Are African elections only free, fair when opposition wins?

This is a question I found myself asking after Zimbabwe’s opposition — MDC Alliance — vowed to challenge the results of the July 30 elections in court after the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) declared that Emmerson Mnangagwa was duly elected President, having won more that 50% of the total votes cast.

Guest column: Daniel Okoth

The opposition camp had claimed victory and later argued that the polls had been rigged in favour of the incumbent.

Just a day after the elections, MDC Alliance leader and presidential candidate Nelson Chamisa had declared that he had won the popular vote, even though Zec was yet to declare the results.

Various commentators across Africa’s social media landscape are claiming that Mnangagwa rigged the elections to have him declared winner.

These sentiments and order of events are not anything new in African elections.

In August 2017, Kenya’s opposition candidate Raila Odinga declared that he had won the presidential election several hours before the country’s electoral agency declared the official results, which eventually came in favour of President Uhuru Kenyatta.

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Odinga challenged the results in court and succeeded in having the results overturned and a fresh election, which he boycotted, declared.

Odinga would later heighten the stalemate when he had himself sworn in as President in Nairobi — albeit illegally.

During the confusion that lasted several months before a surprise handshake between Kenyatta and Odinga, tens of lives were lost.

In Uganda, opposition candidate Kizza Besigye claims he won the 2016 elections with 52% of the votes cast.

Besigye also proceeded to swear himself in as President, an action that would then trigger violent confrontations with the police, leading to several deaths, injuries and destruction of property.

In the same year and miles across to the west of the continent, an African electoral commission was being hailed for conducting free and fair elections.

The opposition candidate, Nana Akufo-Adde, was declared Ghanaian President, having won 53,8% of the vote.

This declaration saw the beginning of a continental shower of praises for the electoral commission, with its commissioners being invited to give talks and share strategies with their peers across the continent.

In Kenya, some 14 years earlier, another opposition candidate was declared president, trouncing the ruling party’s candidate (who interestingly is president today).

The then electoral body, under the leadership of the late Sammuel Kivuitu, received tonnes of praise and accolades from home and abroad.

Kivuitu would again be called to action, three years later, in a referendum that pitted the new government against some of its supporters who were now turned foes and teaming up with the opposition.

In this instance, the result was again in favour of the opposition and the commission’s chairperson was again a hero.

As Kenya headed to yet another presidential election in 2007, opposition supporters even composed songs in favour of the electoral commission boss.

That election result was in favour of the incumbent, President Mwai Kibaki, and would turn out to be the most contested election result in Kenyan history.

More than 1 000 lives were lost and 300 000 people displaced when violence erupted following the declaration of the results.

So, are elections only fair when the opposition candidate wins?

This article does not, by any means, claim that there have been no incidents where the incumbents have used instruments of power at their disposal to determine the outcome of electoral processes.

There has been evidence of the same in certain instances where violence has been used to silence or threaten candidates and their supporters and as the Supreme Court of Kenya said in their ruling that nullified Kenyatta’s initial win, “election is a process, not an event”.

This means that anything that interferes with the administration of a fair exercise, especially when it’s in favour of a single candidate, can be considered as rigging, we have seen enough of that across the continent.

My argument, though, is that there are instances where the opposition has lost fairly.

As much as we are currently claiming that Mnangagwa had the elections rigged in his favour, the truth could be that he actually won the popular vote.

What many people making this argument ignore is the importance of the rural voter in countries like Zimbabwe.

Please note, this article had been erroneously attributed to Blessing Vava. We regret the error

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6 Comments

  1. IT COULD BE THAT ONE PARTY WINS OR LOOSES (sitting government or opposition) PROVIDED THE NUMBERS SUPPORT THE OUTCOME. THE PROBLEM OF DEMOCRACY IS THAT ITS A SYSTEM AIMED AT PROTECTING THE STATUS QUO (USA, TURKEY, UK, ETC) ITS A SYSTEM THAT DON’T PERMIT AN OUTSIDER TO WIN UNLESS FOLLOWING A REVOLUTION (A BAD PROCESS OUTCOME INDEED). THE WRITER IS FIGHTING HARD TO BE SEEN TO WALK A FINE LINE BUT THIS REMINDS THE OTHER PARTIES TO READ BETWEEN THE LINES.

  2. mr Vava, if we can take ourself back to Zim 2008, then the voice of the people was the voice of satan, same pple different slogan, pane nyaya

  3. Yes. If the opposition wins in an election in Africa, especially in countries with revolutionary parties at the helm it definitely means that election was free and fair! Opposition parties in countries with the setup I’ve mentioned above cannot rig an election. The ground would be tilted in favour of the ruling party, naturally.

  4. Mr Vava, thanks for being so soberly objective in a dangerously polarized environment. You certainly have a pair of nearly spherical steel entities!!!

  5. In the case of Zimbabwe, this question can easily be answered with hard facts and empirical evidence. If Mnangagwa won free and fair, his lawyers should have no problem whatsoever in explaining the inaccuracies and violations that the MDC Alliance has raised at the ConCourt. There’ll certainly be no need for any ducking and weaving behind spurious legal technicalities.

  6. It’s difficult to comment on African “opposition” as a homogeneous group without getting caught up in nefarious polemics or political claptrap, or the idiosyncrasies of each constitution, so I would rather confine myself to Zimbabwe.
    This is where I live, work and participate as a voter; being conscious of the “state” media and organisations and how much its employees and values are manacled to a desperate ruling party that holds it’s members and the rural, less-educated, poverty-stricken and desperate peasants to ransom and blackmail, if they decide to start thinking for themselves and become truly “independent’ not tools of propaganda.

    Logic will be at play here – the case will be dealing mainly with collection, summation, verification and deliberation of statistical data, which is a science not fembera fembera. The case will expose how “learned” our judiciary is as well as how objective it is in dealing with facts laid before it.

    We will also be exposed to the quality (or lack of it) of lawyers on both sides and how they conduct themselves.

    As a voter, I’m interested in finding the truth of who actually won notwithstanding the one-sided processes and methods before, during and after we voted. Hopefully, the judiciary itself will not add to the voter’s misery by being deceitful and arrogant – the country will be the loser forever. What is narrowly defined as patriotism has ceased to be honourable and has been hijacked to mean arrogantly and blindly sticking to a path of destruction and being paid in the process by way of a packet of mealie meal, rice, fertilizer, a job, car, house, piece of land, tenders etc. These are meaningless when poverty is closer to 100% in any country. War becomes inevitable and very unpredictable because the very same resources are finite.

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