"Elections and Erosion
of Stability in Africa"
By Tom Kamara
November 16, 2000
Except for a few notable stars, nearly all Africa is consumed in civil conflicts, many of them born out of that all-embracing panacea of all political problems---the soothing but ineffective medicine of African elections. In almost all conflict countries, the doctrine of one man, one vote, seen as the prime guarantor of stability and therefore the pursuit of development, has crumbled, as both winners and losers embark upon grueling life and death scrambles over the state and its resources.
Whatever the positive democratic attributes of elections as passed on to Africans by colonial arrangements, spiraling disintegration on the continent now poses questions as to whether elections, in and of themselves, within their current Europeanized modes, are adequate safety valves in addressing the chronic political paralysis consuming many countries with devastating economic and humanitarian consequences.
The general purpose of elections is that they provide a platform for people to select their representatives on the basis of not only their promises, but also their ability in fulfilling those promises. But most African elections are conducted on different standards. In Liberia, for example, the choice before the electorate was simple: vote for Taylor or vote for more deaths and destruction. The now Nigerian Army Chief of Staff who served as Field Commander of Ecomog during the elections, Gen. Victor Malu, outlawed discussions of cardinal issues relevant to ensuring a better future. To the contrary, the Nigerian blamed Liberia's impoverished press for all the country's problems because, in his view, the media accentuated the established records of atrocities of the warlords who were vying to become president and promising a compassionate future. Taylor was to intensify this theme against the media upon victory, seeing the press as his archenemy in the absence of viable political opposition.
When both losers and winners in elections come out of a culture of vendettas, refusing to respect the results and live by them, and oblivious to the fact that their collective security rests in the verdict at the polls, elections are meaningless. The norm in Africa is that victors at the polls see their mandate as a justification to punish losers, or to privatize state resources for themselves. This winner-takes-all attitude has resulted into conflicts, and provided an inbuilt insecurity that sends fear into the psyche of losers. Examples of losers and winners coexisting after elections are rare, with Angola as a prime case of how a loser (UNITA's Jonas Savimbi) has transformed election results into a living hell for the population at war for over 25 years. In most cases, losers must flee, returning only after the winners are violently dislodged from power, who in turn wait until their enemies are driven out of power. Ethnic or religious minorities, convinced that their lot would never change under the doctrine of one man, one vote in a game that upholds the supremacy of numbers, have sought the escort of the AK-47 as the only guarantee of their security in returning home to ensure their place around the political table, thus ensuring their social and economic rights. Such is a vicious circle of reprisals that leads to endless production of exiles, whether political or ethnic.
The democratic nature of elections in a number of African countries is questioned by the now popular paradigm of successful candidates---a coup d'etat or rebel war first, and then candidacy at the polls. In almost all cases, winning candidates come out of the school of coup d'etat or warlord politics, as we see in Ghana where Jerry Rawlings emerged from a coup to become a civilian president by winning an election, or in Togo with a "democratically elected" leader who was born out of a coup and has been in power for over two decades. In Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, etc., warlords were transformed into "democratic" leaders through elections only after violently seizing control of national resources and state institutions. Many of these presidents, without the power of the gun, would have found it almost impossible becoming significant political figures, let alone win national elections. The result of this now accepted electoral paradigm is that it produces individuals violently desirous of the democratic regalia for legitimacy and respectability, but contemptuous of democratic values and institutions seen as inherent bottlenecks against tyranny. As we increasingly see in Liberia, The Gambia, Ghana (where judges were butchered in cold blood) etc., elections are convenient only as means to an end. Therefore, to expect the building of democratic institutions such as an independent judiciary, the press under democrats by convenience is to believe that a bank robber can be an example of honesty. For such individuals, democratic elections may be the donkey on whose back they ride on their way to power because of new international demands and standards of acceptance, but once the donkey arrives at its destination, its usefulness ceases. It is then slaughtered.
Rarely have members of Africa's professional classes, entrepreneurs ventured into elections without arrests and imprisonment, leaving the playing field uncontested for the man with the biggest gun.
But the virus of tyranny injected in elections was produced from the days of independence, although the cataclysmic dimensions of this virus were hidden only by the formidable shields of Cold War politics. Thus, pro-Soviet client states justified their misrule under the "dictatorship of the proletariat," which in essence meant the dictatorship of the fat bellies of those at the helms of power. They ruthlessly entrenched one-party regimes and annulled any hope of challenge. Challenging voices were denounced as traitors, "imperialist agents." On the other hand, Western client states, while parading themselves under the banner of democracy, saw elections only as a way of self-perpetuation, with the "wise" leader constantly winning 99.9% of the votes, or in some cases, by announcing there were no challengers to the "wise and indispensable father of the nation". He was thus "elected" unopposed. (A Kenyan colleague gave a typical example of this hemorrhage of democracy by narrating how President Daniel arap Moi, on national television, told Kenyans he wanted to retire but there was no one capable amongst Kenya's millions of replacing him. The President then turned and starred at his Vice President sitting next to him. The Vice President immediately read the message and responded with a thunderous clap of approval, "Yes, your Excellency...")
Those opposed to the monopoly of power and the buffoonery of the clique were labeled "communist agents," and as Liberia's Samuel Doe would say, "you will not live to tell the story," the same language ironically adopted by his successor Charles Taylor. Now, with the protective layers of super power godfathers removed, armed conflicts and coups, in the absence of genuine democratic institutions for settling the leadership struggle, have become the norms with terrifying implications for people finding "home" in ever-spreading, squalid refugee camps at the mercy of aid agencies.
