Government of the people, by the people, for the people

The phrase from Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg address, ‘that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth’ remains a telling reminder of the proper role, constitution, and function of government. Yet Lincoln himself was party to setting in motion a process that would increase the power of the US federal government and diminish the power of the states, so reducing America’s ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’.

Do noble causes such as the abolition of slavery or the enfranchisement of women not justify the centralisation of power? No they do not. Reform must be local to be real and lasting or the power remains centralised long after the ‘noble cause’ has been achieved and long forgotten. On top of this, later generations of politicians seek new ‘noble causes’ to lure people into transferring ever more decision-making power to government. Over time, piecemeal erosions transform ‘government by the people’ into despotic rule by their elected ‘servants’.

African governments have blamed the past colonial powers for many sins to divert attention away from the atrocities and other injustices they have committed against their own people. Significantly they never blame them for their greatest residual injustice to the continent’s people; that of leaving behind a deadly legacy of constitutional and government structures that have led, as night follows day, to strife, war and unnecessary deaths. The pernicious legacy the colonialists left behind was unrestrained centralised power; the kind of power they believed was needed ‘to keep the natives in line’. How could they admit to having governed in a tyrannical fashion, an admission they would have had to make, in order to, prior to departure, transform their despotic rule by creating the essential institutions of truly free societies?

Did those who were involved in the process of handing over to ‘democratically elected’ majorities not foresee that there would be titanic and endless struggles for power, through the misuse of armies and police to protect political incumbents against the protests of the people and to harm the people instead of to protect them from harm? Did they not foresee that they had set the scene for incumbent governments that would refuse to relinquish power once they had it? Did they not foresee the potential depredations of the likes of Idi Amin, Sanni Abacha, Mobutu Sese Seko, Charles Taylor, Robert Mugabe, Omar Bongo, Idriss Deby, Teodoro Obiang Nguena and others?

In most cases colonial powers patched together vast areas inhabited by people who, over centuries, had established territorial claims for their particular tribes or clans within tribes, living in various forms of peaceful co-existence based on respect for the property rights of others. They did this in a similar fashion to that developed by most other tribes and clans elsewhere in the world, including the nations of Europe. Sporadic wars and armed clashes arose from disrespect for the property and other rights of the nation, tribe or clan, in the same way as wars and armed clashes continue to occur across the globe, interspersed by periods of peaceful co-existence.

African traditional governance functions much the same as the Swiss system of direct democracy, except that Africans generally prefer consensus to majority decision-making. They make decisions on an issue-by-issue basis at the appropriate village, clan or tribal level, ensuring that people have a direct say over issues affecting them. The traditional leader acts as a facilitator rather than as a chairman of gatherings and generally rules on disputes between individuals with the advice of elders. Autocratic traditional leaders are the exception and are regarded as mavericks by African traditionalists.

Colonial rule, by contrast, was by its nature based on centralised rule through the barrel of the gun. The colonial powers prevented concerted opposition to their dominance by playing off against each other the various groups within the patchwork territories. A semblance of peace was maintained by force, with the colonialists acting as ‘peace-maker’ in strife that they had deliberately or carelessly created, often by interfering in the traditional governance mechanisms of the people. Handing over the dominant role and the guns to a ‘majority’ in an unnaturally created patchwork of disparate peoples designated as a ‘country’ was bound to have tragic consequences. As it has done already, repeatedly, and as it will do in Iraq, and wherever else something similar is attempted.

If, before withdrawing, the colonial powers in Africa had attempted to restore some semblance of the situation that had existed when they arrived on the continent, they could have avoided leaving behind a ticking time bomb, destined to lead to the deaths of millions of people. If they could have devolved decision-making down to the lowest possible level as the previously feuding tribal and religious groups did in creating Switzerland, or as it was in many parts of Africa before the colonialists arrived, Africans would have been spared much of the agony they have endured and we would not be reading the headlines about the tragic events taking place in Kenya, with violence and deaths following claims that Mwai Kibaki is stealing the Presidency from Raila Odinga.

Who knows the name of the President of the Swiss Confederation? Have you seen a headline with the name Pascal Couchepin in it? By contrast, the names of African politicians are constantly in the news. The whole world now knows the name Kibaki. The whole world knows Mugabe. They know these names, not from good news stories but because of bad news; bad things that are happening in Africa. Not so many know the name Mbeki and if South Africa is extremely fortunate, not too many will know the name Zuma.

Why do we not see the name Pascal Couchepin in the headlines? Switzerland is, like Africa, diverse in its composition and could have continued to endure constant conflict but for the fact, as described by Leon Louw and Frances Kendall in South Africa: The Solution, that ‘Because government has few conflict-provoking powers and functions, Swiss society is blissfully depoliticised.’

The reason for the different political outcomes and the notoriety, or lack of it, of the presidents of African countries and Switzerland is simple yet profound. The African presidents have excessive powers. President Pascal Couchepin does not. According to the website of the Swiss Federal Council, ‘The Swiss Government consists of the seven members of the Federal Council who are elected by the United Federal Assembly for a four-year mandate. The President of the Swiss Confederation is elected for one year and is regarded as Primus inter pares, or first among equals, for this period. He leads the meetings of the Federal Council and undertakes special representational duties.’

What would the citizens of most countries in the world not give for such a government structure and the peace and prosperity it has brought the Swiss people. Switzerland enjoys the closest approximation of what the words, ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’ are intended to convey.

Author: Eustace Davie is a director of the Free Market Foundation. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation.

FMF Feature Article/ 08 January 2008 - Policy Bulletin / 7 July 2009

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