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Why Is Africa Allergic to Elections?

Why Is Africa Allergic to Elections?

 Over the past couple of months I have been irritated on a number of occasions to hear “Well maybe Africa just isn’t ready for democracy.” As though ‘being ready for democracy’ is some kind of cardinal virtue, and we have to excuse ourselves for this lack of virtue. Which Africa? Whose democracy? Rather than offer the lame old excuses, like ‘Africa is still young,’ I’ll ask a few more questions.

We see our continent struggling with democracy: So many countries go into convulsions when election-time approaches. Some even refuse to go there, putting off the inevitable with a whole raft of excuses. In others, violent suppression of any potential opposition seems to be the norm. Why do the masses surrender their lives for the political ambitions of their leaders? What kind of leaders allows the shedding of even one drop of blood?

 As I write, I am aware of two sins I would like to avoid:

The first is generalization – as though there were ONE Africa, rather than 54 countries housing 1.2 billion people. From the outset I admit that what is said about one corner of this vast continent need not be true of the billion-plus people living here.

The second is presumption: Who am I, as a fair-skinned African, to presume to answer some of the continents’ vexing questions? Well, in the context of the CTEWC reflection, I will presume only to raise questions, and not answer them.

 Is it because electoral democracy is a foreign imposition and alien to the African way of doing things? In the mists of our idealized pre-colonial past, decisions were made by councils of elders, the repository of wisdom of our societies. Is this perhaps why, at  93, Robert Mugabe feels more qualified than ever to rule Zimbabwe? Maybe we aren’t in the habit of changing rulers, because chiefs and kings serve for life. Is this why so many post-colonial leaders have difficulty stepping down? Or is it that they are so scared of being unseated, and potentially having to answer for their misdemeanors that they try to cling to power forever? Or has hubris led them to believe that the nation really couldn’t survive without them? 

Have we forgotten that in our mythical traditional gerontocracy the elders resolved issues by a process of consensus? Have our leaders lost the art of negotiating and upholding the interests of the other? Is this why they hammer any voices contrary to their own?

Or maybe our allergy to elections is about the technology of the election? Modern elections are computerized, mystified, reserved to a few experts, and therefore lack popular transparency. Do we really need to try to emulate the fancy high-tech developed world with instant results (and instant confusion) at the push of a button, as though elections are only about the numbers? Or might the whole process be more accessible to the tech-illiterate among us, if we used marbles, as they do in Gambia? In this system, by which President Yaya Jammeh was unseated after 22 years, the tallying is very visible, as the marbles of each candidate are spread out in an array. Do we really need to be rocket scientists to visualize the results of an election?

 Or do we resent elections, because we are not comfortable without compatriots? Or fear surrendering power to anyone who is not a member of our own ethnic group? Our national borders were carved out without any consultation, and we were thrown together with other races, tribes and language groups to which we have no affinity at all. Are we still shuddering from that experience, reluctant to cohabit and collaborate with people who do not belong to my ethnicity, who eat porridge in a different way to me? What is our sense of the common good? Does the noble ‘government of the people by the people for the people’ only apply when the said people recognize themselves as a people? Why do elections bring about talk of secession of one or other part of a country?

Or are we allergic to winner-takes-all results? Where the winner fills all the top positions with his or her appointees, or ethnic group, and awards contracts to his or her cronies. Are we so intuitively ill at ease with this inherently unjust outcome, that we would rather disrupt the entire process than face possible defeat?

Life is more important than who is sitting at the top table. Why can’t we address our reasons for choosing mayhem over “free and fair elections?” Why must we convulse through each electoral cycle? Why can’t we stop killing each other in the pursuit of democracy?