“If you take a historical perspective to the challenges, then you will begin to even appreciate the hypocrisy of Western democracies.”
The history of elections in Africa is replete with violence and death. Campaigns and elections are held with acrimony, to the extent that political opponents never want to see face to face even after a victor has emerged. Election crises sometimes escalate to full-blown civil war orchestrated by ethnic chauvinists.
This is even as political gladiators across the continent profess to believe in the ballot box. Oftentimes, court judgements on the outcome of elections are dismissed and the law trampled by political actors. The lack of free, fair and credible elections across the continent has made the people lose confidence in the ballot box, as their votes do not seem to count at the end of the day.
Election rigging starts from the day the electoral umpire announces the time table for elections. For example, calm is yet to return to Zimbabwe and Mali, where elections were held recently. In the two countries, the opposition denounced the results and also rejected court judgements that upheld the victory of the ruling parties.
How long will African countries practice pseudo-democracy? When will strong political institutions emerge on the continent? When will African political leaders learn to go into the ring in the spirit of sportsmanship? Is Africa not yet ripe for democracy as practiced in Europe and America? Indeed, who is to blame for the democratic challenges facing the continent – is it political leaders, the people, the system or the colonial masters who granted African countries independence on the platform of Western democracy? These are among the questions that Professor Amadu Sesay of the Centre for Peace and Strategic Studies, University of Ilorin, Ilorin, Kwara State, proffers answers to in this report.
Hypocrisy of the West
Though Sesay admitted that Africa is facing democratic challenges, he said critics of the continent’s political environment have not considered the historical perspective to the challenges. He believes an understanding of the perspective to the challenges would enable observers of the African political terrain to appreciate the difficulties therein. Sesay said, in order to appreciate the challenges facing political actors across the continent, it is necessary to first take a look at the foundation laid by the colonial authorities at the time of independence in each of the countries.
He said: “In some of the criticisms that we offer, insofar as the democratic challenges or deficit in Africa are concerned, it is a fact that we don’t seem to have a historical perspective. If you take a historical perspective to the challenges, then you will begin to even appreciate the hypocrisy of Western democracies.”
But since the end of the Cold War, are African countries not mature enough to begin to practice true democracy? Why blame Western democracies? The professor did not hesitate to buttress his argument: “Before anybody begins to talk about the Cold War era, we have to ask ourselves, what were the conditions, what were the political and socio-economic conditions of African countries during the period, what were the attitudes or policies of the great powers to these countries?
“When considered from that perspective, it would be seen that these very countries who are now pushing or even blaming African countries for their inability to transit successfully or smoothly to democracy are implicated directly, not even indirectly.”
Sesay wonders why critics do not talk about the role of Western powers when discussing the failure of democratic practice in Africa: “They (the West) forget that they are implicated and they make us believe that everything rests squarely on Africans.”
Asked why he chose the word “implicated,” he responded thus: “My use of the word ‘implicated’ is just a nice way of saying that the Western powers are guilty.”
Reflecting on Africa’s journey from the colonial era through the Cold War era, Sesay explained why Western powers must take responsibility for the political pitfalls in Africa, though the continent’s leaders are to be blamed too.
READ ALSO: Post-Cold War ties: African countries must embrace Russia with cautious optimism – Expert
Sesay wants the public, particularly scholars of Africa’s political history, as well as critics, to understand his standpoint.
“I’m putting the blame on the Western powers because, during the Cold War, the great powers or superpowers were not interested in the democratic credentials of African countries.
“All they were interested in was loyalty from Africans and their leaders, sometimes blind loyalty to them. At every international forum, they expected African countries to vote in support of their resolutions or positions on matters of importance, be it at the African Union, the United Nations, the Non-Aligned Movement level, etc. And in return they gave what they called foreign aid to these countries.
“But more importantly, they never taught these countries to behave democratically within their own systems. So, they were not interested in their democratic credentials or policies that were aimed at improving the lot of the African people or the citizens of these countries.” Sesay insists that African leaders who succeeded the colonial authorities and even those who emerged during the Cold War era “were not mentored to be democratic in outlook and action.”
As if to emphasis the magnitude of the problem, he said “this went on from 1947 to 1991 when the Cold War ended. That is a long period. When you now combine that with the colonial experience of African countries, then you don’t need to search for answers to the democratic challenges facing the continent. Of course, the colonial regimes were not democratic and they did not teach the successor elite to be democratic. So, there was really no long-term democratic experiment or experience in Africa.” Sesay added.
Failure of emerging African elite
Sesay was blunt when he said the inadequacies of Western officials at the time they relinquished power should not be an excuse for countries who are not able to transit to democracy: “Take for example, the Cameroonian President, Paul Biya, he has been in power since 1982 and he is still thinking of another term in office at the age of 85.”
The professor said, “Again, you have to ask yourself, why is it difficult for African countries to behave democratically, why is so difficult for us to organise free, fair and credible elections? Beyond the angle of the Western powers, the fact is that, in most African countries, the rule is: the winner takes all, nobody wants to lose power.
“When this trait is combined with the fact that, in many African countries, the security agencies are not really neutral when it comes to political issues, when it comes to loyalty, when it comes to protecting what should be a core national interest like conducting free, fair and credible elections and making sure that there are no electoral or post-electoral contestation that will degenerate into conflict and violence.
“Security agencies still find it very difficult to convince political opponents that they are neutral. This is one part of the argument. The other part of the argument is that electoral management bodies, even when they are called ‘independent’ and, interestingly, in most African countries, they are called Independent Electoral Commissions, but to what extent are they independent in the final analysis?”
But it is not a sweeping condemnation of all electoral bodies in the continent. Sesay acknowledged that there are countries where electoral reforms are taking place to ensure the independence of the umpires.
“I know many countries are making very good progress to make sure that the electoral umpires remain neutral and many of the umpires are actually working toward that, making sure that they are dispassionate and they are non-partisan,” he said.
His worry is that there are still countries that are yet to take serious electoral reforms that will give autonomy to the electoral bodies to discharge their functions without bias or favour. “But in many other countries, this is not the case. So, when all these factors, the role of the security agencies, the electoral bodies, among others, are put together, the opposition finds it difficult to believe that there would be free and fair elections. And this is the crux of the problem, the perception that elections will always be manipulated by the incumbent.”
But the opposition is not alone in its thinking, after all. While saying that “this is why the opposition begins to shout foul even when there is none,” he noted that “the population itself finds it very difficult to believe that there will be free, fair and credible elections.”
And more worrisome is the reality that, in Africa, even the results of elections are sometimes upturned by incumbents. Citing the case of The Gambia in 2016, Sesay observed that ousted President Yahya Jammeh turned round to announce that he was not going to accept the decision of the people as indicated by the result of the presidential election won by the opposition candidate, Adama Barrow. “And it took the combined efforts of Nigeria and the Economic Commission of West African States (ECOWAS) to ease him from office without a fight.” This is part of the democratic challenges facing the continent, he stressed.
Zimbabwe’s political crisis
In Zimbabwe, hopes for a true democracy were high after the country’s sit-tight President, Robert Mugabe, was eased out of power through a palace coup backed by the army. But the post-Mugabe elections were nothing to write home about, as it was more of a replay of Mugabe-era style of elections.
Using Zimbabwe as to further illustrate Africa’s political environment, Sesay noted that “it was under a one-man rule for 38 years. There were never free, fair and credible elections throughout the period. Now, the question is, if you were a member of the opposition, would you be convinced that a man who has been part and parcel of that long tyrannical administration but who is now the President of the country through a coup d’etat will conduct a free and fair election?”