Is it Democracy or Democrazy for Africa?
(Reflections on Elections in Zimbabwe, Congo and Madagascar)
By Wafula Okumu
March 19, 2002
The condemnation of Robert Mugabe’s re-election by the international community, mainly the European Union and the US, has attained hysterical levels and it is inevitable that it will soon be capped by more sanctions and other measures aimed at isolating Zimbabwe. As many countries jump on the anti-Mugabe bandwagon, we need to also pose a few questions, whose answers will go a long way in helping the international community to find workable solutions to political crises that have become commonplace in Africa.
Does the West, particularly the Bush Administration, have any moral standing to question Mugabe’s legitimacy as President of Zimbabwe? In view of the West’s reactions to the elections that was simultaneously taking place in the Republic of the Congo, are we justified in assuming that it is more interested in spreading “democrazy” than in consolidating democracy in Africa? Are Mugabe and his supporters right in reading sinister motives in the virulent anti-Mugabe campaign that is escalating, and is spearheaded by the Great Britain?
Let me state from the onset that although I once hero-worshipped “Comrade Bob,” as Mugabe was, and is still, fondly referred to by millions of his admirers in Africa, I am deeply disappointed by some of the actions he has taken to curb some of the freedoms he gallantly fought for all Zimbabweans to enjoy. However, I also know that the analyses and news reports about Mugabe have been grossly exaggerated to demonize him while skirting the crucial issues. As the world’s attention has been transfixed on Mugabe and his antics of retaining power through manipulation of the electoral process, two other electoral stories were taking place in Africa with little or no attention.
There is no doubt what the answer will be if one is asked to name an African president who was recently re-elected after changing the constitution to disqualify his most credible opponents, forcing other contenders for the presidency to pull out before polling day, refused to allow an independent electoral commission to conduct the elections, and garnered almost 90% of the votes? The obvious answer would, of course, be Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. But this will be a wrong answer as the president we are talking about is Dennis Sassou-Nguesso of the Republic of Congo who was re-elected to a 7-year term on the same day as Mugabe. While British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has described Zimbabwe’s election outcome as a "tragedy" for the people of Southern Africa, the European Union monitors have certified Sassou-Nguesso’s election as “free, open and fair” and hailed it as a positive sign for peace in Central Africa.
In the Republic of Congo, or Congo-Brazzaville, the electoral manipulations by the incumbent, President Sassou-Nguesso, to retain power makes Mugabe’s look amateurish. His victory was assured months before the elections were held when he undertook elaborate plans to eliminate all his opponents. He not only refused to establish an independent election body to oversee the elections but also made constitutional changes in January that ensured his easy landslide victory and strengthened his grip on power. The constitutional revisions also disqualified both former President Pascal Lissouba, who defeated Sassou-Nguesso in the country's last presidential election, held in 1992, and former Prime Minister Bernard Kolelas. Lissouba and Kolelas were barred from the presidential election by a new constitutional clause that stipulated continuous residence of two years in the country for presidential candidates before the elections. Sassou-Nguesso had both forced to live in exile since 1997. The constitution was also changed to allow Sassou-Nguesso to serve unlimited seven-year terms in office, in effect transforming the country into a de facto monarchy. After “legally” disqualifying his two most credible challengers, Sassou-Nguesso erected insurmountable obstacles that forced his main challenger, former Prime Minister Andre Milongo, to pull out of the race two days before the elections citing “irregularities” in the electoral process that made it impossible for him to mount a viable campaign.
In an election marked by a very low voter turnout Sassou-Nguesso cruised to a “landslide” victory with 90% of the votes. A European Union observer mission certified this election as “reflecting the desires of the population.” This is a diplomatic way of saying the outcome is satisfactory to the international community. The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) has explained this European Union’s action as a trade-off between peace and chaos that is rife in the region. In other words, the European Union’s main objectives in the Republic of Congo of helping to consolidate peace and to promote post-conflict recovery offset concerns about the legitimacy of Sassou-Nguesso's government.
