Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Democracy in Africa at a crossroads

By GITAU WARIGI | Tuesday, October 29  2013 at  09:45
Supporters of Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe attend an election rally in Harare on July 28, 2013. African elections have a winner-take-all mentality. FILE 
When the winds of democratic change started blowing hard from the early 1990s, Africans took to multi-partyism with gusto. In countries like Benin and Zambia, voters took the opportunity to sweep away entrenched ruling parties with landslide majorities.
But in others like Zaire and Togo and Kenya, canny dictators found creative ways of hanging on through divide-and-rule.
Multi-party elections didn’t seem to have stabilised the situation. And by no means did election rigging become history. It only become more subtle, more sophisticated. Old-style constitutions and their legal mechanisms were deemed to give the ruling establishments an insurmountable head start. Upstart parties were unlikely to get a fair shake at power.
From the start, pro-democracy forces figured out that changing these constitutions to bring the “fair” into “free” elections was the way to go. The Francophone states, especially those in West Africa, were quick to realise this. Others like Zimbabwe cottoned on much later. As of now Tanzania is still on its baby steps to rewrite its constitution, whose architecture is heavily weighted in favour of the almighty Chama cha Mapinduzi.
At the point we are, “democracy” seems to have stagnated in many African countries. Violent disputes are the norm even when an election has been universally adjudged to be free and fair. In Egypt, Mohammed Morsy won a ringing electoral endorsement but within a year the barricades were up again in Tahrir Square. He was swiftly ousted by the army.
A more or less similar happenstance occurred in Madagascar during the tenure of Marc Ravalomanana, who was elected in 2002. But before he could conclude his tenure, a former deejay then serving as mayor of Antananarivo organised a furious uprising that threw out the incumbent. The ex-deejay, Andry Rajoelina, was quickly installed by the the army.

The oft-cited problem in Egypt is that Morsy’s long-suppressed Muslim Brotherhood went on a power-accumulation spree, totally shutting out the liberals and secularists. This is a problem that, to a large degree, is replicated in sub-Saharan Africa countries, where multi-partyism came with the sting of winner-takes-all. One-party autocracies were of course much worse, but they took the trouble to give a veneer of inclusivity for marginalised groups.
Yet the bigger problem in Africa is that institutions set up to arbitrate power, or to cushion those who suffer an electoral loss, tend to be disregarded, or, in the worst scenario, are dismissed as weak. In the US, George W. Bush openly lost the majority vote to Al Gore in 2000. A hugely controversial and legalistic sleight of hand by the Supreme Court handed the presidency to Bush. If that had happened in an average African country, there would have been unprecedented violence. And yet, all the parties in the US election accepted the court ruling.

Madagascan presidential candidate Robinson Jean Louis (in the background ) delivers a speech during a rally in Antananarivo on October 26, 2013, the day after the first round of presidential elections. PHOTO | AFP
In Africa, the biggest flashpoints are the electoral bodies that manage elections. The latest case is Guinea, where the long-delayed parliamentary elections have been thrown into a spin after the opposition rejected the fairness of the electoral commission. In post-election Kenya and Zimbabwe, there is residual bitterness within the respective opposition groupings because they have never reconciled themselves to the outcomes that consigned them to defeat.
Undeniably, there is a tendency in Africa to over-dramatise things. As can be seen from the recent spectacle of the US government shutdown, extreme political polarisation is certainly not unique to this continent. What is distressing about Africa is the-all-too-often spectre of violence that accompanies the polarisation, and especially whenever elections are disputed, as they almost always are.
Better alternative
Nobody in the world has yet devised a better alternative to democratic elections as a means for transferring power fairly. It is true misrule occurs in democracies just as it does in autocracies (Nigeria is a glaring example of a freewheeling democracy that is very badly run). The saving grace in democracies is that there are periodic opportunities of changing the government.
Africa has a pronounced tendency of conceptualising democracy in a superficial, text-book fashion. The art of give-and-take, of compromise, is treated as alien. Instead, everything boils down to a zero-sum game. Kenya and Zimbabwe have experimented with power-sharing between opposing parties following post-election stalemates. The unique thing was that the arrangement was largely imposed by foreign powers.
Nonetheless, in both countries the arrangement became bitterly antagonistic and hardly soothed the tensions it was meant to contain in the first place. The entangled parties sought to break away when the earliest opportunity presented itself.
The challenge for Africa is to build polities where democracy is rooted on civility and conciliation. There is too much grand-standing, too much acrimony, especially during and immediately after elections.
You can bet that once the final results of last week’s Madagascar presidential election are announced, it will be back to the same old drama of defeated parties noisily rejecting the outcome. The culture of democracy in Africa clearly has some way to go before it properly flowers.