Elections are key part of a stable democracy

| October 7, 2020 1:00 AM

With emotion, the young army colonel told me that he was convinced that democratic countries were the freest and most prosperous places to live.  He wanted his children to live in a democracy “like the United States of America.”

It was 1997. I was in the war ravaged west African nation of Angola.  I was there as a representative of a program conceived by President Ronald Reagan to use volunteer American experts to “encourage democracy in places where it is absent” and “help democracy become more effective where it is in danger.” I was recommended by Montana House Speaker John Mercer and Senator Conrad Burns to be a part of this effort.  

Angola was in the world’s longest civil war, but had indicated an interest in establishing a real democracy.  That was when I got the call.  I would be working with the Angolan General Assembly.  I would be working with Joseph Martin Shikuku, a member of the Kenyan parliament.

Shikuku was a product of British colonial schools, and spoke meticulous British English.  He was an ethnic Bantu, part of the same tribal grouping as the Angolese, and so he understood the culture of our audience.  He was also one of the most unforgettable characters I have known in a long life of knowing characters.  In introducing himself he told me he had four wives. He showed me their pictures, and pointed out which was his current favorite.  When I complimented him on his beautiful dialect he quickly responded that he had killed British soldiers in what we Americans know as the “Mau Mau uprising.” When he asked me if I was uncomfortable with that, and I admitted to him that I was, he said, “Why should that be? You Americans killed them yourselves in your fight for your independence.   Is it that our struggle for freedom was a case of black people killing white people that makes you uncomfortable?”  I have thought about that for the rest of my life.

We did a series of two-hour presentations over four days.  Many of the parliamentarians had been trained in Russia, and missed few opportunities to attack the U.S. and sometimes me. Martin, as Shikuku liked being called, was enormously helpful with his quick wit, skillful use of Bantu humor, and credibility as a former revolutionary in the colonial struggle for independence in Kenya.

As lead lecturer, the essence of my overall message was that stable democracies are the best places in the world to live. They depended on elections. Leaders had to voluntarily leave office if losing an election. Once that became an established tradition, governments could peacefully change without violence and revolution.  In such a system, long-term progress could be made in building roads, schools, hospitals, and a stable and prosperous economy.

Angola has both oil and diamonds, and a bounty of agricultural resources.  Those in power couldn’t imagine giving control of that up by accepting the outcome of an election of ignorant peasants.  

I sadly fear that we in our great, rich land of opportunity have become complacent in what we have. We have a president who says he won’t accept the upcoming election outcome if the result is against him. Catastrophic harm could be done to the system that has made the United States of America great, if our people are led to believe that electoral losers can choose to remain in office. The Angolan Colonel understood the absolute necessity of elections to a functioning democracy. So did the greedy tyrants who opposed him. 

Bob Brown, of Whitefish, is a former Montana Secretary of State and State Senate President.