The general ambivalence on the part of the international community with regard to the presidential elections in Madagascar, Zimbabwe and the Republic of Congo is mind-boggling. Why did Dennis Sassou-Nguesso escape the barrage of disapprovals Mugabe has been subjected to by the international community despite engaging in more blatant electoral malpractices? There is one explanation for the kid’s glove treatment given to Sassou-Nguesso.
Sassou-Nguesso was returned to power in a French-supported insurrection that was aimed at punishing Pascal Lissouba for liberalizing the oil industry that was under the monopoly of French oil companies. When Lissouba came to power in 1992, he found out that his country was earning a pitiful 15% from its oil exports. He took a bold action of liberalizing the oil sector by opening it up for competition from American and European companies. This valiant action more than doubled the share of his country as it started earning 33% from all the oil imports.
This nationalistic action taken by Lissouba ended up costing him the presidency. With the help of French President Jacques Chirac, the French companies instigated an insurrection that overthrew Lissouba and installed Sassou-Nguesso in power in October 1997, in advance of elections in which he was due to oppose Lissouba. Sassou-Nguesso had come to power in 1979 through a military coup and lost it through an election to Lissouba in 1992. On regaining power in 1997, Sassou-Nguesso immediately renegotiated the oil deal, which reduced the Congolese share to 20%. Now Sassou-Nguesso has gone through a “democratic” election, certified by the European Union, to legitimize his rule.
What happened to Lissouba and is now happening to Mugabe is almost a repeat of history of what happened in Uganda, once fondly referred to by British Prime Minister McMillan as the “Pearl of Africa,” in 1971. In 1969 President Milton Obote of Uganda had launched a “Common Man’s Charter” that sought to nationalize Uganda’s economy. The wealth and stunning beauty of Uganda had led Obote to take a hard-line stance against the British arms deal with apartheid South Africa that was in violation of an international arms embargo. During the Commonwealth Conference in Singapore in January 1971, then British Premier, Edward Heath, warned Obote for denouncing him and threatening the security of British citizens in Uganda if Britain breached United Nations sanctions and sold arms to Apartheid South Africa. Heath is reported to have responded to Obote by saying: “I wonder how many of you will be allowed to return to your own countries after this conference.”
Obote was overthrown by a functionally illiterate General Idi Amin Dada, a day after this stern warning. Britain was the first country to recognize Amin, who promptly reversed Obote's polices which were aimed at nationalizing British businesses in Uganda. The Financial Times declared Amin "Man of the Week” and the Daily Telegraph called him “a welcome contrast to other African leaders and a staunch friend of Britain” who should be given weapons. The government obliged. Thanks to the British machinations the Ugandans underwent a psychopathic rampage that traumatized them and claimed more than 300,000 lives. Although it has been more than 30 year, it seems the British have not learned any lessons on how to deal with African leaders they do not like.
The Western countries, particularly Britain and the US, are so livid with Mugabe’s re-election that they have embarked on plans, which include isolating his regime, that will destabilize Zimbabwe and lead to Mugabe’s ouster, preferably à la Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. The determination to oust Mugabe has been unrelenting since 2000 when he assumed a radical policy of land reform. The zealous methods that are being used to oust Mugabe from power are based on the understanding that his victory only means one thing - continuation of his pre-election land reform program and consolidation of his power at the expense of civil rights and economic development.
Political temperatures in Zimbabwe have been rising and hit an all-time high when the presidential elections were held from 10-12 March. A week before elections day, Morgan Tsvangirai had already come to a conclusion that Mugabe could only win through "massive fraud" and suggested that his supporters would accept no other outcome. He hinted that his supporters would pour into the streets to protest a Mugabe victory. On his part, Mugabe made it clear that the generals and senior officials would not hesitate to topple Tsvangirai in a coup, if he were to win. His supporters went even further and disqualified Tsvangirai as lacking the “war” credential because he never fought in the liberation war. If such political rhetoric is allowed to escalate further there is no doubt that the main casualties will be the people, as an African aphorism aptly admonishes: “when two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.”
