Observations of an ex pat: Pressure cooker politics

Recent events in Zimbabwe have underscored the fragility, failings and dangers of unrepresentative government and the absence of the rule of law exercised by an independent judiciary.

Note the use of term “representative government” and “rule of law”.

Democracy is a much overworked term which is mainly used to describe the American and British political models. The existence of hundreds of different nationalities dictates that each nationality must find a form of representative government that suits its particular needs, history and culture.

But it must be representative, because as Zimbabwe has so accurately demonstrated, the problem with dictatorships is that they attract corruption, repression and failure.

Such governments succeed for a limited time as the governed compare the rulers to the incompetence of their predecessors. But gradually the misdeeds of the new dictator mount and are added to an increasingly explosive recipe. The dictator attempts to stay in power by repressing dissent and screwing down the lid on the simmering discontent.

But the issues feeding the discontent refuse to go away. Because of the repression they simmer all the more violently in a pressure cooker political environment  without the escape valve of a representative system through which legitimate discontent can be expressed.

Eventually the pressure becomes overwhelming. The political pot bursts with a violent overthrow of the dictator which damages the dictator, the governed, their country and usually leads to a sad cycle of dictator-repression-overthrow-dictator….

So where does the rule of law enter the recipe? Representative government—especially one based on the rule of a simple majority—is not enough.  It can sometimes be as destabilising as a dictatorship. It  leads to a dictatorship of the mathematical majority over the legitimate rights and concerns of the minority.

The world stage is littered with such examples: The Shias in Iran, the Sunnis in Saudi Arabia, Muslims in India, Hindus in Pakistan, the Rohingyas in Myanmar, Christians and Muslims in Lebanon, Muslim Chchens in Russia, refugees in Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, African-Americans and Hispanics in America, Asians and Afro-Caribbeans in Britain….

Some countries attempt to resolve the minorities problem by reserving a set number of seats for minority groups in the legislature. Not enough.  The right of all the citizens must be protected by the rule of law exercised by a judiciary independent of the political winds of change and based on the acceptance of common law and human rights.

Without the rule of law to protect minority rights, the government of the day can shout night and day to the rooftops about the powers bestowed on them by the democratic majority. But they are creating a pressure cooker which can be just as dangerous as any constructed by despots such as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.

I like to think Mugabe started off with reasonable, if not good intentions. I do not believe he set out to create a corrupt system which allowed his second wife to be nicknamed GucciGrace or DisGrace.

We met during the Lancaster House constitutional talks. Of all the delegates, Mugabe was clearly the most clearly focused, least corrupt,  intelligent, charming and charismatic. He also had a visceral hatred of the White race and of Britain. He tried hard to supress his dislikes  n the pursuit of the goal of Zimbabwean independence.

For a while he succeded. He even formed a friendship with Rhodesia/Zimbabwe’s last governor, Lord Nicholas Somaes.  It didn’t last. Partly because the guerrillas who fought for independence with Mugabe in ZANU-PF believed that they were fighting for economic as well as political control. And to them economic control meant land ownership.

Ten years after independence 70 percent of Zimbabwean land remained in the hands of White farmers, even though so many had immigrated to South Africa that those were remained were  reduced to just one percent of the population. This only intensified the anger of the war veterans anger with hefty war pensions which the state couldn’t afford.  This was the beginning of the trip down the economic slide

The pensions werenot enough. The war veterans wanted more. They wanted the land. So they took it. White farmers were forcibly dispossessed – and too often murdered—by maurauding war veterans.

The veterans ended up in courts facing a judicial system facing the judicial system that the former colony had inherited from Britain. They were told to hand back the land. Then Mugabe stepped in and declared “We will respect judges where judgements are true judgements.” And who determines what is a true judgement— Robert Mugabe of course.  Later he went even further and said in 2002 that Zanu-PF would defy any court judgement it did not like.

The power of the courts to protect minority rights – black or white– plummeted. The legislature became a joke. Zimbabwe was transformed from the breadbasket of Africa to a near-famine state. The economy collapsed. Hyper-inflation took over. Corruption became rife and the pressure cooker simmered, simmered and finally, exploded.


* Tom Arms is a Wandsworth Lib Dem and produces and presents the podcast www.lookaheadnews.com

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One Comment

  • I agree rule of law certainly is desirable. However, governments by technocrats that ignore majority wishes are also unstable and ultimately the protection of rights comes with the responsibility to strike a deal with the electorate. The problem is that yes dictatorship by numerical majority is indeed a possibility, but the numerical majority is still a reality and thus pretending it doesn’t exist is a recipe for instability too. Democratic politics is about compromise and what is achievable. Compromise doesn’t not primarily come from the electorate and the rule of law has to be based on a certain level majoritarian acceptability because governments can be replaced far more easily than the people can be. Plus if you have rule of law without majority consent, then what you have is by definition a dictatorship.

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