April 30, 2009
"That many African countries are in a mess is, to a certain extent, due to the way the colonial powers carved up the continent."
When I landed at KLIA last week, there was an annoying high-pitch whine in my ear. At first, I thought it was the engine of the plane cooling down.
But upon closer listening, I figured out that it was actually a chorus of whining voices saying: “Oh, we have another by-election coming up. How awful. What a waste of public funds. Moan. Moan. Moan. Whine. Whine. Whine.”
It was particularly irritating to hear such complaints, especially in the light of where I had just been. I was in Ghana for work, and speaking to colleagues from West Africa was a real tonic.
The world tends to see Africa as a place where chaos rules; and let’s admit it, when we do, there is more than a hint of smugness on our part.
How often have we heard the pompous comments that Ghana and Malaysia both obtained independence in the same year but look at us now compared to them?
Yes, it is true that many African countries are a mess; and even when they are blessed with natural resources, they are also cursed with corruption and violence.
To a certain extent, this is due to the way the colonial powers carved up the continent, drawing borders that suited their imperialist dreams, but not the natural divisions of Africa.
Thus, communities long at war with one another suddenly found themselves part of the same nation state. Not a recipe for success.
Yet despite all this, there is optimism and hope. Take Sierra Leone, for example. The vicious civil war the country suffered for almost a decade, fought over diamonds, is barely over.
The memories and the pain of that conflict are still fresh. And yet there is optimism there. An optimism borne on the hope that democracy gives.
They have the ability to choose their leaders and speak their minds — and that is a boon in a country that is economically in ruins.
In a nation where 70% are illiterate and electricity is a luxury, radio has become the main source of news and information.
And radio stations in Sierra Leone are blossoming, providing not just entertainment but, more importantly, a critical eye cast upon a government that is suddenly accountable to its people.
And believe me, their radio is way freer than ours. That this has been so in Sierra Leone is because not only have the people gone through the trauma of war, they have also suffered the frustration of having no voice.
In Ghana, the democratic process seems to have re-established itself firmly. A peaceful change of government via elections, a steadily growing economy and public safety make it the shining light among African nations.
At the workshop I attended, the Education Minister gave the opening address. He entered the little seminar room with no entourage, no fanfare, and he gave a speech lauding academic freedom and promising a new Freedom of Information law.
He looked and sounded like a servant of the people rather than some overblown “tuan”.
Of all the new friends I made, only the one from Ethiopia was pessimistic about the future of her country. I asked her: “If you had free and fair elections, would that attitude change?”
She looked at me like the moron that I am and said: “Of course it would.”
Over here, the moans grow loud at the prospect of another by-election and I can only shake my head in bewilderment.
The fact that we have by-elections at all is something to be proud of. And I believe by-elections are worth the cost. Speaking of which, I wonder just what the fuss about costs is all about.
Sure, there will be some overtime pay to the police, but considering how badly they are paid in the first place, I think a few million ringgit of honestly earned OT would be a good thing for them.
Besides, wouldn’t the bulk of the cost be borne by the respective political parties in their campaign efforts? Lest we forget, campaign funds should come from party, not government, coffers.
And lest we forget, if it were not for the ballot box, Sagong Tasi and his orang asli community in Selangor could still be denied the money owed to them for the loss of their ancestral lands.
That case went before the Court of Appeal which decided against the state government, then under Barisan Nasional. The latter appealed against the decision. Then the March elections ushered Barisan out of the Selangor Government.
Now, to the delight of the orang asli, the current state government has said it will drop the appeal.
Would this have happened if there had been no change in government? I don’t think so.
It seems that we Malaysians are so unappreciative of democracy that when the practice of this ideal becomes a little “inconvenient”, we start to get anxious.
The fact of the matter is, our democracy is still infantile and we have a long way to go.
In the meantime, we must press on. For we cannot hope for good governance until all the politicians in this country are made to realise that we can put them in power and we can also boot them out.
Neither can we hope for good governance until we appreciate this power and use it.
Having spoken with my new African friends, I am convinced more than ever that the alternative of not defending and using our democratic right, is unthinkable.
If pressing on means another by-election, then so be it.