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.
Winner-takes-all
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.

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