Why democracy is about the People

Wednesday August 10 2022
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By Deus Valentine Rweyemamu

In July 2009, President Barack Hussein Obama argued on his maiden trip to Africa while speaking to members of the Ghanian parliament that Africa needs not strong men but strong institutions to sustain her democratic gains.

I posit that Africa needs strong People if African democracy is to be sustained. As such, strongmen have been a menace to our countries and continent but strong women, girls, boys, children, elders and strong ethical men is precisely what Africa desperately needs.

We have seen time and again that a vaccine for tyranny is yet to be discovered and in those countries where we have had the misfortune of electing tyrants into office even the very institutions of democracy no matter how presumably strong they were could hardly stand against them.

It implies therefore that the political economy of democracy is not merely about having well written rules and properly structured institutions but in all its dimensions the ability of people to exercise their inalienable rights as the sovereign.

To do that on its own right requires that the people are courageous and strong enough to stand up for their rights and are prepared to face off with tyranny in all its facets. It makes no sense to establish ‘strong’ institutions and stringent rules when the people who are the primary beneficiaries of these conceptions could care less about their enforcement, their independence or neutrality. This power inherent in a republic as prescribed in Article 8 of our constitution has been severely curtailed in our country because we have created institutions that in fact disenfranchise the very people they ought to serve.

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As we look into 30 years of our experimentation with democracy in Tanzania, the role of the People is one question that I am having quite some reflection on. I was intrigued to read President Samia Suluhu Hassan’s article on Tanzania’s democratic trajectory. The piece however left me wondering what the role of The People in it all has been. I am increasingly convinced that when we set off in 1992 to establish our country into a multiparty democracy we barely took in what the role of the people would be. Considerable investments have been made towards establishing institutions based on borrowed experience from elsewhere where democracy has seemed to work. As such, we have a parliament (building) to show for it, a judiciary with its many registries across the country, national Electoral management bodies, civil society organizations including NGOs, a commission for good governance and human rights, a national audit office, an ethics commission, a whole center for democracy, a procurement and other forms of regulators and the list is just too long. Tanzania is not short of institutions and office buildings to house the quite many of them. But our history clearly suggests we could desperately do with strong people, with our own heroes who have stood up against all odds to fight for the rule of law and the right of the people as the sovereign of our republic.

Take the case of Francis Nyalali for instance who in the face of tyranny led by Mwalimu Nyerere’s government he stood up to defend the independence of the judiciary calling for Mwalimu and his government to disband the extrajudicial Economic Crimes Court that if anything made a joke of the judicial process.

At the face of it, his actions may not have sounded so heroic but in a nation where a law of parliament i.e. Act no.8 of 1975 had rendered all sovereign authority to the ruling party, it was if anything, an act of courage to stand up to its dear leader. Looking around and more so in the last decade, we clearly do not have enough Nyalali’s around and if we are to get another one of those African strongmen or strongwomen, we do not have enough strong people around us to defend our institutions.


In reflecting on this, I am sentimentally moved by the Swiss democratic model. As we all know, the Swiss are acclaimed for their precision which is an inherent Swiss value.

I do believe that in their democratic dispensation, they have taken this precision to a whole new level.

One of only 21 countries rated as full democracies in the world, the Swiss model has in fact created institutions that if anything give power back to the people. Switzerland has built a model of democracy in which all power is indeed shared with the people.

Instead of an extraordinarily powerful single person executive, the swiss presidency is vested in a federal council of seven while a federal bicameral parliament elects both this council as well as the federal supreme court.

What this means is that both the judiciary and the council are accountable to the people through their representatives. If one woke up one day and decided they disapprove of a law, all they need is to collect 50,000 signatures within 100 days to effect an amendment. It follows therefore that if one had wanted to change the constitution, all they would need is 100,000 signatures which would allow for popular initiative that would subsequently result in a constitutional amendment.

The Swiss have taken the original Greek conception of Demokratia (People power) to a whole different level which I posit we should all be aspiring to.

As we embark on building our democracy in Tanzania, we must aim to bring power back to the people. This will be achieved through deliberate attempts to open up the institutions we have built while disbanding those that are no longer relevant. It makes not much sense for instance why in a country with over 12,000 villages, almost 4,000 wards and 169 districts, we should have a group of seven people (appointed by 1 person) to help us.

Why do we not have people’s councils in their respective wards and districts overseeing elections? What extra human powers do seven people and their appointing authority have that we couldn’t find in the millions of peace-loving Tanzanians out there? What guarantees or insurance have we put in place against the real risk of the group of seven leading us into tyranny? It is my humble opinion that it may be time to consider disbanding or overhauling our institutions and the electoral commission may be a good place to start so that the freedom of expression and the right to participate in public affairs as prescribed in Article 21 of our constitution is truly realized.

We could probably do the same with so many more of our institutions to put the people at the center of our democracy as they should be. We are not short of a to-do list for the next 30 years of our democracy.

The writer is Chief Executive Officer, Center for Strategic Litigation