It is apparent that the well-orchestrated campaign to vilify Mugabe had the sole purpose of bringing about a sea change of international public opinion against Mugabe regardless of the election outcome. The international press has had a field day in depicting Mugabe as a caricature of African despots. The leader of Europe's observer delegation, Pierre Schori, seems to have been justifiably kicked out of Zimbabwe after he made it apparent that his “election monitoring” was a mission of overseeing Mugabe electoral loss. Impartiality, the most important quality of an election monitor, has suffered irreparable damage with Schori’s revelations that the elections had been unfair and distorted although he was not in the country when they were held.
Following suit of their counterparts, the Norwegian Observer mission dismissed the election as not having met the international standards as it was severely flawed even before a single vote had been counted. Britain, that has been leading a querulous crusade to impose international sanctions on Mugabe, claimed also before the votes had been cast that there was “pretty strong evidence” that President Mugabe had “stolen” the election.
The predictions of gloom and doom in Zimbabwe have now become centerpiece of western media analyses on the country that only three years ago was regarded as one of Africa’s success stories. Why three years ago? That was the time when Mugabe re-donned his radical garb and started spearheading a campaign to reform landownership. The land is a hot potato issue since the days of independence struggle. Currently about 4,400 white commercial farmers own 12.2 million hectares of prime farming land, while 1.2 million communal households are crammed onto 15.4 millions hectares of land, much of it not arable. During the EU-Zimbabwe dialogue in Brussels on 11 January 2002, it was revealed that “some members of the British House of Lords, and other individuals connected to the British establishment, own large tracts of land as absentee landlords” in Zimbabwe.
Land distribution is at the center of Britain’s fervent repugnance for Mugabe. Agrarian reforms should be the first issue on any agenda of any initiative to resolve the political crisis in Zimbabwe. The British are simply drawing attention to a secondary problem, which they know is a diversionary ploy to punish Mugabe for calling them liars. Mugabe is claiming that the British have reneged on their pledges, which were given during the Lancaster Conference that ushered in Zimbabwe’s independence, to fund the purchase of land from white farmers for distribution to blacks. Mugabe was also constitutionally restricted from dealing with the land issue for 10 years. This constitutional clause could only be changed with a two-third of the parliament, which he lacked because of the special seats reserved for the minority whites.
A related issue is that of proper and productive use of the land once it has been reclaimed from the white farmers. Possessing the land is one thing, but would the new owners be able to produce at least 1.8 million tonnes of maize that is needed to feed Zimbabweans each year? Zimbabwe urgently needs 1.2 million tonnes between September this year and June 2003 and it would be unfortunate if the food shortages hits a humanitarian crisis and food aid is used as a weapon to get rid of Mugabe.
The sad reality is that Zimbabweans have been put in a catch-22 situation regardless of who was to be declared the winner. On one hand, a Mugabe victory will face an automatic challenge in a pro-Mugabe packed-court, where many, including Tsvangirai, think the verdict will not be in his favor. His next move would be to appeal to his supporters to claim the elections that has been “robbed” from them and take on, like the anti-Milosevic protestors did in 2000, Mugabe in the streets. This is a choice Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) supporters will most likely take.
In response, the police will violently crack down using its mandate to “restore law and order.” As the protests escalate, more brutal methods would be used to clamp down on the protesters. MDC leaders will get bolder by leading their supporters to openly challenge the “illegitimate government.” This will be followed by the arrest of the leaders and probably arraignment in the courts on charges of treason. Eventually, the country would become “ungovernable.” There are two responses that we might see: either Mugabe will declare a “state of emergency” and rule by decree or the military would carry out a coup d'état, with or without Mugabe’s blessings.
On the other hand, if Tsvangirai had won the army, pro-government media, the “war veterans,” and staunch pro-Mugabe Zimbabweans, who despise him as Tony Blair’s “protégé” and a “crybaby serving imperialist interests,” would have rejected him. There is also no guarantee that Tsvangirai would not have ended up as Chiluba in Zambia or Muluzi in Malawi, both disappointments after taking over from loathed dictators.
