to be learned from these and other examples of participatory democracy from around the world when we try to examine how this grass-roots based governance could begin to take root here in our own country in order to alter our political system so that it might better serve the American people.

In the hope that one day we can become a nation working together as a united people practicing true democracy as true equals, we open this forum…


Sunday, October 19, 2008

NIGERIA: A Lecture on Participatory Democracy

Odinga and Participatory Democracy


The Prime Minister of the Republic of Kenya, Hon. Raila A Odinga, in a lecture he delivered to commemorate the 25th anniverssary of The Guardian Newspaper in Lagos last week canvassed the practise of participatory democracy in the African continent. Ademola Adeyemo who attended the lecture reports

The gathering at the silver jubilee lecture of The Guardian Newspapers was a meeting of people of rich intellectual mind drawn from the media, the academia and the business circle who were at the Nigerian Institute for International Affairs,venue of the lecture to honour the invitation extended to them by the newspapers’ publisher , Mr Alex Ibru

The Guest lecturer, Hon Raila Odinga who became the Prime Minister of Kenya after a disputed and widely condemned ekection that claimed many lives talked about the problem of democracy in Africa and why the continent is under developed , According to him , whether African leaders like it or not, 90% of African people want democracy as a form of government

Said he " . The intrinsic values of democracy and good governance, and aspirations towards that condition, are universal. Ninety per cent of Africans say they want to live in a democracy, and this year, we have shown in Kenya, and Zimbabweans have also demonstrated that Africans are now more determined than ever before to have their say in governance. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, most of the remaining single-party dictatorships and one-man military regimes in Africa have crumbled and given way to emergent multi-party systems. There is an intense focus on replacing bad governance with good, and on the reform of political, economic, social and legal structures. There has been significant progress, but the way ahead is potholed with challenges.

According to him, Africa is the richest in terms of resources, and yet the poorest in terms of living standards. But he identified the major problem of Africa as that of being a victim of the self-interest of its exploiters. "The richest nations throughout history have used and abused our continent to fuel their own economies, extracting and benefiting from our raw materials and in the process hindering our development and entrenching poverty. This history led former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair to remark that conditions in Africa were "a scar on the conscience of the world".

"Each year, nearly 15 million people die in Africa from causes that have their roots in poverty. To heal that scar requires sound, selfless and moral political leadership. At independence, we knew we could not rewrite the past, but we knew we could make a bold commitment to changing the future. We needed inspirational and visionary leadership that would perform effectively and deliver for the people.

Odinga also said African leaders who emerged after the independence had good vision, but unfortunately, they were swept aside and a group of exploiters of people and their wealth took over. ". Instead of ensuring state and individual security, a functioning rule of law, education, health, and an economic framework conducive to trade, growth and prosperity, they in many cases have entrenched despotic power to pursue personal enrichment. It is a sad fact that most of our people are too young to have known anything else".

Giving the example of Zimbabwe, he said" A recent and current example of someone who has dragged our continent's name through the mud yet again is Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. We were thrilled when Mugabe took power as Zimbabwe gained its independence, but he has turned out to be a grotesque parody of a leader. He became a brutal dictator, whose contempt for democracy he openly expressed when he said: "We are not going to give up our country for a mere X on a ballot. How can a ballpoint pen fight the gun?" These are chilling words uttered by a national leader in a continent struggling to entrench democratic ideals".

Odinga who criticized the African Union(AU) for not doing enough to solve the problem of Africa also accused leaders of maintaining criminal silence when they failed to condemn brutal regimes and sham elections, including the second round poll in Zimbabwe earlier this year.

"But we should not be surprised at the AU's failure to stand up for democracy. Many of our national leaders have skeletons rattling loudly in their cupboards. Their personal misdeeds bond these leaders in a diabolical conspiracy of silence and complicity, in refusal to condemn their neighbours for fear of the spotlight falling upon themselves."

But he however said the dictatorship of the leaders will not stand any longer as the people of Africa have undergone an attitudinal change towards any leadership that fails to meet their expectations." They are calling leaders to account. In the past four years alone, there have been more than 50 democratic elections in Africa, and more than two-thirds of sub-Saharan African nations live in freedom. This is the first exciting step on the way to achieving the kind of leadership that can sustain democracy and bring prosperity to our continent." he further said.

True democaracy, according to Odinga is about freedom of choice, a universal concept that is meaningless without free and fair elections where the people can choose those who will govern them, and also dismiss those who have failed them. "Genuine democracy is also about freedom of expression and association, under which people can form themselves into likeminded groups and seek political power. It is about the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, without which none of the other freedoms can be secured. Most importantly, genuine democracy is about transparency and accountability in government"

He also expressed regret that corruption has been and remains the major scourge preventing economic growth and stability in African nations which, he said, has constituted a barrier to national development, t infrastructural growth, t trade and investment and moral authority .

