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Tales from Capitol Hill and Myanmar; Lessons for democracy


On January 6th, supporters of Former President Donald Trump invaded Capitol Hill seeking to stop the certification of the election results which affirmed the victory of Joe Biden over Donald Trump. This came after weeks of President Trump baselessly alleging election fraud and attempts to illegally upturn the election; the president was even caught pressuring the Secretary of State of the State of Georgia to illegally find votes to ensure he wins the state.

4 weeks later on February 1st, the military in Myanmar overthrew the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. These two countries are at opposing ends of the democratic spectrum, the USA being a democracy of more than 2 and half centuries while Myanmar became a democracy in 2011. That both witnessed massive attacks on democracy is a pointer to the need for any country to courteously guard her democracy as no democracy is too big or sophisticated to collapse.

Thomas Hobbes in his ‘State of nature’ posited that the state of nature is characterized by the “war of every man against every man, a constant and violent competition in which each individual has a natural right to everything regardless of the interest of others.” In this state of chaos, nature will give rise to an order. History has shown us however that this order is not democracy. From our mammalian and ape cousins to our early history, the default social order has never been democratic. That it took millennia for us to arrive at democracy (the Athenian democracy never included many such as slaves while the American democracy at independence never included blacks and women) as the preferred system is a pointer to the fact that leave any society to default events, it will bring about a political order which will never be a democracy. The fact that the crave for strongmen still pervades many democracies today shows a sort of default attraction towards a strong figure, autocrat, king, emperor. It is therefore pertinent for democracy to be guarded against its fragility.

Events in Capitol Hill and Myanmar present two major attacks against democracy in different scenarios. In the USA, a strong democracy, it was a case of an incumbent president wanting to thwart the democratic process to stay in power cheered up by a mass of complacent Americans who have never witnessed state failure and thought democracy was a natural birthright. In Myanmar, it was a military class that removed a government who just won an election in November on the excuse of alleged election fraud, the same argument Trump based his attack on democracy on.

In America, it was a structure of strong institutions that held firm in the face of the onslaught. An independent judiciary, a military that is well educated of its role and allegiance to the constitution and not to an individual in power, a political system where there is a freedom of thought in political parties giving rise to a strong and independent legislature. In Myanmar, it was a case of institutional failures from the government committing genocide against Rohingya Muslims, the military suppression of opposition members ordered by the government and the final takeover of the government structure by the military.

Going forward, democracy will not survive by just elections alone. Democracy is built on strong institutions independent enough to withstand and resist the hijack attempt of autocrats. Democracy also must strive to genuinely be legitimate and fulfil the law of social contract to thrive because, it is hard to build a democracy, autocracy however, is cheap and could be gotten on the street. We must therefore be ready to work hard to sustain democracy.

Bright Ogundare writes from Lagos and can be contacted through brightogundare@gmail.com



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