Elections, Electoral Politics and Coalition Building in Africa: Is Democracy on trial?
EISA Executive Director,
Members of the EISA Board of Directors,
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let me first congratulate the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa for the valuable work it is doing across Africa. Over the last decade, ISA has transformed itself as a credible, efficient and professional organization in the Continent, working mainly in the areas of strengthening electoral processes, political parties and the legislatures in Africa.
The Eighth Symposium could not have come at a better time, focusing as it does on the emergence of coalitions as the future in Africa.
Not too long ago, as the Berlin wall started falling in Europe and new nations began to emerge out of the collapse of the Soviet Empire, the western world cheered the triumph of democracy and the demise of what Ronald Reagan once called” the evil empire”.
Except for the bloody conflicts in former Yugoslavia and the unfinished agenda of national liberation in Chechnya, most of these “new nations” in Europe have settled down to be stable democracies where electoral politics as a means of forming and changing governments is accepted and democracy has more or less become institutionalized.
In Africa, the opposite is quite often the case: winners force their victory on losers who, quite understandably, cry foul and only succumb to electoral outcomes as fait accompli.
The democratic upsurge of the early 1990s that challenged post independence authoritarian regimes in Africa all seem to have met with tremendous resistance as new forms of authoritarian rule emerge and democratic gains get reversed.
If anything, every cycle of competitive electoral politics, or semi competitive as the case may be, has brought with it conflicts and crises that quite often disrupt the very foundations of the nation state itself.
Today, the threat of violence hangs over almost every election in Africa because as politics has got ever more competitive, a number of leaders have resorted to ethnic, as opposed to ideologically driven alliances and modes of mobilization in our multi-ethnic societies.
This strategy has emphasized ethnic group sizes in determining one’s value in politics. In this arrangement, the smaller your ethnic group, the less your chances of being invited to the high table of ethnic share-outs that pass for coalitions.
The politicization of ethnicity is having deep negative effects on national unity in Africa. It determines whether members of different groups within the nation perceive each other as friends or foes.
It determines whether a regime stays at the top and whether it succeeds or tumbles down. When people are mobilized as ethnic groups and not as followers of some ideology, it will not matter how well or badly the regime performs in terms of delivering national programs. The nation comes last. This is the latest threat to democracy and stability in Africa.
Presidential elections are once again becoming zero sum games in which the winners take all while the loser loses everything. Winning or losing is about survival, not delivery of services to the nation.
In this scenario, ignored groups tend to regroup and fight back as members of ethnic groups. While citizens can easily walk away from the table where they are considered useless because of their dismal ethnic numbers, they will not simply walk away from the table where the national cake is being divided. They will demand their share, somehow.
The mounting momentum of ethnic based coalitions is, sadly, coinciding with the re-emergence of the Big Man in Africa; a species we assumed dead and buried about a decade ago.
By the beginning of the 21st Century, the authoritarianism that characterized most of Africa for decades was in retreat.
The “Big Men” were swept out in rapid turns from Zambia, through Malawi, Zaire and Kenya. Elections were being fought fiercely in an arena in which democratic aspirations of the people were largely reflected in the results.
Where authoritarianism persisted, it was vigorously challenged. Africa’s grand march to democracy seemed irreversible.
Today, the “Big Men” are being reincarnated, in some cases, sadly, in the luminaries of the Second Liberation. They are inventing new tricks of survival; recruiting new converts and revising progressive constitutions to give themselves more power and longer terms while all the time tightening their grip on the nations.
Africa’s new Big Men know times have changed. They know they cannot rule by the gun or by decree anymore. So, they too have changed.
Today, they pose as democrats by organizing periodic elections, which they must win at all costs. They adhere to constitutions; but only after amending them to suit their intentions.
They purport to create free and independence Judiciary, then try to pack the courts of law with their loyalists, just incase some opposition leaders or civil society types decide to try their chances at justice in the courts. In other words, they leave nothing to chance.
In all cases the resistance to institutionalizing the democratic political culture comes from the entrenched economic and political interests within the ruling parties that have run the post colonial state since independence, or those that have hijacked the popular movements and converted them into cheer leaders in support of ethnic-based authoritarian rulers.
When they reverse the democratic gains, the ideological justification is usually framed in terms of Africa’s uniqueness.
They purport to create free and independence Judiciary, then try to pack the courts of law with their loyalists, just incase some opposition leaders or civil society types decide to try their chances at justice in the courts. In other words, they leave nothing to chance.In their world, the problems democracy faces are not the results of the roadblocks put on the highway to democratization but the unsuitability of democracy itself to the African society.
