Wednesday, 9 January 2008


Diderot, the great French encyclopaedist of the 18th century once said that every age has its dominant idea. In African political systems in general and in Zimbabwe in particular, democracy is the dominant idea of this 21st century. That Zimbabwe is in a serious political, constitutional and socio-economic quagmire cannot be assailed. It has been noted the world over that the acid test for democracy in a country at any given time can only be measured in a situation where the socio-economic and political conditions of that country are in the doldrums.

Since the Harare Heads of State meeting of October 1991, fostering democracy in the Commonwealth countries has been the dominant preoccupation of different States (Zimbabwe by then had not yet ex-communicated itself from the Commonwealth). How to consolidate democracy and make it durable has been and still is the greatest challenge facing many African countries, especially Zimbabwe which, to say the least seems to be regressing in that respect. The Harare Heads of States meeting of October 1991 was very clear on the merits of democracy as a system of government. From the deliberations of that meeting, it was also equally clear that democracy could not take a standard or uniform format in all African countries but that it has to take different forms to reflect national circumstances in different regions.

However, the point must be stressed that whatever national variations, a true democracy would be judged and recognized by the presence of a number of essential universal ingredients. These include the right of a people to choose freely the men and women who would govern them and to cashier them, the primacy of the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary; freedom of expression and association and the continuing transparency and accountability of the government. At the heart of any democracy lies accountability. Where there is no accountability there is really no democracy. It is society’s insurance against abuse of office on the part of those who form government at any given time. Accountability can only be enforced if the governed have the power to make and unmake governments.

Democracy is essentially about choice – choice of policies articulated by parties and choice of personalities. This freedom of choice is meaningless without free and fair elections. Free elections in turn entail freedom of speech and association. Without freedom of speech, the appeal to reason, which is the basis of democracy, cannot be made. Without freedom of association, meaningful political parties are practically inconceivable because in the absence of freedom of association and assembly it is difficult for people to band together into parties and formulate policies to achieve their common ends. Moreover, none of these freedoms can be secured without the rule of law and the independent judiciary. An independent and honest judiciary has an importance that cannot be overemphasized. Where the judiciary is either corrupt or incompetent; elections, accountability fundamental human rights and all other rights guaranteed by the constitution become in effect illusory.

A situation in which the activity of politics is devalued is inimical to democracy. Democracy after all is about debate. It is also about the right to dissent in a civilized manner. Political parties provide the necessary platform for constructive criticism of government policies. Genuine political opposition is a necessary attribute of democracy, tolerance and trust in the ability of citizens to resolve differences by peaceful means. The existence of an opposition without which politics ceases and administration takes over, is indispensable to the functioning of efficient political systems.

The division between government and opposition is as old as political democracy itself. In Aristotle’s Athenian polity, the essence of self-government was that citizens were, in turn, both the rulers and the ruled. Government could alternate among different groups of citizens, and the minority could seek to persuade the majority of its point of view by peaceful (i.e. Political) means. In the age of mass politics, direct citizen democracy has been replaced, with rare exceptions, by representative systems providing for periodic elections. In turn, these electoral contests are usually dominated by a small number of political parties, which select their candidates and leaders. What has not changed, however, in our modern liberal democratic society is the hallowed principle that government must rest on the consent of the governed – which means, inter alia, that the minority accepts the right of the majority to make decisions provided that there is reciprocal respect for the minority’s right to dissent from these decisions and promote alternative policies.

It therefore follows as a logical corollary from the above that there can be no genuine or durable democracy without genuine political parties. This prevails notwithstanding the surviving school of thought which underscores that genuine political parties in the present conditions in Africa in general and in Zimbabwe in particular are practically inconceivable and that the foreseeable future ought to lie in a no party or one party system of government of all talents. According to this school of thought in the absence of social and economic conditions of the type which exist in the old democracies in Europe and North America, African political parties (especially opposition parties) are invariably either tribal coalitions or religious groupings or western puppet formations with little or nothing to do with national interest. In short, this means that political parties under prevailing conditions in Africa in general and Zimbabwe in particular will make for division and national retardation.

It is my submission that I do not share the same underlying fear and pessimism as expounded above. A no party system can easily degenerate into a no party dictatorship, very much akin to the way the old one party professed democracies quickly degenerated into one party dictatorship. It is my sincere belief that it is possible for agreed national constitutions of pluralistic states to proscribe the formation of political parties based on potentially divisive factors as ethnicity, race or religion. A viable democracy has to evolve organically- it has to evolve through civic education and no institution is better placed to perform the task of civic education than a political party. Inter party rivalry within the law also contributes to the growth of freedom. Modern political parties provide the channels for peaceful competition between one set of ambitions and another. Political parties are then central to democracy and since this has now been accepted in practically the whole of Africa, what needs to be looked at are the respective positions of ruling parties and opposition parties for the advancement of democracy in their respective countries.

In any democratic order or environment, the ruling party derives its mandate to govern from its success at free and fair elections. For a defined term, it has the exclusive responsibility for governing the country but within limits, some defined and enshrined within the provisions of the constitution and related legislation, others subsisting by convention. Because electoral majorities do come and go, no ruling party can plausibly claim to be the sole conscience and sole embodiment of the will of the people, let alone their own prophet and Messiah. Neither does a ruling party claiming to be co-terminous with the state champion the cause of democracy. If these and other excesses are to be avoided, the restraints provided by the Constitution will have to be supplemented by self-restraint on the part of the political parties. Majority parties must be allowed to govern but they must not govern in such a way as to appear to be gathering to themselves all power and influence within the state, thereby denying the rights of the opposition parties. However, the way the opposition parties oppose is equally important.

An opposition political party is part of the institutional machinery for democracy. A loyal and credible opposition is a boon to a country in a number of ways. As a party with an alternative programme for government, an opposition party serves as a peaceful channel for popular discontent. An effective loyal opposition is an effective argument against illegal and extra-constitutional means of gaining power and therefore a force for stability. To be effective and to remain true to the national interest, a government needs the stimulous of constructive and disciplined criticism to perform, and in sustained way, that can only come from a loyal opposition.

But no opposition will confer legitimacy on the government of the day and the other institutions of the state, or make for national stability, if it is not an opposition that is loyal to the interests of the country and the generality of the citizens. And it cannot be a loyal opposition if its manner of opposing is utterly unprincipled or if it seeks to couple constitutionalism with a readiness to exploit unconstitutional means to gain power. If in their respective roles ruling parties and opposition parties were to contribute to the greater good of their nations, they would need to cultivate a relationship based on mutual confidence. That confidence will enable them to agree on what aspects of the national interest transcends the party divides and, therefore, be legitimately withdrawn from inter party strife and brawls; the locus classicus being the British government policy over the Northern Ireland.

It is therefore unassailable that like constitutions, judiciaries and other related institutional frameworks; opposition political parties are also vital for the functioning of democracy. But in the end the point can never be stressed enough that democracy is no more than a system of government by men and women over men and women and, as such requiring for its smooth functioning more than inter party rivalry. Sir Winston Churchill once said that the best way of governing States is by talking. The fact that Zanu PF and the MDC have finally agreed to come to the negotiating table is in itself significant. In a sense, it is in recognition of the different roles each party plays on the political landscape in Zimbabwe. What remains to be seen is how the two parties are to resolve the problems that have bedeviled the whole nation: it being recognized that whatever they agree on, it has to be centered on the legitimate interests of ‘‘we the people’’- the conferers of that political power.