Opinion: Sparks of hope abound but only if we grab opportunities

Maina Kiai by Maina Kiai
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I attended the ninth World Assembly for Democracy last week in Dakar, Senegal. The gathering brought together hundreds of civil society and social movement activists, journalists, academics, politicians and trade unionists to learn from each other and address the global recession affecting democracy and human rights.

The meeting came at a time when the world is different from ten years ago, and when expectations for democracy have lowered.

What was considered abnormal and unacceptable is now normal, such as open sentiments promoting racial discrimination, and growing intolerance and repression of the “other.”  

Some say this is just a “normal” downward swing expected in any process, but there is certainly a sense of foreboding; the last time intolerance and support for repression was this high, there was a global economic recession and then the Second World War.  

The invasion of Iraq by the USA in 2003 and subsequent attempt to justify torture and the illegal, indiscriminate and indefinite detentions of suspects at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba were crucial in the slide down. The US sent the message that it thought it was above international law.

Moreover, its difficulties on the battlefields in both Iraq and Afghanistan showed its touted military superiority was not as it was marketed, which prompted other emerging powers to start flexing their military muscles knowing the US cannot fight two wars at the same time.

For decades, the US put itself out as the paragon of human rights, and promoted democracy. The rise and success of the civil rights movement in the 1960s had been useful in providing a narrative that democracy was a work in progress and the US was constantly pushing forward.

What the US did not explain then was that immediately after the successes of the civil rights movement it began a systemic attack on black and brown America using the “war on drugs” as an excuse to incarcerate, discriminate and impoverish black and brown America as the ruling class pursued a white supremacist agenda in covert ways. 

This is a long story but I highly recommend reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “We were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy” for a clear and well-researched analysis.

The slide-back and hypocrisy of the US—compounded by its approach in the war on terrorism which prioritizes security and stability above democracy and human rights in countries such as Kenya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Uganda, Rwanda, Turkey and others--has been accentuated by the xenophobia of the European Union when it came to dealing with Syrian refugees seeking refuge in Europe.

The EU has disregarded the international refugee and humanitarian conventions in order to avoid dealing with refugees on their home soil.

Then there is the rise of China which has positives and negatives. Positive in the sense that a unipolar world with only one power can be dangerous, also China’s willingness to invest in infrastructure in developing countries is welcome.  

But negative given that the Chinese model negates human rights, dignity and dissent, giving all power and decision-making to a select few. Anyone challenging corruption by the top is at risk of jail or death.

It is this model, which has raised hundreds of millions out of poverty in China, which spurs African dictators to claim more power even though Africa’s record of putting development over democracy is horrible.  

For those Africans with longer memories, the decades after independence when our leaders told us to focus on development rather than human dignity and during which we got neither development nor freedom are constant reminders of the dangers of this model.

Amid all this depressing news, however, there are sparks of hope. While at the Assembly news of the success of people power in Armenia where a dictator who tried to stay on in power by shifting power from the presidency to an executive prime minister was forced out, provoked celebrations.

As did the enormous sense of relief and amazement that after 61 years, Malaysia had finally managed to transfer power from one party to another, even though the new leader is the one responsible for Malaysia’s problems with democracy and human rights from his previous time in power.

We celebrate Malaysians for this progress has come from blood, sweat and tears; and because Malaysian civil society can justifiably claim significant responsibility for this shift.  

The Bar Association’s focus on the rule of law rather than the rule by law, the organisations working on anti-corruption, the coalition building via Bersih and organising large peaceful protests were instrumental. They learned new tactics as they worked, including the need for constant contact with ordinary people.

As we seek to make Kenya a better place, our civil society should learn from Malaysians, Armenians and South Koreans—who are the masters of people power--on how to turn good ideas to reality. Only then can the “handshake” become an opportunity for Kenyans, rather than for politicians.

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