It can be predicted that Tsvangirai’s course of action might take the same pattern as in Madagascar where an election stalemate has deeply divided the country into supporters, both civilian and military, of President Dedier Ratsiraka and Marc Ravalomanana, his opponent who is also the wealthy mayor of the capital city, Antananarivo, who has declared himself president. Since the disputed presidential poll on 16 December 2001 Madagascar has been toying with chaos starting with mass demonstrations, a general strike, failed negotiations, Ravalomanana’s claim of the presidency and creation of a parallel “government” on 22 February 2002, and increasing political violence. Despite the stalled Organization of African Unity (OAU) initiative to end the political crisis, the Malagasy are finding humor in their political crisis by joking that Madagascar will finally develop now that it has two presidents. The situation is getting more precarious with the imposition of a state of emergency by the incumbent President, Didier Ratsiraka, the blockade of Antananarivo and deaths from political skirmishes.
A negotiated settlement to this crisis is the best solution. But this is a long shot since the OAU has already taken some measures that seem to have aggravated the precarious situation. The OAU, which is to be transformed into the African Union in July, made a faux pas by sending a Senegalese-headed delegation to mediate an end to the political crisis. Recalling their colonial history when the Senegalese troops were used in the 1940s by the French colonial government to stamp out a pro-independence uprising on the island, the Malagasy gave the OAU delegation a cold shoulder on its arrival in Antananarivo. The OAU also undermined its impartiality by condemning the unusual move taken by Ravalomanana, who has now refused to deal with it. While the OAU has bungled an opportunity to resolve the imbroglio, the international community, particularly the French, US and other Western governments that have been vocal in condemning Mugabe, has maintained a stupefying silence. The Madagascar Tribune has tried to explain this international apathy by pointing out that Madagascar has not registered in the past on the radar screen of the poor and fragile black African states that are engulfed in bloody tribal conflicts.
As there appears to be no quick solution to the degenerating political situation, both sides have only aggravated the precarious situation by digging themselves deeper in their seemingly unreasonable positions. As the standoff continues it is becoming more characterized by the baying for each other’s blood rather than reason. The apocalyptic statements the two sides are using to communicate with other are only entrenching the conflict that could easily be resolved through dialogue and compromise.
Observers of African politics are watching with keen interest how the international community is engaging in selective attention and intervention in some countries and not others. The question being asked is which approach will be taken in the forthcoming presidential elections in Kenya, Malawi and Namibia. It would not be surprising to see the same mistakes that are being committed in Zimbabwe, the Republic of Congo and Madagascar being repeated.
True democracy is not only about “free and fair elections” that are certified to be so by the international election observers. Care should be exercised for elections not to be used to certify bad leadership or promote the interests of foreigners. If the international community is truly interested in promoting democracy in Africa, it should take measures that are necessary to ensure true democracy takes root. These measures include strengthening institutions that can introduce and consolidate democracy such as political parties, the judiciary, and the civil service.
Other measures are on-going civic education to inculcate democratic values, economic empowerment of the indigenous populations so as to reduce their dependence on foreign funding for political activities, and restructuring of the state to make it less attractive for control and exploitation by a power hungry individual or clique. These are far-reaching measures that will require enormous amount of resources and goodwill, both in dire need at the moment. Indeed, there is no shortcut to democracy. Despite the high costs of introducing and maintaining democracy, they are nowhere near the costs of having a flawed or no democracy at all.
Africa has witnessed end results of lack of democracy in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, massive floods of refugees and displaced people in the Horn of Africa, and senseless civil wars in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan and Algeria. Undemocratic practices have also contributed to bad governance, economic mismanagement, ethnicized politics, ethnic chauvinism, rampant human rights violations, abuse and misuse of political and State powers, civil strife, and, eventually, State collapse.
It is only through democratic rule that authoritarian governments and leaders that flagrantly violates human rights, engages in corrupt practices, and abuses power can be prevented from taking over and destroying the nation-state. Without installation of genuine democracy we should be prepared to witness more “democrazy” like that which is taking place in Zimbabwe, the Republic of Congo and Madagascar.
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