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Friday, January 4, 2008

Are elections in Africa really necessary or a waste of time?


ELECTIONS, IF MERELY FOR their own sake, are a waste of time in Africa, and nowhere else has this been demonstrated more than in Kenya.
The recent polls have been roundly condemned by election-monitoring bodies. Observers from the European Union said that the whole process was “not credible” and the report they issued on the exercise was the most damning it had ever issued anywhere in the world.
As Kenyans and the international community grapple with the crisis, the question they should now be asking themselves with some urgency is: “What now?”

The elections represented a big step backwards in the Government’s ostensible efforts to match economic reforms with democratic openness and respect for basic rights.
Kenya’s Western partners should not be idle bystanders. Instead they should be willing to condition non-humanitarian aid and security co-operation on clear evidence of reform, including the impartial investigation and prosecution of politicians suspected of subsidising recent election and post-election violence, and committed serious electoral malpractices.

From the polls, we now know that democracy is not a panacea. Some elements of the deficit of democracy should have been put to the test long ago.

Democracy is just a governing system. It might be one of the best, but it does not automatically solve all problems. In fact it probably does the opposite; most major problems must be solved before democracy can work.

From the polls, we have learnt that there is yet to be fair, free and transparent elections in Africa; it is just a waste of money and other resources.

African leaders hate to be called “former head of state”, and once they taste power, they think the country belongs to them. Then arrogance, disdain and authoritarianism take their course as the means to hanging on to power.

But what is the root cause of the problem? Prof Donald Kagan in Pericles of Athens and The Birth of Democracy, says that a successful democracy is based on more than elections.

He maintains that an examination of the few successful democracies in history suggests that they need to meet three conditions if they are to flourish.

The first is to have a good set of institutions.

The second is to have a body of citizens who possess a good understanding of the principles of democracy, and who have developed a character consistent with the democratic way of life.

The third is to have a high quality of leadership, at least in critical moments. Until the above has been fulfilled, the struggle for democracy will continue.

TWENTIETH CENTURY HISTORY IS littered with the remains of elections that brought forth neither democracy nor the rule of law.

The entire Soviet empire was enamoured of show elections in which every citizen was given the privilege of voting for the winner — and only the winner.

Fascist and corporatist regimes would routinely invoke the plebiscite to crown the claimed rule of the people, a tool used by Hitler to consolidate power in the 1930s.

Post-colonial regimes in countries such as the Central African Republic, or more recently, Zimbabwe, would hold elections only to see the victors proclaim themselves rulers for life.

Before any election is held, there must be ground rules that determine what elections are for, and formal institutional structures that will be filled by the elections.

But what justifies those rules? The answer can only be given retrospectively, based on the success of the democratic experiment itself.

All democracies enter this world with this so-called democratic deficit — a system preordained by no particular democratic process.

British philosopher John Stuart Mill may have had a case like Kenya in mind when he wrote that political liberalism was impossible in a country with ethnic or national divisions.

He wrote: “Among a people without fellow-feeling, especially if they read and speak different languages, the united public opinion, necessary to the working of representative government, cannot exist.”

Over the past years, the need to secure democratic order in countries fractured by racial, ethnic or religious cleavages like Kenya has robbed us of the easy assumption that democracy can take hold in raven societies.

Democracy, then, is ultimately not about the ability to elect rulers; it is about the ability to send them packing. The political tragedy of post-colonial Africa is not the absence of elections; it is the inability to vote rulers out of office.

Whether an election is a harbinger of democracy is best addressed in hindsight once the security of the minorities is assessed and once the first elected rulers face retrospective accountability before the electorate.

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