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Are elections in Africa genuine democratic exercises, or mere window dressing events?

TANZANIA is gearing up for the next phase of general elections; which are scheduled to be held later this year, and next year. Are these elections genuine democratic exercises, or mere window dressing events?

Soon after the conclusion of the last Ugandan Presidential elections in 2016; A writer in the Ugandan media made the following scathing comments: “Presidential elections in Uganda had been stolen by the declared winner President Yoweri Museveni, and therefore, in terms of sustaining democracy, they were actually useless and meaningless.”

He also made other serious allegations regarding how, in the past, votes had been stolen by Presidential election winners in Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe. He then concluded by claiming that: Elections in Africa are a joke.

Africans are given to stealing elections”. Similarly, soon after the conclusion of Kenya’s general elections in 2017; THE CITIZEN of 11th September, published one Justice Novati Rutenge’s comments titled “Decades on, why just can’t we get our elections right?”, in which the writer went on to elaborate as follows: “Kenya’s 2017 elections were a cautionary tale of how election malpractices (call it outright rigging) can divide a country and lead to deep-seated turmoil .

After taking what seemed to be all the steps in the right direction in terms of setting up a fool-proof electoral process, just how did Kenya manage to have botched the elections? However, this issue is not unique to Kenya, for most African countries still have a long way to go before they start holding proper and meaningful elections.

Why can’t African ‘ democracies’ get their act together when it comes to the most important routine in their practice of democracy, even after doing it for several decades?.

In view of such scathing criticisms of elections in Africa , I was moved to ask this pertinent question: “If indeed, as claimed by these writers, Africans are given to stealing elections, what then is the value or usefulness of holding elections in African countries, when they actually are mere jokes and NOT true reflections of the genuine choices which had been made by the electors concerned”?

I am, of course, also keenly aware of similar accusations which have been regularly and consistently made against the winners of the Zanzibar Presidential elections, for the similar crime of “stolen elections”; which therefore adds on to the list of “Africans who are given to stealing elections”.

However, our discussion herein has been designed to focus not on the actual conduct of elections, nor on matters directly associated with such exercise.

We have instead opted to isolate the subject of “electoral democracy” for a more detailed examination; or, as the popular adage goes, to “separate the sheep from the goats”.

This is solely for the reason that the word “democracy” is an omnibus word which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, carries three separate meanings as follows:- 1. “a system of government in which all the people of a country can vote to elect their representatives”. 2 “a country which has this system of government” 3.“fair and equal treatment of everyone in an organization, etc, and their right to take part in the making of decisions”.

It therefore becomes necessary to clarify which meaning is being used in which particular context. Thus, in the context of this discussion, we will focus only on the first-listed definition of ‘democracy’, because that is what enables us to discuss the matter of elections, which is a necessary component of that system.

Even though the words “system of government” themselves carry a variety of meanings, since there are more than one ‘systems of government’ in operation in the world; the two most familiar being the ‘Presidential system’ and the ‘Parliamentary system”, which are commonly associated, respectively, with the American-based system and the British- based (Westminster), system. But because both these systems are founded on the same basic principle that “their people must vote to elect their representatives” (which means the holding of regular elections), this enables us to focus solely on that one aspect of ‘democracy’, namely, “electoral democracy”.

In this discussion, we are advancing the following propositions: (a) that the modern concept of electoral democracy “has a distinctive cultural element embedded in it that is based on the civilization of Western countries; and which is attributable to unique factors such as their long experience in working with elected representative bodies; plus their established systems of social pluralism; (b) that this cultural element necessarily creates operational problems for participants who belong to different cultures; and (c) that this cultural impediment is the root cause for the “failure by African countries to just get our elections right”.

I should disclose that this is a (perhaps vain), attempt to explain why “decades on, Africans still can’t get their elections right”; but is done purely as an academic exercise, with no desire whatsoever, or covert intention, of justifying any such criminal activities.

The identification of democracy with elections

It is quite clear that the current dominant trend is to define ‘ democracy’ almost entirely in terms of holding regular elections; in order to achieve the goal of ensuring that the “rulers” are selected periodically by the votes of the “ruled” through free and fair elections, in which virtually the entire adult population is eligible to vote.

Thus, a modern nationstate is deemed to be a ‘democracy’ only if its government is established as a result of free, honest, and periodic elections in which he candidates freely compete for votes.

