Do We Need Elections In Africa? – OpEd
By Yves Niyiragira*
On 25 Sunday October 2015, there were two general elections and a referendum in African countries. In Ivory Coast, citizens were electing a new president in polls that were boycotted by close to 40% of registered voters according to officials quoted by Radio France Internationale . In the Republic of Congo, media outlets, opposition activists and the civil society also questioned the official turnout figures that they called “a fraud” during the referendum to allow President Denis Sassou Nguesso to extend his more than 30 years in power. On the same day, Tanzania held presidential and parliamentary elections that threatened to end more than five decades of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM)’s dominance of the country’s politics and in which independent observers urged “more transparency” in the whole electoral process .
The above three experiences combined with a few other recent elections, namely in the Republic of Guinea on 11 October 2015 and in Burundi on 21 July 2015, lead to one key question: Do we need elections in Africa? If yes, which types of elections? And if no, what else do we have to substitute elections with in order to govern our countries better? To some readers, these questions might sound out of order or illogical, but there are fundamental issues that remain unaddressed every time an African country organises general elections. In the interest of this discussion, we will revisit five interlinked components of most African elections. They are, in no particular order, elections financing, voter education, manipulation by the ruling elite, failure to address real national problems and foreign interference. This article, though acknowledging the complexity of Africa as a continent, proposes a discussion on those five elements hoping that Africans can decide to take matters in their own hands.
Resources, whether from the state or from the private sector, that are used before and during electoral processes are of great concern because they determine the nature of fairness and inclusiveness of the whole electoral exercise. In many cases, financial means are an automatic way of leaving out the electoral process many (and sometimes) able political candidates. Political parties and their candidates also use financial means to “buy votes” whereas the private sector uses their finances to influence or completely determine the outcome of an electoral process in order to get “protection” from the elected leaders.
The ultimate winners of this partnership between the state (or political parties and their candidates) and the private sector are the ruling elites and their close business people. The majority of ordinary citizens, especially those in disadvantaged urban neighbourhoods, the working class and those in rural areas are left out from that arrangement of getting influential people who have access to finances into leadership positions to the expense of much more qualified, but poor potential candidates.
There is need to limit the amount of private financing that goes to electoral processes so that influential business people do not always have their way at every election. Every African state should be able to finance equally political actors in addition to contributions that those actors get from their individual supporters. For elections to have any meaning, ordinary citizens need to be heavily involved by supporting their candidates throughout the whole electoral process. In addition, African governments need to provide funding to all political actors without any discrimination. If that is not done, elections will continue being a show of the ruling elite and their corporate allies.
Another hindrance to achieving reasonable citizen participation in electoral processes is the confusion between Election Day and the electoral process. The two important players mentioned above, the ruling elite and the private sector, usually know the importance of keeping citizens away from politics. They want them to only appear at the “Election Day” and disappear for the next four, five or seven years depending on the country. This state of affairs is entirely wrong.
It is understandable that every citizen cannot be an expert in politics, but there is a minimum level of interest in politics that every citizen should have. At the end of the time, whether one votes or not, decisions that are taken by elected officials from the national to the very local level of governance affect every citizen in that country. As such, every citizen should feel responsible in helping to take decisions, either directly or by delegation, on societal issues such as education, housing, employment, health care, availability of food and water and a clean environment, among others. The management of those societal issues affects those who are politically active and those who are not.
Every citizen needs to contribute their views and opinions on issues that affect them, their families and communities. Participation on Election Day is not meaningful if the voter does not continue engaging those he or she selected to be in leadership positions. The ruling class and the private sector know well that when citizens are disinterested with politics they can do what they want provided that they have been elected or have financed their candidates to be elected. In a country that organises elections and does not provide opportunities for its citizens to continue dialogues with elected officials, those elections are meaningless. There should be proper mechanisms and channels to ensure continuous engagement between the electorate and elected officials at all levels.
The education of voters does not only deal with the issue of being an active citizen. It also requires citizens to exactly know why they are electing those candidates. This helps citizens to distinguish false campaign promises from plans that can be implemented once candidates are in power. Voter education also helps citizens to vote based on tangible plans of candidates rather than casting their vote because a certain candidate is from their region, religion, tribe or community. Being politically active and voting people because of their plans and not because of other politically incorrect considerations is a key condition to making elections more meaningful for ordinary citizens than they currently are.
MANIPULATION BY THE RULING ELITE
The third component is directly linked to voter education because an informed and active citizenry will be hardly manipulated. In many African countries, the manipulation of citizens by the ruling elite is arguably the biggest contributing factor to political disinterest and election boycotts that we see everywhere. This year of 2015 alone, we have seen leaders claiming that God had chosen them to lead their countries, whereas others have used their authority to argue that they are the only ones who can lead and hold their countries together. Others conduct “national dialogues” when their terms in office are over so that they can find a way of changing the constitution in the name of “popular will” or “national consensus” for them to add a few more decades to their already 20 to 30 years in power. As if that was not enough, other leaders have opted to creating militia groups or take up arms in order to stay in power when other means have failed. Finally, other leaders use racial, ethnic, religious and other types of divisive politics in order to scare or convince their electorate that they risk being decimated if they do not stay in power.
