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Week that burnished democracy in Africa
August 20, 2017, 2:41 pm

Last week was an exciting time for people in several African countries as they went to the polls; what was even more inspiring was that the week helped burnish the often derided democratic credentials of the continent.

From the landslide victory of Paul Kagame in Rwanda, to the decisive win by Uhuru Kenyatta in Kenya, and to the pyrrhic win in parliament for embattled South African President Jacob Zuma, it was a week of wins for incumbents and losses for challengers. But, the biggest winner of the week was democracy in Africa.

Rwanda: Stability wins; ‘Western-media’ gets it wrong, again

Presidential elections held on 4 August had only one likely outcome, victory for incumbent President Paul Kagame; the only question was by what margin. On Saturday, 12 August the National Electoral Commission announced the final results: President Kagame garnered over 6.6 million votes or nearly 99 percent of the votes cast, with the two opposition candidates together receiving around 81,000 votes or 1.21 percent of the total.

President Kagame, the 59-year-old, one-time guerilla leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, is widely popular in the country and is credited with overseeing a peaceful transition following the 1994 genocide that saw the slaughtering of nearly a million people in his country. He is also seen as the architect of Rwanda’s post-war recovery and economic growth that in recent years, has consistently been among the highest in Africa. The landslide victory grants President Kagame a third consecutive seven-year term in office.

While the election result may have been a foregone conclusion, so too was the response by many prejudiced media and government outlets. The self-styled ‘democratic’ Western nations, their ‘independent media’ mouth pieces and the assorted bunch of grousing ‘human-rights’ protectors, have always found it difficult to digest popular leaders in Africa, or to accept that democracy could have different iterations.

So, true to form and on cue, Amnesty International alleged that repression, violence and politically-motivated murder had created a climate of fear in the country that did not allow for free and fair elections. Fellow rights group Human Rights Watch hollered about restrictions on freedom of speech and said the Rwandan government had limited the ability of opposition parties and civil society groups to operate freely in the run-up to the vote.

Several commentators in the West lamented the continued lack of democratic values among African leaders, citing Mr. Kagame’s third-term in office as yet another example of an African leader clinging on to power. The BBC termed the Rwandan elections as a ‘One-horse-race’, the New York Times headlined it as, ‘Rwandan President’s lopsided re-election is seen as a sign of oppression’, and Newsweek asked, ‘Savior or Dictator?’

Weighing in on the elections, that fountain of freedom, the US State Department, in a typical opinionated and oblique statement, congratulated the people of Rwanda on their active and peaceful participation in the presidential election, while expressing reservations about the election outcome. The statement voiced serious concerns about the lack of transparency in determining the eligibility of prospective candidates, doubts about the polling and in the vote-counting process.

Let us for a moment be charitable and accept that the US State Department is now staffed by a bunch of duffers who are ignorant about that democratic farce called an ‘Electoral College’. In the US presidential election process, irrespective of whom the majority of people chose as their president, it is members of a select ‘Electoral College’ that decide who gets the keys to the White House. For instance, in the 2016 US presidential election, Hillary Clinton secured nearly three million more popular votes than President Donald Trump, but it was Mr. Trump whom the ‘Electoral College’ chose as ‘their’ president to represent all Americans. The State Department is obviously in no position to judge electoral processes in other countries.

On the same note, in 1984, when incumbent US President Ronald Regan won an unprecedented 525 Electoral College votes (97.6%), against 13 votes (2.4%) for his challenger Walter Mondale, the ‘independent’ media did not find anything amiss. No one said that the elections were lopsided or made claims that members of the Electoral College had colluded with the erstwhile president, or that they had been coerced into voting for the incumbent. The huge margin was notched up as fair and transparent election victory that once again burnished the democratic credentials of the ‘free world’ and its ‘independent media’.

Again, to put things in perspective, nobody in the West questioned the legitimacy of French President Jacques Chirac in 2002, when he defeated his opponent, Jean-Marie Le Pen, by 82.2 percent votes. There were no allegations in the media of voting irregularities or of an imperfect electoral process, or of the rights violations of right-wing supporters of Le Pen. The authorities were not accused of silencing the media, but how could they be? The so-called mainstream liberal media shamelessly chose to voluntarily be silent. Vaunted media commentators of the time attributed the unprecedented majority to the personal popularity of Mr. Chirac, and to the specific circumstances that then existed in France.

To give one more example, let us be magnanimous and forgive the egregious media comments about the dearth of democratic traditions in Africa and among many of its leaders. Let us assume for a moment that President Kagame seeking and winning a third-term was indeed an indication of his lust for power. But, by the same token, what does that make German Chancellor Angela Merkel seeking a third consecutive stint in the Chancellery?