This twisted logic needs to be rebuffed in view of reasonably successful processes of democratization in such countries as Senegal, South Africa, Mozambique, Ghana and Botswana.
Against this background, it is fitting to laud Africa’s opposition leaders that enter the ring year in, year out to take on ruling parties, knowing well enough that the odds are hugely against them.
Think of the job Morgan Tsvangirai is doing in Zimbabwe or the struggles of Kizza Besigiye in Uganda or the faith of Alassane Ouatara in Ivory Coast that led to his confirmation to the presidency. These are Africa’s real foot soldiers for democracy.
Together with exceptional cases like Senegal and Ghana, these leaders provide hope for competitive electoral politics, coalition building and the institutionalization of democracy in Africa.
In Senegal, for example, long time resistance and opposition to the ruling Socialist Party, founded by Leopold Sedar Senghor at the dawn of independence, saw the emergence of ideologically based coalitions in 2001 that finally uprooted the Socialist Party from power.
The beneficiary of this coalition, Abdoulaye Wade of the Liberal-leaning Senegalese Democratic Party, lost power subsequently in the elections of 2012 partly as a result of being seen to have betrayed the ideological commitments he had made with his coalition partners, and partly as a result of the perceived excesses in his government.
His regime was accused of complicity in several acts of corruption. His attempts to change the constitution to remove the two term limit so as to run for a third term added to his electoral woes while his opponents, comprising some of his former partners in government, capitalized on the betrayal and corruption issues, building a big enough electoral bloc to wrestle power from him in the 2012 elections.
But we must hasten to give Mr. Wade credit. In many places on the Continent, the opposition, however organized and popular, would not have wrestled power from the ruling party as happened in Senegal. The incumbent ruling party would have survived the electoral onslaught through the manipulation of the electoral process, use of state security organs to intimidate voters and outright cheating in the announcement of results.
Cameroon, for instance, presents the opposite picture of Senegal. The first multiparty elections were held in Cameroon in 1992, administered by Cameroon’s Ministry of Territorial Administration despite requests by the opposition for an independent election commission to conduct the polls.
Amidst widespread reports of electoral fraud, Paul Biya narrowly defeated his main opposition coalition rival by 39 per cent to 36 per cent. International election observers concluded that “the Cameroon government, for which President Biya bears ultimate responsibility, took unusual extreme and illegitimate actions to ensure the President’s victory. This led inexorably to the conclusion that the election was flawed to the point where its legitimacy and validity are called into question.”
Subsequent elections after this 1992 experience have proved no better. If anything the Biya regime simply perfected the art of manipulating the electoral process in its favor and making a mockery of democracy in the eyes of the Cameroonian people. Governance institutions characteristic of a democratic polity such as an independent judiciary, a vibrant legislature and a civil society capable of keeping the state accountable to the people have all been subordinated to Biya’s authoritarian rule, making it virtually impossible for any coalition to win elections against Biya’s party in contemporary Cameroon.
So Senegal is somehow unique regarding the fate of coalition politics and democracy in Africa, and her case should be carefully studied regarding what needs to be done to nurture competitive electoral politics as an important aspect of institutionalizing democracy in Africa. Overtime, Senegal has seen a vigorous civil society emerge and stay the cause.
The institutions of the democratic state–though substantially dominated by the presidency, have remained sufficiently strong to withstand the excesses of creeping authoritarianism. This has made it possible for political coalitions to take advantage of competitive electoral politics to peacefully change governments through elections.
Further, reasonably independent election bodies, very contrary to experiences in other African countries, have handled refereeing political competition in Senegal.
I particularly recall the case of Cote d’Ivoire in 2010 where the election results announced by the legitimate electoral commission was rejected and overturned by the very government of then President Laurent Gbagbo who had overseen the unveiling of that election team.
With the benefit of hindsight, I could share a number of insights on competitive politics in Africa. We must, with bold determination, remain committed long-term to good governance and leadership, whether we are Kenyan, Nigerian, Zimbabwean, South African or citizens of any other country on this great continent.
We must push vigorously for the independence and professionalism of police and national intelligence.
We must, through more coalitions if need be, bring more willing and committed partners on board, joining together to make democratic change – and all that this entails – not just possible, but a reality.
As a Pan Africanist, I believe that just like many other battles African citizens have fought in the past, this too we shall fight and win.