Hence, according to this view, elections are the essence of democracy. And, more importantly, it is presumed that these characteristics can only be guaranteed in a multi-party political system, where people are free to choose between competing political parties, representing different shades of opinion.

The negative impact of cultural differences

Experience has manifestly shown that because of the obvious cultural differences that exist around the world, taking elections and its associated characteristics, described above, as the essence of democracy has not always given us the perfect model we are looking for.

There have been two principal reasons for this. One is that although electoral democracy will, indeed, produce the desired elected government, but it is still possible, and has in fact happened in some cases, for such elected government to subsequently ignore the other essential safeguards for individual rights and liberties; such as those of expression, association, religious belief, and political participation.

Or it may even introduce legal mechanisms to enable the people who are in power to manipulate the electoral process in their favour; including introducing controversial Constitutional amendments to enable them to stay indefinitely in power.

There are live examples of this having happened in a number of African countries.

The second reason is that there have indeed been situations whereby free and fair elections have led to the victory of political leaders, or groups, that have subsequently threatened the maintenance of democracy itself, by, for example, acting in arbitrary ways to suppress, or even eliminate, their political opponents.

An additional, but rather strange outcome in African elections, has been the rogue refusal by the losing candidate in Presidential elections, to accept the results of an election, which has been certified by all groups of observers to have been free and fair; and who started fighting a totally unwarranted, brutal, guerrilla war against the winning candidate.

Furthermore, over the years, we have also witnessed a number of events when the relevant elections were actually boycotted by political parties, presumably because they were considered to be “useless and meaningless” exercises.

It is in the light of all these negative experiences, that I am persuaded to believe that the cultural differences that exist, are the root cause of ‘Africa’s failure to get things right’ in relation to multi-party elections.

Indeed, As a result of these experiences, some stakeholders have questioned the rationale of this blanket identification of ‘democracy’ with multi-party elections.

At a “Global Coalition for Africa” conference that was held in November 1995, on the theme titled “Africa’s Future and the World”, many participants were reported to have underscored the importance of ‘ going beyond political parties” in the democratization process, by cautioning that ’multi-partysm does not automatically lead to democracy”, and emphasized the need to involve the larger society in the democratization process; by recommending the building of a strong civil society, “which alone will be capable of building and sustaining democracy, and acting as a check on Government”.

The issue of political parties ‘ representing different shades of opinion’

Multi-party elections are said to provide the opportunity for people to choose between “political parties with shades of different opinions”.

But again, this is only true in jurisdictions where ‘social pluralism’ is part of their political culture.

In many of our African ‘democracies’, even after decades of operating the multi-party system, it is still difficult to identify substantially significant differences between the political “shades “ of opinion, or ideologies, of the different political parties. Judging from their election manifestos, and the statements made at open election campaign meetings; the only ‘ideology’ which all of them appear to be promoting, is the need to enhance the social and economic welfare of the people, through eliminating poverty, ignorance and disease.

In other words, there are no fundamental divisions between political parties, since they all seem to be pursuing this single objective. This reminds me of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere’s thesis titled “One Party Democracy” which he wrote in 1961; in which he argued as follows:- “A two-party system (like the British system) can be justified only when the parties are divided over fundamental issues; otherwise it merely encourages the growth of factionalism . . .

Let us take the case of two major parties, both of which have the interest of the people at heart (or so they claim). For example, both believe that education is a good thing, and should be made available to everybody; and both believe that a fair living wage should be paid to all workers; and both believe that medical care should be within reach of all the people.

All of these things are fundamental. Thus, it would be a reasonable assumption that, whichever party wins the election, will provide the people with as many of these benefits as possible.

Given that fundamental agreement, it would be far more sensible if both sides were to disband their competition teams, and let the electorate choose the best individuals from among them all, so that the chosen representatives will meet in Parliament to discuss only the details of how the agreed tasks should best be carried out, and, thereafter, to cooperate fully in getting them accomplished”.

That, of course, is exactly what happened during the 30- year period of the Constitutional ‘one-party’ governance system in Tanzania, from 1965 to 1995. Are elections in Africa a big joke? My answer is “No”.

Yours may be different. But elections have a great and crucial role to play in a democracy. And since the world has not yet been able to invent an alternative to elections for selecting the peoples’ leaders, Africa will continue to operate, unabated, the system of multi-party ‘ electoral democracy’.

piomsekwa@ gmail,com / 07 5 4 7 6 7 5 7 6

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