In typical biased Western media double-speak, Ms. Merkel seeing a third-term is portrayed as her continued popularity with German voters. Her likely victory in the upcoming September elections will probably be labeled as voters’ preference for the status quo and for stability. However, the same thing happening in Rwanda is called a ‘lust for power’ and a clear sign of electorate being forced to vote for the incumbent president.

Elections and governance in Africa may not be perfect, but they reflect the specific situations and circumstances prevailing in those countries. Africa needs to find African solutions to the dilemmas that the continent faces; it cannot be dictated to them by unwitting Western governments, jaundiced media outpourings, or bleeding-heart activists.

Unlike what many Western leaders and media believe and propagate, democracy is not a one-size-fits-all that you simply graft onto an existing structure; it has to be grown on the ground depending on the soil, it needs to be watered and weeded in order to ensure it grows and thrives. And this, as any African farmer will tell you, takes time.

Kenya: Demagoguery dims as democracy takes root

Tragic consequences of the 2007 elections, when over 1,300 people lost their lives to post-electoral violence, cast a looming shadow over Kenyans as they went to the polls on 8 August. With over 1,800 positions in counties and constituencies, including the presidency, to be filled through the ballot box, the stakes were high and the tension palpable in the run up to elections.

On Friday, 11August, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) Chairman Wafula Chebukati announced the results of the presidential race, and declared incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta as the winner for a second five-year presidential term.

With over 15 million of the 19 million eligible voters casting their vote, President Kenyatta received 54.2 percent of the votes — more than the 50 percent votes needed for an outright victory. His nearest challenger Raila Odinga received 45 percent; President Kenyatta also garnered at least 25 percent of the votes cast in 35 counties out of the 47 counties, another prerequisite for an unconditional victory.

In a refrain from past elections the four-time presidential race loser, Mr. Odinga began crying foul even before the election commission declared the official results. In the past, his unsubstantiated claims of fraud had sparked bouts of lethal passion, and this time too it led to pockets of violence with 16 deaths reported so far.

International monitors from the African Union, the United States and Europe were unanimous in declaring that they witnessed no foul play in the voting process and praised the IEBC for its transparency and diligence.

In a country where ethnic identity trumps public policies and economic issues; where political coalitions are built by co-opting influential communities and voting takes place largely along tribal lines, the relatively peaceful outcome of the elections are seen as an attestation that democracy is slowly beginning to entrench itself in Kenyan society.

South Africa: Conscientious parliament, unshakeable president

After coming to power through democratic elections in 1994, the ANC under anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela offered the best hope for pluralism and parliamentary democracy in Africa. The hope that South Africa would lead and be a model in rewriting the repeated post-colonial narrative, of decolonization followed by autocratic rule and corruption, gradually eroded most notably under the corruption-tainted incumbent president.

Many among its supporters believe that unless the ANC returns to the values for which the liberation struggle was fought and epitomized by its early leaders, it will wreak its own destruction. But, for the moment, despite more than 30 African National Congress (ANC) legislators crossing the floor to vote with the opposition, President Jacob Zuma sailed through the ‘no confidence’ vote securing 198 votes against 177 for the motion that was filed in Parliament by the opposition Democratic Alliance.

Surviving his eighth ‘no-confidence’ vote, embattled President Zuma, savoring the bitter taste of a pyrrhic victory in parliament, must be ruminating on the lines of King Epirus of ancient Greece who, after his costly victory over the Romans in 280 BCE, is quoted as saying, “one more such victory, and we are lost”. 

In democracies around the world, the emergence of political parties and the need for individuals to align with parties or groups to gain entry into parliaments has become the norm. The downside to this democratic trend is that there is little or no room for dissidence, freedom of thought or expression for individual legislators.

The ‘no-confidence’ debate in South Africa brought this issue of conscientious vote to the fore. In the South African electoral process lawmakers are elected not as individuals but solely as members of their respective parties and are therefore bound to toe the party line and vote according to party dictate. So, for many ANC parliamentarians the moral question during the debate was, should they vote against the party line and upturn democratic norms, or should they vote according to their conscience and risk being ostracized.

The fact that most legislators chose to remain with an increasingly unpopular president, is seen by many as a missed opportunity for ANC lawmakers to put the country ahead of the party. The fact they failed to do so is considered to be a loss for South Africa, but a triumph for democracy. At the end of the day, it was on the floor of parliament and not on the streets that such a contentious issue was resolved.






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