Democracy is dying, tighten your seat belts for a turbulent ride

It is the storm-tossed journey of democracy in the US that should worry the rest of us

In Summary

• The problem with the normalisation of questionable electoral practices is how quickly the bad manners spread unchecked.

• If there is any take away from it, for us facing an election in 2022, it must be that moral principles and the 'clean guy' image will not take you anywhere.

Caricatures of Tanzanian President John Magufuli and US President Donald Trump.
OUR HEROES: Caricatures of Tanzanian President John Magufuli and US President Donald Trump.

Four years ago, the world — or at least the sane side of it — was shocked witless when Americans elected Donald Trump as President.

Ahead of the election, it had been widely taken for granted that Hillary Clinton was on course to becoming the first female US President. Trump was 'different'. In a land where they hold their moral and democratic ideals way too passionately, Trump was the sort of rogue who didn’t appear created for the presidency.

Weeks before the election, a video emerged of him trying to justify the abuse of women. That should have provided the knockout punch, but it didn’t. Indeed, many media outlets routinely quipped that if Americans were to punish Clinton for her emails scandal, there surely wasn’t any way to compare her perceived crimes with that of a man who was increasingly being exposed as a rabid racist, misogynist and tax evader. Could he really get elected? Well he DID get elected!


Four years later, as the next American election approached, most of the world watched in shock as Trump repeatedly refused to unequivocally state that he would accept the election result. In campaign speeches and media interviews, he basically delegitimised mail-in ballots, and every institution and process that didn’t play to his whims. It was surreal.

Most of the world, used to treating American democracy as the model for their political dreams, was seeing this strange spectacle for the first time, and it took some getting used to. As expected, when the results were in and Trump had lost, he refused to concede defeat and alleged all sorts of unverified conspiracies.

As at the time of this writing, Trump has filed lawsuits to have results in some states voided, and America, the beacon of democracy, stands still, awaiting its most difficult transition ever.

It was US President Ronald Reagan who made the observation at his inauguration, "The orderly transfer of authority as called for in the Constitution routinely takes place, as it has for almost two centuries, and few of us stop to think how unique we really are. In the eyes of many in the world, this every-four-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle."

The celebrated Republican icon should have had the quote framed and posted at their party headquarters and the White House.

But even Reagan couldn’t have figured that the first sitting president to refuse to acknowledge election results would be from his Grand Old Party. Perhaps he assumed the message applied only to backwater African countries where natives supposedly ate each other’s livers for breakfast and walked around with machetes for sport.

But it is this turbulent journey of democracy in the US that should worry the rest of us. For a long time, democracy warriors in the third world could say a few choice things about their local dictators, in the comfortable knowledge that Uncle Sam would weigh in with a statement here and there about respecting human rights and freedom ideals.


Here in Kenya, the famous 'Nyama Choma Ambassador', Smith Hempstone, served as President George H. Bush’s man in Nairobi at the height of the clamour for multiparty democracy. He was not afraid to get President Daniel Moi hot under the collar, with his open association with the Second Liberation warriors.

In a way, Ambassador Hempstone emboldened the democracy movement in a huge way and provided a crucial platform via which those who spoke their minds could rightfully believe the weight of America was on their side. That luxury has now evaporated.


Around the same time that the American elections were taking centre stage on global media, three elections had just happened in Africa — Tanzania, Guinea and Ivory Coast. In Ivory Coast, President Alassane Ouattara was running for a contentious third term, and no amount of persuasion would convince him that a man who came to power to correct President Laurent Gbagbo’s excesses couldn’t end up behaving the same way! But Tanzania is the more interesting case study.

It used to be that Tanzania was the country we referred to as a moral conscience when discussing Kenya’s animal instincts. Where our tribalism ruled our everyday lives, Tanzania offered us a chance to see the beauty of unity in diversity, where none other than President John Magufuli once reminded us that Kenya would be an excellent country, if we killed tribalism.

When we needed lessons in peaceful power transitions and attendant political stability, again, we only needed to look south to Tanzania. Yet in the last five years, Tanzania seems to have swallowed the Kenyan pill, with opposition leaders getting shot, arrested, fleeing the country or hiding in embassies. Mwalimu Julius Nyerere’s famed fountain of political stability and peace has gone the route of most of its cousins and neighbours.

The results alone tell a story. President Magufuli supposedly won reelection by a whopping 84 per cent of the vote. One doesn’t have to be in the Tanzanian election agency to raise an eyebrow over such numbers, which suggest that the opposition is declining at inexplicable speed.

The problem with the normalisation of these questionable electoral practices — and Big Brother America’s own problems with their elections — is how quickly the bad manners spread unchecked. An analyst in a global media house remarked about the US election drama saying, “I am worried about the message it sends to the world’s dictators, led by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin."

The import of it was that the US had lost the moral stature to midwife democratic transitions across the world. This is both true and worrying. In a world where the 'us versus them' political doctrine gains ground by the day, we cannot afford to have elections mean nothing.

Yet the failure of people such as Ouattara and Magufuli, who came into office with huge promise to hold onto the democratic ideals they won by, is an ominous sign that the road ahead is rough for countries with weak national institutions like ours. Add to this the divisive politics that gives rise to unsavoury characters such as Trump, and you are clearly writing the eulogy of democracy, as we know it.

If there is any takeaway from this, for us facing an election in 2022, it must be that moral principles and the 'clean guy”' image will not take you anywhere. Through no fault of our own, the world is apparently embracing the quick-fix narratives that appeal to our raw instincts.

The type of leaders who lie in wait to exploit our naivety, and the electoral processes we accept as normal, are the final nails in the coffin of democracy. May it rest in peace with the angels.