A well-informed and active citizenry would not fall into those traps whose only purpose is to serve the interests of the ruling class and their corporate allies. This type of manipulation or abuse of authority is what makes most elections a waste of time because some voters vote for the wrong reasons. They vote based on well thought out lies from the ruling elite. In some cases, it appears almost impossible for ordinary citizens to remove those types of leaders from power because they dominate national institutions. As such, there has to be some bold citizens who stand firm and use effectively positions that they have. Institutions such as national parliaments, constitutional courts and electoral commissions among others are very vital to championing that change. Even though leaders who want to stay in power usually easily manipulate the last two bodies, national parliaments that are the direct representatives of people ought to be the champions of ending that type of manipulation that is mostly from the executive. Other players such as religious leaders, the media and the civil society are vital in providing true information when all arms of the government are part of the manipulation or are also manipulated.
The other troubling aspect of the ruling elite manipulation is to change the results of elections thus denying citizens their rights to freely choose their leaders. We have seen instances where a leader organises elections every four or seven years, but that exercise is often not expected to bring about any changes in leadership. Examples are visible across the continent. When the entire ruling class is involved in the manipulation of total electoral processes, elections are a waste of time and not what Africa needs to solve its leadership challenges.
FAILURE TO ADDRESS REAL NATIONAL PROBLEMS
The fact that political leaders concentrate their efforts in rewarding those who helped them to be in power and preparing for the next elections is as well troubling because the leaders end up dedicating less time to dealing with real issues such as the quality of life of the people who elected them. As such, when a term ends without tangible results to show, leaders start using divisive politics or what some people call “petty politics” based on ethnicity, religion, region, race and political affiliation among other things in order to stay in power. A leader would say, “those people are the ones who made you this and that” instead of providing solutions to basic things because it is easier to blame others so that citizens do not elect them.
Most families’ daily concern is to provide for their children in terms of food, shelter, health care and education. This is what makes those families wake up in the morning to try their best to meet those basic needs for their children and their other dependents. Our politics should first deal with those fundamental needs before any other thing. There is a phrase championed by Western mainstream media of being “market friendly” or avoiding doing things that can “scare investors”. Our leaders have been duped by that media propaganda to the point that almost every African country fights to be the next destination of foreign investors who do not care at all about the wellbeing of African people. Before becoming “market and investors friendly”, African countries should first be able to meet the basic needs of those who have given them their votes.
In addition, most African countries have adopted an “inhumane capitalist system” that entirely leaves out the most marginalised members of the society. This is wrong and is not what “development” is. The meaning of development to many Africans is being able to feed their families, take their children to quality [government] schools, have affordable and quality housing. Seeing private buildings rising everywhere is not development. Constructing more roads and railways is not development. Development is putting people first and the markets last. This ability to understand the real needs of African people is also influenced by the understanding of international politics that is going to be discussed below.
In the current globalised world no single national politics are isolated from the rest of the world. What happens in a given African country is heavily influenced by what happens in neighbouring countries and in other foreign countries that have interests in that particular country. With the rise of powers in the Global South such as China, India, Turkey, Brazil and South Korea, relations between African countries and the rest of the world have become complex. In addition to that North-South equation, there are also transnational corporations that influence political leaders across the world. As such, our African leaders have to deal with influence and pressures from the local politics, regional players as well as global ones without forgetting multinational companies that do no have geographical boundaries.
So, how can citizens understand those complex international relations in order to make informed decisions during electoral processes? In many cases, our leaders do not understand those relations themselves or understand them but fail to let their citizens appreciate the fact that relations that a country has with the rest of the world heavily influence national politics. Having this kind of understanding would help the citizenry to know when their leaders are colluding with multinational companies or other foreign players to embezzle revenues from their national resources. It can also help them to understand the different interests that various players whether governments or corporations have in their countries and choose leaders who can defend their national interests.
Of course the political elite can also use the term “national interests” to manipulate their citizens. They use it to scare them and make them believe that they are the only leaders who can protect their national interests against foreigners. For instance populist leaders who use the excuse of immigrants for their own political gains would not have any following with an educated citizenry. It is only political education that can enable citizens to understand all those dynamics so that electoral processes are meaningful for them.
In conclusion, this article has not sought to entirely argue against elections in Africa as a way of choosing leaders of our countries. It has rather attempted to remind readers of many and important flaws in the current electoral processes that need to be corrected if elections are to have any meaning at all. If we do not educate our people so that they are politically active, not just on Election Day, but also through out the term of elected officials, address the issue of financing of elections, refuse the manipulation of those in power and engage our leaders in constructive dialogues to solve real problems such as access to health care, education and food, then periodic elections will just be another expensive, but futile exercise. In principle, leaders ought to be stewards of the public goods on behalf of the people who have chosen them. Regular elections ought to be a way of reviewing the performance of those stewards at different levels of leadership and decide whether to keep them or give those responsibilities to others. What we see is totally different and raises further questions about leadership in Africa. The debate only begins!
* Yves Niyiragira is executive director of Fahamu, an organisation that works to strengthen social movements in Africa and publisher of Pambazuka News. The views expressed in this article are totally his and do represent Fahamu’s position on the topic.
1. http://www.rfi.fr/afrique/20151027-cote-ivoire-60-53-taux-participation-debat-election-presidentielle-cei-poeci accessed on 27 October 2015
2. Observers to “call for more transparency in Tanzania election” available on http://www.nation.co.ke/news/africa/Observers-to-call-for-more-transparency-in-Tanzania-election/-/1066/2931770/-/hwe1m8z/-/index.html accessed on 27 October 2015