Documents on Democracy

Issue Date October 1994
Volume 5
Issue 4
Page Numbers 184-86
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On June 27, Wangarí Maathai, the founder and head of the Kenyan Greenbelt Movement, a grassroots environmental organization run mostly by women, addressed 150 U.S. scholars, policy makers, and development experts who were gathered at a two-day White House conference on Africa. Excerpts from her statement appear below:

In many African states, including the one I know best, Kenya, citizens have become prisoners within their own borders. The preoccupation with internal security and political survival by leaders misdirected scarce resources and sacrificed the agenda for human development for decades. It also encouraged leaders to make changes in national constitutions to give themselves absolute powers and control over all national resources and mechanisms of governance (radio, television, the judicial system, the civil service, the armed forces, and periodic elections) originally intended to provide checks and balances and prevent dictatorial tendencies.

All these mechanisms are heavily controlled, manipulated, misused, and censored by Heads of States. So poised, many of the current African leaders enjoy immense power and control and indeed run states as if they were their personal property. They have invented divisive and manipulative tactics such as the ongoing politically motivated tribal clashes in Kenya in order to stay in power. The tribal clashes are also presented as age-old tribal animosities, which are coming to the fore because of political liberalization.

However, in countries where the freedom of the press and information is curtailed, where citizens may not assemble, associate, or move freely without being harassed by armed policemen, it is difficult to know the honest opinion of ordinary men and women. At least in Kenya, I know for certain that tribes would live together peacefully as they have done for generations . . . .

This is not to say that ethnicity is nonexistent or that Africa will not have to address the problems of identity and nationalism, especially with [End Page 184] respect to the very unnatural nature of African nations. But the tribal agenda today has to do less with problems of identity and more with the issue of political and economic control of national resources. Those opting for the old one-party rule want to continue their monopoly of control.

. . . Dictators will continue to argue that democracy is a Western value that cannot work in Africa. But at the same time they deny citizens the right to have constitutional conventions to decide for themselves what type of democracy they want. In Kenya, for example, the opposition and the religious leaders have been denied the right to meet and discuss the Constitution. Yet the opposition represents 65 percent of the electorate.

The truth is that Africans, like all other human beings, want justice, equity, transparency, responsibility, and accountability. They want respect and human dignity. They want a decent life and an opportunity to feed, shelter, and clothe their families. They are not seeking to dominate or marginalize each other. They want to create a strong civil society that can hold its leaders accountable and responsible, as well as sustain mechanisms of governance which ensure the security of the people rather than the security of Heads of States and a small group of supporters and opportunists who surround them.

That is the type of democracy millions of Africans are striving for. And that is what they would like the leadership in this country to help facilitate—morally, economically, and politically.

The Arab World

The Ibn Khaldoun Center for Development Studies (Cairo) joined with the Minority Rights Group (London) to cosponsor the First International Conference on the Peoples of the Arab World and the Middle East and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Minorities. The meeting, attended by about 50 Arab and international personalities, was held May 12-14 in Limassol, Cyprus, with funding from the European Union. Originally scheduled to take place in Cairo, the conference was moved to Cyprus following heated controversy in Egypt over the inclusion of several sensitive issues (Southern Sudan, Egyptian Copts, and Iraqi Kurds) on the conference agenda. Following are excerpts from the list of general recommendations that were drafted and ratified by conference participants:

1. The conference advocates creating awareness as to the importance of the problem of sects, ethnicity, groups, and peoples (previously referred to as minorities) and accepting their existence as a reality in the Arab world and the Middle East. Denying there is a problem will lead to its deterioration and will consume our human, spiritual, and material resources. This process of education should include the holding of workshops, seminars, and conferences and disseminating literature on the [End Page 185] topic, specifically the publications of the Minority Rights Group and the Ibn Khaldoun Center for Development Studies. The most important such document is the “United Nations Declaration for Peoples belonging to National, Ethnic, Religious, and Linguistic Minorities” and any accompanying or explanatory literature.

2. The conference affirms that the protection of the rights of peoples belonging to sects, ethnicity, and groups is part-and-parcel of protecting the rights of the majorities. These rights can only be upheld by respecting political rights, full citizenship, democracy, and cultural and social pluralism . . . .

4. The conference affirms that the humane solution that is deemed essential to the problem of sects, ethnicity, groups, and peoples is to integrate them on a completely egalitarian basis in the political, economic, and social institutions of their society, yet without stripping them of their identities.

5. Even though the conference affirms its respect for the right of sects, ethnicity, groups, and peoples to “self-determination,” most of the participants warned of the possibility of abusing this principle to justify secessionist solutions, which constitutes a great threat to national unity, and offers no guarantees. Despite the conference’s sympathy with the massive loss in human and material resources, oppression, exploitation, and deprivation that the south of Sudan has experienced, it nonetheless warned the southern Sudanese participants not to walk this road to secession. Kurdish, Lebanese, and Shi’a leaders participating in the conference reiterated this request to their Sudanese counterparts based on their own experiences. They suggested that south Sudan approach self-determination with federal or confederal demands within a democratic framework . . . .

6. The conference affirms that loyalty should be based on allegiance to the nation. This loyalty is a right that should be enjoyed by both minorities and majorities, as long as compassion is the general theme uniting both groups.

Finally, the conference views the future of the Arab world with great optimism. Despite the numerous crises, grievances, and problems witnessed by the Arabs over the past few years (the latest one being the ongoing conflict between both ruling factions in Yemen), the participants expressed their optimism. They felt they were part of a new generation that believes in facing its problems without deception. They expressed their hope for the Arab people to be able to overcome their grievances through enlightened and humane solutions, if given a chance to do so. The conference reaffirms that democracy is the best and most essential medium through which these solutions can be applied. Let us learn from the South African example, and its unique human and political experience exemplified by both Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, who managed to formulate a historical rapprochement between two ethnically different peoples: the black majority and the white minority. [End Page 186]