Political freedom – up or down?

By Jonathan Power

Last week democracy won a handsome victory in Nigeria. An election that had everybody on edge for fear of internecine killings involving militants from the two main competing parties, against a backcloth of the war of attrition waged by the nihilist, extremist, Islamist movement, Boko Haram, led pundits to fear the worst. It did not happen. Nigeria gave of its best.

Indeed, the real winner was the looser, the present president, Goodluck Jonathan. He graciously phoned the winner, Muhammadu Buhari, to concede the election. His attitude to his defeat kept the peace.

Only 16 years ago Nigeria was ruled by a murderous military. After the dictator was found dead in bed after spending the night with three prostitutes political prisoners were freed including Olusegun Obasanjo who soon after became the democratically elected president. He kicked-started the stagnant economy. The press became free and the Congress and the courts became serious, independent bodies.

Nigeria has Sub-Saharan Africa’s largest population. It’s its largest economy. Its economic growth the last 15 years has been one of the highest in the world. Inevitably what Nigeria does has an impact across the continent.

Black Africa had a surge towards democracy in the 1990s and a majority of its countries became more democratic. Unfortunately, the last few years it has regressed. Today only half its people live in countries which are “free” or “partly free”. (This is using the criteria of Freedom House, the US-based human rights monitor.) Last year saw declines in freedom in Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Southern Sudan, Equatorial Guinea and Burkina Faso. Nigeria, although democratic for a decade and a half, has not had the influence it would like on nurturing democracy elsewhere, but on this occasion with an incumbent president being defeated for the first time, the rest of Africa will be pushed into self-examination.

Freedom House in its recent annual report paints a dismal picture not just of Africa but of the world as a whole. After a surge towards democracy and free institutions over 14 continuous years following the end of the Cold War the world has regressed over the last 9 years.

Beginning with its own country Freedom House records the police brutality happening in a number of cities and the revelations of torture under the government of George W. Bush made by a Senate committee. One could add too the revelations that the New York Times on occasion had cooperated with the intelligence agents to the point that it knowingly had (and perhaps has) some CIA operatives on its staff.

The European Union now has one member country, Hungary, that is trying to limit the freedom of both the press and the courts. Also in Turkey, a candidate for EU membership, President Recip Erdogan has been ruthless with demonstrators and has interfered with both the press (arresting many journalists) and the courts.

In Asia, Thailand’s democratic government was overthrown by the military on the flimsiest of pretexts. Myanmar which appeared to be emerging from decades of harsh military rule has gone backwards, re-introducing restrictions on journalists and demonstrators. Hong Kong also saw the introduction of restrictions on press freedom and freedom of assembly as protestors occupied downtown streets to protest China’s decision to limit the choice of candidates for chief executive in the election to come. President Xi Jinping in China is increasingly putting the clamps on his critics.

In Eurasia, President Vladimir Putin continues to chip away at press and judicial freedom. Ukraine, since it broke away from the Soviet Union in 1991, appears unable to create a stable, prosperous and democratic land. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan continue to be ruled by strongmen.

In the Middle East the Arab Spring has been overtaken by the Arab Winter. Only Tunisia has emerged with its head high. The West, with its toppling of Muammar al-Gaddafi, pushed Libya into a destructive civil war. Syria is destroying itself. Iraq, after years of occupation by the US and the UK, has totally compromised its democracy. Egypt is arguably being ruled by a harsher government than the deposed one of President Hosni Mubarak.

Perhaps Freedom House’s report has too much of a pessimistic tone. I’m inclined to be more positive than it. In Russia there are some free newspapers and radio stations even if too much TV news leans toward propaganda. Unlike China the internet is free. Demonstrations are usually allowed. The ballot is more or less free.

The Muslim world gets tarnished by a broad brush – rightly in most of the Middle East. But in fact far more Muslims live under democratic governments than don’t.

I have calculated that 64% of the world’s population is “free” or “partly free”. If one takes out China, that skews this figure, it is probably nearer 75%.

Still, it is true that only 40% of the world’s people have it as good as Nigeria, now being truly free.

Copyright: Jonathan Power

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