The failure of elections in providing the basis for democratization and transparency is visible in every part of the continent.
In Burundi, elections results were buried when Pierre Buyoya, a minority Tutsi, emerged from the barrel of the gun to seize power. Since then, the Hutu majority, left with no peaceful options, has taken to the bush waging a war for a comeback. With the moral authority of former South African President Nelson Mandela, a new peace deal has recently been signed for some level of power sharing. Even if commonsense dictates that only through some collective leadership of the contesting ethnic groups can some semblance of stability return to divided Burundi, some Tutsi parties have refused to go along, determined to take it all although they cannot possibly keep it all without an endless war, fleeing refugees and economic disintegration.
But here again, we must lay blame at the doors of Europeans who now pretend that the political malaise annihilating Africa is squarely, and only the responsibility of Africans. The enmity between Tutsis and Hutus began during European colonial political arrangements, just as is the case with many African states. When the Germans invaded the country in the early part of the 20th century, they instituted a crude form of indirect rule, with the Tutsis as their loyal proxies. The Germans were kicked out by the Belgians who, by their nature as amongst Europe's most merciless colonizers, went further in adopting even more brutal norms of this proxy rule. At independence, the Tutsis, by hook or crook, remained in power, although they were a minority in a game, elections, that mean numbers. The Hutus rebelled, but the rebellions were violently suppressed. The Tutsis now believe they can hang on to power without regards for the wishes of the majority Hutus and this means war must always be their option, not elections.
In next-door Rwanda, the Tutsi minority's monopoly of power is concealed by the genocide committed against them by the Hutus. For now, world sympathy is on the side of the Tutsi victims, although the Tutsis, too, have in the past been responsible for now forgotten atrocities against the Hutus. In years to come, the despised majority, the Hutus, will return in the endless contest for power.
Sierra Leone, (a beneficiary of the first European style university established in 1827, but not the accompanying benefits of enlightenment needed for democratization) held its first multiparty elections in 1967, but the country remains in deep anarchy and poverty after a series of elections that were held only in form, not substance. Its late corrupt political patriarch, Siaka Stevens, declared a one-party state in 1978 that ensured his thieving rule for decades, thereby contributing to the political malaise now engulfing the country. Liberia, the continent's oldest republic, is a political and economic laughingstock, credited by the Guinness Book of Records as conducting an election at one point in which the voters were more than the entire population. Until 1980, the Americo-Liberian elite, 3 % of the population, was very comfortable with a sort of Tammany Hall politics that killed any hope of democratic transformation, but presented to outsiders as a tolerant democracy, although only propertied classes could vote. Violence became the only hope for the majority in ever having an equal share of wealth and equal participation in politics. Charles Taylor's ruthless return has again rekindled the old norms of patronage and crony politics in a most unrefined manner as violence is brewing. The giant Nigeria, until recently, could not boast of elections and instead was ruled by corrupt soldiers who siphoned billions of dollars.
Southern African states, independent only yesterday, are yet the lucky ones, since their independence came after the flames of the Cold War were extinguished. But already, we can see chasms emerging from elections that transfer power to the poor majority while endorsing the deep-rooted privileges of the wealthy white minority. Disenchantment is setting in even after elections due to the prevalence of racism and the wide economic gap between whites and blacks. After 300 years of believing that one's skin color is a privileged endowment from God, it is difficult accepting equality, which means equality of economic privileges. (Any African spared the degradation of institutionalized racism soon feels at odds visiting South Africa. At the Cape Town airport, it was only the voices of my West African ancestors that stopped me from giving a mixed race woman a good flogging for calling me a "Kaffir". I later complained to KLM manager, and told him in a shaking an angry voice they were lucky I had to leave in hurry. I would have given them a scene they would never forget. Perhaps they would have banned Africans flying KLM into South Africa. For Africans without the South African experience, life is perhaps better amongst Germany's skinheads than in the streets of South Africa. At least you get quick justice, as was the case recently with the Mozambican man in Germany whose skinhead murderers were swiftly arrested and convicted.)
President Thabo Mbeki, opening a conference on racism after Apartheid's official end, wondered "What to do about the nightmare (of racism)." But even before he could end his remarks, whites were accusing him for sowing seeds of division. The African National Congress (ANC) won the elections, but delivering the promises of the elections, which include an end to racism, and providing economic opportunities for uneasy black population is a nightmare, something that Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe has realized, although belatedly.
The chaos, ever multiplying numbers of refugees in Africa after elections in some states, the economic decay that follow elections, all point to a need to re-examine the concept of elections in the current forms. If the plunder of national resources and seizure of state institutions are the prerequisites for victory at the polls, then we in Africa find ourselves in a vicious circle of coups and rebel wars as preparatory stages for elections. The result is that societies are left in the hands of violent, inept, and corrupt individuals who emerge as winners distasteful of democratic values. With such a scenario, some form of negotiated power sharing addressing the fears and concerns of the minority and the majority could provide a way out of the current political inferno.
The formidable British historian Basil Davidson, notes that Africa is still struggling with the "curse of the nation-state", meaning the values of European nationhood pushed down our throats in total disregard of our specific cultural attributes. Centered around those values is the concept of elections as a solution to all political problems. But since independence, elections have not provided the platform for political inclusivity and development. Perhaps it is time for serious thinking over alternatives if we are to free ourselves from the clutches of terror and underdevelopment now firmly in place and sanctioned by farcical elections.