Democracy can be confusing. In the north-central British archipelago, a small group of lonely, insipid and disease-ridden islands off the coast of Suburban Europe, authoritarian Prime Minister Boris Johnson remains clinging to power despite “resigning”. After a revolt by ruling party lawmakers, led by MPs from ethnic minorities, Johnson has formed a transitional administration that includes many of the same people who are trying to overthrow him. While remaining in office, Johnson has vowed not to work hard, not to introduce new policies, and seems intent on spending much of the time planning his wedding.
This is not how most of us imagine government by the people, by the people and for the people. A country with a fictional constitution and no mechanism for removing an incumbent ruler, if it were in less inhospitable areas of the planet, would likely attract other titles in the international press. When it is up to a central committee of the conservative party in power to decide the rules for the appointment of the next leader, through a vote of the party members, it begins to resemble the system practiced by countries like China. Countries that, as many agree, are not exactly democratic.
Add to that Johnson’s three-year reign, which resulted in nearly three hundred thousand deaths, his ineptitude that collapsed the British economy, his populist antics, the corruption and crime that thrived under his rule, as well as its coordinated drive to restrict political freedoms, such as freedom of protest, the country begins to resemble another group of countries in Central America and the Caribbean, usually referred to as banana republics.
The way the world‘s news media use language to divide the planet has always fascinated me. In his 2011 book, Professional communication: legal and ethical issues (Professional communication: legal and ethical issues), professor Rhonda Breit, former lawyer and journalist, observes that journalists “are engaged in a work of creating borders and building communities”, which distinguishes between the society to which they must report. account and “the other”. Language is one of the tools for journalists to make this distinction. There are phrases and descriptions, usually benevolent and familiar, that are reserved for the societies they consider themselves a part of, while others, usually contemptuous and hostile, are used for those they consider different.
Whether describing natural or man-made disasters or political events, words often reflect these prejudices and preconceptions. If for example the events in the UK, a country divided into tribes, had happened in Africa, they would likely offer us tales of tribal tensions, predictions of future violence, and analyzes of the natural resources that make these countries worthy of attention.
But such discrimination does a profound disservice to the societies that journalists believe they serve by convincing them that they are somehow inherently different from the rest of the world, immune to the problems that plague it. When these problems make their way into the imagination, they are treated as anomalies, not symptoms of systemic failures. And so, Donald Trump’s experience does not inspire reform speeches in the United States, a country equally ravaged by disease and weapons, another great banana republic. Nor is the Boris Johnson story likely to do the same for the UK.
The truth is that sense of superiority can even lead reporters down ridiculous paths, such as when US Fox News host Emily Compagno invents “alternative facts” about Kenyan pregnant women being unable to leave the house or vote. to support her position that US women are not oppressed.
Yet for decades the two countries have zealously dispensed advice on democratic reforms to “third world” nations, many of which have consequently strengthened their institutions. In the meantime, the United States and the United Kingdom have allowed the systems and institutions of safeguarding democracy, never particularly strong in protecting the rights of minorities, to decay and atrophy. They are so convinced of their superiority that the idea of having to reform secular practices and codes, built for a different era and loaded with the beliefs and prejudices of previous generations, seems completely inconceivable.
Today, perhaps it is up to countries like Kenya, and to continental organizations like the African Union, to return the favor and send democracy experts to the United States and the United Kingdom. We should try to support organizations working from below for constitutional and electoral reform, as well as contributing to the civic education of populations that seem too easily to fall prey to the sirens of demagogy. And most of all, we should focus on media development and media education. As Africans, we should realize that it is our duty to stand on the side of US and British citizens, and support their aspirations for democracy and accountable and transparent governance.
(Translation by Federico Ferrone)