Said he "Corruption is a close relative of ethnicity, the enemy of national unity. While each of us is rightly proud of our origins, our traditions, the stories of the ancients told by our griots, and the security and warmth of a shared cultural identity, the time has come when we must turn our backs on negative ethnicity, the kind that has been used to destroy our fellow countrymen and women.

We need the developed world and they need us. We need significant private investment, and they need a strong and that groundwork can only lie in a bold determination to commit long-term to good governance and leadership on our continent, building development-oriented solutions for our myriad problems, and embracing true humanitarianism in our democratic revolution. It is a vital step for all of us, whether we are Kenyan, Nigerian, Zimbabwean, South African or a citizen of any other country on this great continent"

Odinga however concluded his lecture by challenging African leaders to rise up and take their destinies. in their own hands saying " we have the power, we have the opportunity. We can change our world. Our only enemy is inaction - otherwise, everything is possible. We must confront our demons, raise our heads proudly, shoulder the burden and go the extra mile. We must make democratic change - and all that this entails - not just possible, but a reality

Former Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon in his remarks said the stand of Odinga represented a new phase of African politics. "They really have vision and determination to put in their best and to put things right in their countries and Africa as a whole. The man gave a very good lecture and as you can see a lot of it came from the heart."

On Odinga's insistence that the right to vote should be accompanied with the right to be voted for, the former head of state described the view as a very bright one. "We should always allow the people to determine who they want to entrust their rights to; who they want to put in office. We should refrain from tinkering with the system to give advantage to pre-determined people. I have no problems with that at all and I can understand the premise he's coming from," Gowon said.

According to him, there is need for Nigeria to strengthen its democracy. His words: "One of the problems is that we practice democracy in a very selfish way; in a wrong way. There should be no question on African democracy or a European democracy. Democracy is democracy and it needs to be practised in the correct way everywhere in the world. If it is done correctly and everybody plays by the rule of the game, all will be well. If your vote and my vote count, and it is respected and done correctly, then all will be well. I really hope that will happen one day in this country. He lamented that it is a pity that no African country can beat its chest to say it is practising true democracy today "Elections were being rigged accross Africa and this call for serious concern . Gowon also appealed to the leaders of Zimbabwe and Kenya to desist from "politics of winners take all "

Other guests also commented on Odinga’s lecture and agreed with the Kenyan Prime Minister on the theme of his lecture . They however picked holes with his recommended solutions to the problems of democracy in Africa.

Former governor of Ogun state, Chief Olusegun Osoba disagreed with the suggestion of using the political model of Kenya and Zimbabwe for resolving political problems in Africa. His words: "I'm still not sure whether the Kenyan or Zimbabwean option is a solution to African problems. When dictators rigged election and then go round to negotiate and give crumbs to the winner of the election, this gives one reasons for concern. I don't believe it is a solution to democracy in Africa. Democracy is democracy anywhere in the world.

"However, the right to elect, according to Odinga, must also be accompanied by the right to be elected, otherwise a man like Barack Obama will not be talking of even emerging presidential candidate of one of the major political parties in the United States, not to talk of ruling America. The right to elect must also come with the right to be elected. It's a long way for us, but I am confident we will get there one day."

Former governor of Kaduna state ,,Alhaji Balarabe Musa while rejecting the Kenyan model for Nigeria also,said "Everybody knows that in 2003, the PDP did not win the presidential election. In 2007, they did not win the presidential election. If you say, let it go for the sake of peace, then we would never have a legitimate election in Nigeria. We will continue to have illegitimate government. The Kenyan solution is not good for Nigeria, and I cannot recommend it to any country. The peoples' votes must count. The people must decide who should lead them."

Musa insisted that the right to elect and be elected, which Odinga advocated, does not exist in Nigeria. He said: "In the last election, no voting took place at all in some places and yet results were announced in those places. You also look at inflated votes, consensus candidates, buying candidates and voters with money. In Nigeria, you have the worst situation where there is no right to vote and there is no right to contest. Even when you force your way to contest, it is meaningless. Even if you vote, it is meaningless."

The Second Republic governor said the quality of the Nigerian politics is very low. "In fact, the Nigerian politics has now become a commercial proposition. That's why we are talking of the illegitimate thing, by the ANPP in particular and all the other political parties that have come to join the rigger of elections -- the PDP - in what they call Government of National Unity," said the radical politician.

Revolution, according Musa, still remains the option for solving the Nigerian political debacle.
"When we say revolution, we don't mean violence or armed struggle; we mean fundamental changes. This fundamental change can come in the form of election, which is no longer possible; it can come through the National Assembly; again this is not possible with what we have on the ground. This fundamental change can also come through government realising the dangers of corrupt political arrangement to themselves and for the country; again this is not possible.

"But the people can exercise their rights either through sustainable street demonstrations on specific national issues or social revolution. What other countries have done, Nigeria can also do. The time may not have come yet, but it will come. We have reached the end of the road."Musa further submitted.

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