An alien inheritance

Colonial powers created African states with arbitrary borders and unsuitable systems of "winner-takes-all" multi-party electoral democracy. As recent elections show, this has been a failure. It is time to develop an African form of democracy
September 27, 2008
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Can electoral democracy work in Africa? After catastrophically bad elections in Nigeria, Kenya and Zimbabwe, many people, both inside and outside the continent, are starting to have doubts. There is certainly no lack of elections—almost all the continent's 53 countries are multi-party democracies and since the beginning of 2007 they have held 35 presidential or parliamentary elections—just not very much real democracy. Since multi-party democracy swept across the world after the end of the cold war, only three sitting African presidents have run for re-election, lost and retired gracefully: Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia, Mathieu Kérékou in Benin (both 1991) and Abdou Diouf in Senegal (2000).

Western governments point to the rising number of elections in Africa and claim that their flaws are merely teething problems. The assumption is that electorates will force governments to behave better and deliver development for their citizens. But this is not the case. Many African rulers have neither the will nor the capacity to improve the lives of their people, and the people do not, at this stage, have the political power to force change through democratic mechanisms. Vote-rigging and election-related violence are getting worse, not better.

The core of the problem is not inexperience in electoral procedure; it is the nature of the African nation state. Successful democratic systems depend upon a group of people—judges, civil servants, election officials—who stand outside party politics and serve the state and people as a whole, irrespective of who is in power. In Africa this class barely exists. Only a few countries maintain a distinction between the ruling party and the state. In Kenya, the police—and in Zimbabwe and Nigeria the army as well—were part of the ruling party's election machine and the majority of judges and all the senior civil servants had been recently appointed by the president. In Nigeria, the election supervisor was beholden to the ruling party and constantly ruled in its favour. The election organisers did not prevent and may even have helped stuff the ballot boxes.

Behind the façade of African nation states lie networks of political and business elites. These may be family, ethnic, regional, religious or social in basis, but no one can escape them. Power and influence in Africa is exercised mainly through such connections. It is very hard for people like judges and civil servants to operate independently of them. Those who try to uphold the rules are often overruled by other, more powerful players whose commitment to national development depends on their own interests. The ownership and exploitation of natural resources is a zero-sum business to them; if they do not get a share, resources will not be developed. This lies at the heart of many African coups and wars.

This situation is not unique to Africa, but it is particularly pronounced here. How did it happen? The answer lies partly in the formation of African countries, which were lumped together at the end of the 19th century by invading Europeans who drew lines on a blank map, taking no account of existing states and territories. To help control their subjects in these new "nation states," Africa's colonial rulers played up ethnic differences. National identity, let alone nationalism, was not encouraged until independence. By then it was too late to forge a common idea of national solidarity and citizenship.

With independence in the 1960s, most former colonies were saddled with political systems and parliaments based on those of the former colonial power. I like to take African visitors to London to the chamber of the House of Commons when it is not sitting. It is smaller than it appears on television, government and opposition frontbenches closer than you expect. I always point out the two red lines—two sword lengths apart—on the floor that the antagonists are not allowed to cross. "These guys used to kill each other," I point out. My visitors are often astonished that Britain's civil war is imprinted on the layout of this, the "mother of parliaments."

The tragedy is that this adversarial historical precedent was bequeathed to former British colonies. Most parliaments in Anglophone Africa are based on the Commons—government and opposition, for and against, facing each other. That may have suited a divided ruling class in 18th-century Britain, and may have been a successful way of balancing the differing political interests of middle and working classes in 20th-century Britain. But does it suit African politics? In many African languages, the word for "opposition" implies "enemy," and the concept of bidding for power in an election, losing and then settling for constructive debate is not one that fits the African way of doing things. This is why African rulers go to great lengths to draw opponents into their camp. Subservient maybe, but included.

In her novel The Poisonwood Bible (1998), set in pre-independence Congo, Barbara Kingsolver expounds the African case against winner-takes-all democracy: "To the Congolese it seems odd that if one man gets fifty votes and the second forty-nine, the first one wins altogether and the second one plumb loses. That means almost half the people will be unhappy and… in a village that's left halfway unhappy you haven't heard the end of it. There is sure to be trouble somewhere down the line."

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Multi-party democracy opened up the ethnic seams in the newly independent countries. How do you build a nation state out of many different groups, each with its own language, customs and culture, and its own attitude to authority and democracy? In Nigeria there are more than 400 different language groups, in Kenya almost 50. People can move between classes, and politicians can reconcile class interests. But people cannot switch their ethnicity, and constituency-based elected politicians in Africa often become patrons of an ethnic group or region. In a recent survey in Malawi, less than 5 per cent of respondents said they thought their MP's job was to make laws or govern. More than 25 per cent thought it was to deliver things to their area. In Nigeria, the assumption that a president will support only his own people is so strong that many people demand a rotating presidency—on the assumption that their group will get its turn to "eat" every few years.

