By Oliver Mills
We in the Caribbean have inherited the Westminster system of government, characterised by the rule of law, competitive party politics, the independence of the judiciary, fundamental rights and freedoms for citizens, and designated periods for elections. These are accepted at face value, with little sustained critique as to its relevance to the way we really do things, or whether this inherited system is really a drag on our progress because of numerous procedures, debates, the fragile nature of our political parties, and questionable allegiances to them.
Oliver Mills is a former lecturer in education at the University of the West Indies Mona Campus. He holds an M.Ed degree. from Dalhousie University in Canada, an MA from the University of London and a post-graduate diploma in HRM and Training, University of Leicester. He is a past Permanent Secretary in Education with the government of the Turks and Caicos Islands
And when we elect our leaders, we soon find that, in some ways, democratic practice is either sidestepped, or regarded as an inconvenience. This results in some decisions not being made through consultations at the various levels, but are handed down after meetings with inner circles and interest groups in the form of directives. We therefore find that in a subtle way we have institutional dictatorship within the framework of a much heralded democracy.
An article in one Caribbean paper says of the maximum political leader of that country that he has been acting like an imperial leader, enjoys saying he is the leader, and letting everyone know that he makes the final decisions on matters of national significance. To me this is personal dictatorship. It shows a self-possessed individual, who needs to remind himself of the position he holds, which he seems to interpret as conveying on him unusual power and authority over others, rather than being the servant of the people.
“Leader” suggests superiority to others, possessing special knowledge and insights, and in a most frightful way, implies knowing what is right over and above anyone else. Such a disposition leads to an abuse of power, the creation of imaginary foes, and does not entertain different perspectives, which are often seen as time consuming, and not dealing with the issue. Confusion therefore leads to directives being given, while those around the leader remain silent, fearing for their jobs. But it impacts negatively on the country later, and then the blame game begins.
A former Caribbean leader is noted for saying that he means what he says, and says what he means. This is the dictatorial mentality of the class prefect, and the traditional colonial administrator who lack the proper communication or persuasive skills, and therefore resort to arrogance and the power of position to scare others into conformity through fear. This makes some people compliant for fear of imagined consequences, but kindles in others a spirit of resistance, leading them to contest the statements and behaviour of such persons.
This disposition is unhealthy for any democracy. The politically conscious of Caribbean society should therefore educate their people into a new and different kind of political culture that promotes dialogue, respect for persons, and their views. Dissent must be seen as positive thereby enriching the democratic process. This is the antidote to emerging dictatorial tendencies.
But strangely, some of us see these statements and behaviours as being those of a strong, no nonsense leader who means business. And we repose in such persons a certain aura and authority, which are then used to manipulate us, and perpetuate the reign of a Caribbean oligarchy.
Our political institutions and practices in many ways seem to legitimise dictatorship, arrogance, and political puffery. This is the dictatorship of tradition, and it contaminates real democracy.
Recently, a journalist described a Caribbean leader as fearing no one, adding that he was essentially lord and master of his political domain. Could there be such a thing as “lord and master” in a democracy? Is it not such thinking that creates a situation where dictatorship comfortably resides in a democratic setting, and is even expected to do so by some?
This idea of strength, mastery, firmness, and being in control is reflective of a mind-set with origins in the plantation system, and we have yet to eject these thoughts from our psyche. In Caribbean democracy, kindness, sensitivity to others, fairness, and an altruistic outlook tend to be seen as soft and lacking backbone. Leadership has to be a macho thing, encouraging adoration.
To view leadership as being something that is entrusted to others through the agreement of the body politic, and which can be retrieved by those who have commissioned those leaders to act in the public good, has yet to be really registered in Caribbean political life. Failure of the electorate to realise the power it really has, provides the soil for dictatorship within a democracy.
A minister of government in a non-independent Caribbean territory was recently reported as stating indignantly that there will be taxes, come hell or high water. Isn’t this representative of a dictatorial strand operating in the context of democratic institutions? Is this possible, when a democratic political culture is supposed to eject such tendencies from political life, and from the practices of its institutions?
Why then, do we still have situations where democracy is upheld as an ideal, but is then undermined by dictatorial practices and behaviours? And those charged with upholding it, are sometimes the very ones who discard it.
It would appear, as some say, that real democracy has been hijacked by special interests, as a result compromising the public good. The political directorate has become the lobbyists for these interests, advocate for them, and the people who commissioned these persons to act on their behalf, are side-lined until the next election.
Caribbean democracy seems to have little problem making the transition from democracy to dictatorship when it suits particular political operatives. There seems to be no conflict, or sense of unease involved. It is slavery and the plantation system from which these values came.
Many Caribbean political operatives still feel that to get things done, some dictatorship must be involved. This means editing out dissent. Some even boast with respect to their way of doing things that “there is no democracy here.” They do not consider the possibility of engaging others, and so arrive at better, and more well considered solutions.
And this type of dictatorial culture slowly takes root. And it is buttressed by charismatic personalities with high intellectual abilities who mesmerise the people. A patron-client relationship then develops, where scarce resources are exchanged for political support.
This is neither good, nor right, since a healthy and prosperous society is sustained by the values of democracy and entrepreneurship. Dictatorship leads to benefits for the few, and eventually to a country attaining the status of a failed state.