of democracy, institutions and citizenship (part one)

On Tuesday I went to a panel discussion called ‘Is Africa Reinventing Democracy?’ as part of the BBC’s Democracy Day.

It was a really interesting panel and discussion – more about what democracy in Africa looks like at present and where it is going than whether it is reinventing it (there was no real definition of ‘democracy’ which makes it hard to pick out a reinvention) – and not just because it was amusing watching the chair, Alex Jakana, attempt to get one of the panellists, Nana Akufo-Addo (a Ghanaian politician), to stop talking over the other panellists (Jason Njoku, a Nigerian businessman; Ayat Mneina, a Libyan youth activist; and Robtel Neajai Pailey, a Liberian academic), especially the young women…

No what was really interesting to me was the repeated emphasis on talking about the institutions that have been built and continue being built in various African nations – including the phrase:

“Strong institutions make strong democracies”

For a start there was (a) no real mention of what these institutions are – are we talking parliamentary chambers, courts of justice, media, business, civil service and bureaucracies, etc. etc, and how they make democracies strong. Presumably they’re thought to do so by performing some kind of check on the presidency, or on parliament? But how – and what happens if you end up with an institution like the US Congress which has the potential to check the presidency to the extent that things shutdown? Sometimes you might want to have that potential, and at others you really don’t.

Do strong institutions make strong democracies? I don’t think that’s a necessary follow. Strong institutions probably make for a strong political system, no matter the nature of that system. I imagine that plenty of dictatorships, absolute monarchies, and aristocracies and oligarchies throughout history have had strong institutions (The Roman Republic, being one of them, not a democracy, people) – generally pointed towards the ends desired by the system of government.

I think that what makes (a) a strong institution and (b) a strong democracy, is the nature – or quality – if you will of the people acting within it. The citizens. And what was really interesting to me was that there was no discussion of citizenship by the panel – or from the audience – at all.

Maybe this is only interesting to me because I spent three years exploring what the Romans thought made their res publica work – including their various institutions (magistracies, Senate, public assemblies, law courts) – and by the end of the first century BC they were completely obsessed with citizenship. A large part of this was due of course to the fact that after 100-odd years of protests, violence in the streets, and all out civil war, it was pretty clear that the institutions alone could not maintain Rome’s res publica. Now, you could argue that Rome’s institutions had got weaker – but how?

Institutions are exactly as strong or weak as the people who belong to them make them.

You might have different opinions on what qualifies as the strength or weakness as an institution and how that plays out in the political system (feel free to write me an essay on whether the strength of the US Congress is a weakness, or whether the relative weakness w/r/t congress of the Presidency – so designed because, ahahaha, the constitutions founders had experienced Georrge III – was intended to be a strength… I will read it) and on what constitutes the good citizenship that makes a state function, but…

But, the strength of a democracy is the result of some equation of the design and function of your institutions in relation to the character and behaviour of your citizens.

(part two is now here)

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