Democracy begins and ends at home

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Stembile Mpofu

One of the lessons of Systems Thinking analysis is that when one carries out an analysis of any system and hopes to understand it they must examine what it DOES and NOT what it SAYS it does.

This is an invaluable lesson because it allows one to carry out analyses without being influenced by a particular narrative. It is akin to watching a silent movie where one must draw their understanding of the characters and plot from the actions of the actors and their interaction with each other and their environment. Inspired by the recent events in Venezuela and in Zimbabwe, I have decided to analyse the concept of “democracy”, not in its academic sense but in the sense that us as ordinary people understand it. It is a term that slides glibly off the tongues of millions of people around the world. It is touted as the political state that we all must strive to attain and believe will deliver all countries that succeed in getting it right to political utopia and economic prosperity. We believe this because that is what it says it does. The ideals of democracy have been taught to citizens of the world using a variety of formal and informal means. The most effective being informal. We continuously learn about the values espoused by democracy through books, movies, music and newsfeeds. The word often associated with the concept is “freedom”. Freedom to associate with whom you like, freedom of speech, freedom to self-determination through the choosing of your leaders, choosing how your country should be led. We often see these values being outlined by US Presidents in the speeches they deliver before or after a military invasion of a foreign nation.

In 2002 George Bush delivered his infamous “Axis of Evil” speech after the US retaliation for the September 11 attacks on Afghanistan and in preparation for the invasion of Iraq. This speech outlined the plot that consistently tells the democracy story as we have come to understand it. It embodied the themes that underpin the plot that we as ordinary people have come to accept. The plot is simple, America and all democratic forces in the world are good and have God on their side, while the country that is targeted for invasion by these good forces is evil. The citizens of that country are in need of deliverance from their oppressive leaders making it necessary for the US on its own or together with NATO forces to invade the country to deliver the people from an evil dictator.

We watched Obama deliver a similar speech many years later before the Libyan military intervention. Recently Mike Pence delivered his speech to the Venezuelan people. This speech forecasts what is about to happen in Venezuela. America is planning a military intervention in Venezuela. The speech is standard, it begins by greeting the people of the targeted country in their native language, they are informed that their leader has lost legitimacy and can no longer lead and that America stands with the people of that country in their quest for freedom. There is an assurance that America will continue to stand with the people of the country until democracy is restored and they have peace and prosperity. The oversimplification of these situations in the speeches of US Presidents belies the complexity of these circumstances. The fact that Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya remain in varying states of turmoil long after “God’s armies” intervened is evidence of the fact that the story is not so simple. To understand this complexity we turn off the sound of the movie and examine the actions of the actors and not their words.

We can begin by looking at the actions of the so-called dictators. Often times the countries that are targeted for US intervention may not be in great economic shape. The governments that are in place will have a poor track record in as far as governing the country. They are likely to be corrupt and not tolerate dissent. The leaders will not be taking care of the people’s basic needs in as far as ensuring they have adequate healthcare, education and housing. These countries will rate very low on the democratic scale because the country’s leadership is contested by other groupings and dissent is often quashed through repressive laws. This set of circumstances however, does not necessarily mean that the democratic forces will be moved to come to the rescue of the citizens against their leaders. The fact is that there are many governments that are oppressive but do not have any action taken against them by the democratic forces. In fact their leaders may enjoy the support of democracy vanguards like the US, France and the UK.

Countries like Gabon led by the Bongo family dynasty for decades enjoyed the support of the French government and military despite being an oppressive and corrupt regime. Mobutu Sese Seko leader of Zaire now the Democratic Republic of Congo, was for most of his rule, pampered and protected by the US despite widespread knowledge of his cruel kleptocratic leadership. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait both countries with abysmal human rights records have not had their leaders declared illegitimate or had their citizens requiring rescue from the democratic forces. Looking at the actions of the players in this drama leads us to ask why despite having similar leadership and governance challenges, some countries’ citizens need to be rescued from their leaders’ oppression by democratic forces, while in other instances the democratic forces are propping up and supporting the corrupt and oppressive leadership of these regimes. It is clear that the good governance and human rights criterion is not the motivation. Even where the democratic forces say it is, their actions contradict that fact because in other instances they support oppressive leaders. So we must examine the actions of the players more closely to understand the workings of this system.

Now that we have established that interventions have little to do with issues of governance of a country we will likely find that the interventions are inspired by the needs and interests of the democratic forces themselves as opposed to the needs of the citizens of the targeted country. It’s not every protest or uprising that attracts the attention of democratic forces. We have not heard any pronouncements in support of the Yellow vest protestors in France, despite the fact that the protests have been sustained over months and have had thousands of people participating in them. The protesters have been violent and the response by the French police has been equally violent. Saudi protests during the Arab spring did not lead to military intervention from NATO forces but Libya and Syria attracted interventions.

If we look at the actions of the players we will find that the actions of these democratic forces do not begin at the point of the declaration of support for the oppressed citizens and the military intervention but long before. Because the interests of the democratic forces inspire them to intervene it is important to look at what it is that might attract their ire or support.

Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world. Saudi Arabia has the second largest reserves. In the 1970’s Saudi Arabia agreed to sell its oil exclusively in US dollars in return for regional military protection. This meant that the American dollar would maintain its place as the global reserve currency because anyone who wanted to buy Arab oil would need to have US dollars to buy it. The Saudi actions bolstered US global influence.

On the other hand however, the actions of Venezuela under Hugo Chavez’s