“For me, the crux of the matter is that Africa has not developed enough political culture that would enable the conduct of credible elections.”
Sesay believes that the opposition’s lack of confidence in the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), even before the election was held, was a major factor in the crisis that trailed the outcome of the results.
“The composition of the Zimbabwean electoral body was also part of the fear of the opposition, how dispassionate and neutral were the members going to be? It takes a lot of effort to convince somebody who has experienced tyrannical rule for almost four decades to believe that those who have served the old regime would suddenly change ‘colour,’ change allegiance and become ‘patriotic’ in such a way that they would do things correctly in the best interest of the country. It is very difficult to accept that kind of position,” he said.
How election observers compound political problems
The role of election observers is vital in any election. As an independent group, their opinion is highly respected. That is because of the belief that they would always make an unbiased assessment of the exercise. But in Africa, oftentimes, there are reports of distrust in election observers. Though mindful of the special role they play, Sesay observed that they also compound the “problem.”
He said: “Even when there are international monitors, some of them are not really dispassionate. At the end of the day, they would say, in their report(s) that ‘by African standard, the elections were free, fair and credible.’ But that in itself undermines the process because there is nothing like an African standard of democracy.
“Democracy is a universal concept; the practices, the tenets are universal. Therefore, to say ‘by African standard’ or ‘by Zimbabwe standard,’ for example, an election can be deemed to be fair, free and credible, undermines the credibility even of that statement and of the exercise because democracy is democracy anywhere.”
Sesay pointed out another curious dimension to the problem of democratic challenges in Africa when he said, “sometimes, saying an election is free, fair and credible is an easy way of making sure that the opposition is blackmailed into accepting the results. It may also be the most acceptable option out of a trickish situation with the hope that the opposition would be subdued by either the regional opinion and then, of course, by the international observers who also make the same declaration.
On Mali presidential polls
Mali held elections recently. President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta was declared winner in the run-off poll. But the opposition candidate, Soumaïla Cissé, rejected the results, insisting that government rigged the election. Sesay did not express surprise over the protest that trailed the announcement of the results. Rather, he was calm, noting that, “in the case of Mali, it is among the countries that have never organised free, fair and credible elections.”
According to him, what makes Mali different from Zimbabwe is that it is a member of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a regional body with “zero tolerance for acquiring power through undemocratic process. ECOWAS is an umpire of sorts in West Africa.” He was quick to cite the example of The Gambia’s former President, Yahya Jammeh, who refused to quit after his defeat in the 2016 election, noting that it took the combined efforts of Nigeria and ECOWAS to ease him out of office.
Army must keep off politics
All over the world, the primary function of the army is the protection of the territorial borders of the country where they exist. They owe the nation the obligation to protect the life and property of the people. Unfortunately, the army in Africa has strayed into politics, which has compounded the democratic challenges on the continent.
But how did Sesay react to this ugly development? He said, “the army does not have a role in elections. That is the truth.” He attributed the continued involvement of the army in countries like Zimbabwe and Guinea Bissau to the fact that they were a liberation army.
“That comes with a lot of challenges because the army believes that, without them, there would be no state in the first instance. Again, that is because they believe that, without their sacrifice, their struggle, laying down their lives to drive the colonial oppressor from the country, there would have been no Zimbabwe in the first place, for example.
“This thinking gives them a very strong claim and hold on the state, which is not the same in other African countries where the military is not liberation military,” he said.
History of political parties
Sesay also stressed that democracy in Africa could not be discussed without considering the history of the political parties in the countries of the continent. He cited the example of the Conservative and Labour parties in Britain. “In Britain, the Conservative and Labour parties have been there. Britons have keyed into the political parties, the philosophy and ideology of the political parties are ingrained in their psyche and indeed their subconscious.
“But this is not the situation in Africa. One of the reasons for this is that politics is still perceived as the biggest way to favour, wealth and to opportunities. Therefore, there is no commitment to ideology, rather, what matters is what is to be gained by either remaining in a party or by defecting to another party,” he said, explaining that in “the established political systems of the world, it is different because people are born into political parties and it is not easy for them to defect from one party to another. Defecting from one party to another is even seen as betrayal of the ideals of the family, which keeps them in that particular party for hundreds of years. This is not that case in Africa.”
