Are elections a curse in Africa?

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The past few months, African elections, crises and wars have hogged the limelight, perhaps reinforcing the perception that Africa is an unorganised and crisis-prone continent.

When we thought the Ivory Coast crisis would end with the capture of Laurent Gbagbo, Nigerians were at the polls in what was described the biggest election ever to date. It was a staggered three weeks of local, parliamentary and presidential elections in the leading oil producing African country.

As foreign election observers and scribes pack their bags convinced that this was Nigeria’s first-ever peaceful and reasonably free and fair election, violence broke out in the Moslem north.

Supporters of the opposition leader, General Muhammadu Buhari, charged that elections were not free and fair. Hundreds of thousands, like in Ivory Coast, fled their houses as violence flared. Lives were lost.

In Uganda, where a presidential election was held in February this year, violence and protest persist.

The opposition leader Kizza Besigye complained of vote-rigging. But the context has muted from vote-rigging to protest against the rising cost of living.

He was detained after joining the “walk-to-walk” protest together with at least 12 other opposition leaders. The government threatened to shut down access to Facebook and Twitter.

However comparisons can be drawn between Zimbabwe and Ivory Coast. Only a decade-and-half ago, Ivory Coast and Zimbabwe enjoyed a reputation as havens of stability and prosperity in West Africa and Southern Africa respectively.

While Ivory Coast was the world’s largest cocoa producer, Zimbabwe was Southern Africa’s breadbasket. Both countries were beacons of hope in their respective regions and a magnet for workers from neighbouring countries.

Today, both countries’ economic decline as a result of electoral processes is profound even in the midst of glaring potential. In Ivory Coast, in addition to being a leading cocoa producer, substantial reserves of oil and gas have been found offshore.

Zimbabwe boasts fertile soils, above-average rainfall and skilled manpower, plus the country is rich in mineral resources which include the recent discovery of diamonds.

Local, Western and Asian investors are waiting for stabilisation so they can start business.

Whoever takes over in these of any these countries is faced with the challenge of bringing back hope to the majority and reunifying divided populations, a high unemployment rate, the degradation of the country’s infrastructure and a breakdown of institutions.

But is it possible for any African leader to address these priorities in the face of another looming election in less than five or six-year term?

Elections are supposed to bring hope to people as they present them with an opportunity to either reinstate or change leadership. In Africa elections carry a completely different meaning.

Some African countries record their highest death rates during elections, while in others poverty deepens to unprecedented levels in just less than three months wilting any hope attached to the process.

In the past five years there have been destructive and violent election-related conflicts in Kenya (2007/08), Zimbabwe (2008), Nigeria (2007, 2011), Lesotho (2007), the Democratic Republic of Congo (2006), Togo (2005), Zanzibar (2005), Guinea Bissau (2008), Ivory Coast (2011) and Uganda (2011).

Violence which characterises African elections must surely ignite debates about the challenges to the democratic process in Africa.

The post-election political impasses and their devastating consequences should surely compel us to ponder the complex question of whether elections in Africa are a curse on or a cure for democratic advancement.

A new phenomenon, power-sharing agreements, born out of African post-election crises in Kenya and Zimbabwe has set an unfortunate precedent and such agreements are becoming a trend in Africa.

Anyone who loses an election in Africa now sees an opportunity of being in power through power-sharing agreements hence the perpetual violence. This defies the tenets of democracy.

Unless there is respect for democracy, the constitution, and the will of the people, elections in Africa will continue not to be only a waste of resources but a threat to development and therefore a curse.

Until that happens, sovereignty, stability and prosperity for African countries will remain elusive despite sitting on huge resource potential.

Perhaps, this may require countries to give more powers to regional blocs and allow for effective regional interventions without necessarily compromising the national interests of each state.