Misfortune of Africa
After sober reflection, Sesay concluded that the misfortune of Africa, “especially sub-Saharan Africa” is the fact that “independence did not give the people developmental leaders.
If a leader were development-oriented, the people probably would not question whether a leader has been in office for 10 or 15 years because they would see that there is value in terms of national development, infrastructures, human safety and security. I don’t think the Singaporeans were in a hurry to let go of Lee Kuan Yew, who ruled the country for more than 35 years.”
Sesay was emphatic when he said, “In the case of Africa, the sit-tight leaders do not add value to national effort in terms of infrastructures, education, the opening up of the rural areas, and this problem cuts across the whole of the continent.
“By the time Yew left office, Singapore, which was hitherto much more underdeveloped than many African countries, was much more an industrialised country.”
Sesay wants African leaders to know that “developmental leadership drives development and progress. And the drive for progress and development does not necessarily need to be initially democratic but at the end of the day, the system may end up being democratic because there will be education, consciousness, poverty alleviation, people will have access to wealth.
“This was the case in South Korea. Developmental leadership promotes democratic participation as seen in South Korea. The father of modern South Korea, former President Park Chung-hee, was able to provide most of the basic needs of the people, to the extent that the people (themselves) started asking political questions, they started telling Chung-hee that they also wanted to participate in the political decision process.”
Lack of political culture
Sesay wondered how political leaders in Africa could boast of practicing democracy when there is no political culture: “For me, the crux of the matter is that Africa has not developed enough political culture that would enable the conduct of credible elections.
“We also forget that, sometimes, democracy is a cultural trait, not just at the state level but even in the way people interact with one another.”
Asked to explain what he meant by “political trait,” the professor said, “ Respecting the other person’s right, being able to say this is right and that is wrong; democracy is not something that is implanted in a country, which I think is the situation in most African countries.
“We inherited political institutions. We inherited a political culture that we have not been able to assimilate deep enough for it to become part and parcel of our political life and this is very important.” He gave the example of Britain, where a referendum was conducted for Scotland to decide whether the people wanted to remain in the country or not, as “evidence of commitment to democratic tenets, which include the freedom of expression, irrespective of whether the result of that freedom of expression was going to be positive or negative insofar as the interest of the individual or groups were concerned.”
Sesay also drew attention to former Prime Minister David Cameron, who kept his promise to resign should he lose the referendum on Brexit.
“It is inbuilt in their psyche and in their system,” Sesay stressed.
The way forward
Sesay was of the view that there is still hope for the continent. He emphasised the importance of mentoring as a means of addressing the political problems: “I’m not sure whether young Africans are actually being mentored by the older generation in a way that emphasises commitment to the nation, rather than commitment to a group or to parochial interests. But how do we bring about change? This can be achieved through education. And this calls for the review of the educational system in African countries. Education should be geared toward developmentalism.”
He proffered other solutions by asking: “Do we have credible mentors who can mentor young Africans? Is it possible to de-emphasise money in African politics? Is it possible to de-emphasise ethnicity or regionalisation in African politics? Is it possible for political leaders to accept the countries they preside over as one indivisible constituency that needs their full attention? Do we have the environment that would encourage people to do the right thing without recourse to shortcuts? These are questions Africans should begin to find answers to.”
Seasy called for investment in human capacity building, while discouraging “political opportunism” through which politicians exploit the poverty trap created by the “pervasive poverty” in the continent. Politicians often make promises they know that they will not fulfill after they have been voted for, Sesay observed.
On the role of sub-regional organisations, including the African Union, in overcoming the democratic challenges in the continent, Sesay observed that “regional organisations are brought together by the collective perceptions of common interest, the global interest and the parochial interest of members.
“Above all, these organizations have only states as members. And states still hold on to their sovereignty just as the organisations have a lot of respect for national sovereignty. That means they can only go so far because a member state can opt out. If many countries opt out, it could have negative effects on the organisation in question. That seems to put a lot of check and balance on how far these organisations can go. Even the hands of the UN are sometimes tied as in the case of Syria. The UN could have been more forceful there.”