Seeing that western-style democracy might pull their new nations apart, many of Africa's post-independence leaders argued that their countries should be one-party states. In Tanzania, Julius Nyerere believed that the priority was economic development and that the country should not waste resources with changes of government. He also believed that real independence was economic as well as political, and so nationalised businesses and farms. The economy crashed, and Tanzania became a listless, aid-dependent country. (Somehow, still inspired by Nyerere's vision, it has remained a coherent political unit.)

Others set up governments in imitation of the Soviet Union, which had supported many independence movements. But whether capitalist or communist, authoritarian rulers in these new nations suited all the superpowers during the cold war. Although they claimed to stand for democracy, America, Britain and France cared more about whose side a leader was on than whether he was elected. Their closest allies—Kenya, Côte d'Ivoire, Nigeria and Zaire —were one-party states.

Other African rulers imposed one-party rule for more cynical reasons. It created an easy route for those whom the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe has called "the smart and the lucky but hardly ever the best" to seize the state and its wealth. One by one the multi-party systems inherited at independence gave way to single-party rule. One-party states became one-man states and then, in many cases, one-general states as the military took over. By the mid-1980s, the only African countries to have maintained unbroken traditions of multi-party elections were Botswana, Gambia and Mauritius.

At the end of the cold war, the west abandoned its authoritarian allies in Africa and encouraged a return to pluralist politics. But the real prize was in eastern Europe, and western countries started to withdraw business, aid and diplomatic resources from Africa. Europe and America gave African governments three conditions for their continued, if diminishing, support: pursue free market policies, as laid down in the Washington consensus, respect human rights, and hold democratic elections—by which they meant multi-party democracy. (None of these criteria applied to countries that had oil.)

In some countries, the withdrawal of Soviet support allowed the overthrow of a military dictator, such as Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia. Others, like Kaunda and Kérékou, held elections and lost (though Kerekou, formerly a Marxist dictator, reinvented himself as a born-again Christian and swept back to power). But after the first wave of multi-party elections had removed some of the old tyrants, presidents learned how to manage elections and avoid defeat. Since they appointed all the generals and senior officials, and could draw on state resources to fund their campaigns, that was hardly surprising.

Yet while the elections were often a mockery, pluralist political systems did begin to open up political space. Civil society grew more confident. In Kenya, a free press exposed the corruption of the ruling elite and forced some resignations. In Uganda it has made President Yoweri Museveni rescind the illegal gift of pristine forest to a rich sugar grower. In recent elections in Ghana, a combination of mobile phones and private radio stations exposed fraud.

In many countries, the 1960s independence movements had gone on to become ruling parties—and to consider the state their personal property. But in the 1990s those movements began to wither away in west and east Africa (with the exception of Tanzania). In Zambia, Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria, they all but disappeared, replaced by an array of parties all offering almost exactly the same policies, but bitterly divided by personality, ethnicity or region. In several countries the scramble for power turned violent, and by the mid-1990s more than half of Africa's countries were directly or indirectly at war.

Independence came more slowly in southern Africa, as black majorities had to fight white elites for land and freedom. Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa are still ruled by liberation movements. As we have seen in Zimbabwe, leaders like Robert Mugabe believe they rule by right of conquest, not electoral mandate. A similar mentality exists among the rulers of Angola, Mozambique and South Africa.

At the very end of the 20th century, western governments began to re-engage with Africa, in reaction partly to media images of suffering and partly to China's commercial engagement in the continent. The west began to fund civil society organisations, seeing them as sticks they could use to beat recalcitrant governments with. But despite their success in some areas, these organisations are not strong enough to hold governments to account when it comes to the big battles for power at election time.

Consider some of Africa's recent elections. In Uganda in 2001, Kizza Besigye, a doctor and army officer, ran for president against Museveni, his former close friend and patient, and lost. He was subsequently arrested by armed men and briefly detained. He fled to the US in fear of his life. Politically, Uganda is divided between the south, where the majority voted for Museveni, and the north, which voted almost unanimously against him.

In Ethiopia, the 2005 general election ended in street battles in which 200 people were killed by security forces. Opposition leaders were locked up without charge. When Nigeria's rulers realised they had overdone the cheating in last year's election, they simply offered the opposition the governorship of certain states. In Congo, seven years of civil war ended with a peace agreement in 2002. The various warlords formed a coalition government until an election in 2007. Voting went very smoothly (though it cost donors nearly half a billion dollars). But as soon as the winner, Joseph Kabila, was installed in power, street battles began in Kinshasa and Kabila's rival Jean-Pierre Bemba fled to Portugal. He has now been arrested and charged with war crimes by the international criminal court. Had he won in 2007, the ICC might well be pursuing Kabila.

In Kenya at the end of last year, the ruling party rigged the election that most people thought the opposition had won. Both sides let loose their private armies, and over a thousand people were killed. Under international pressure, the two party leaders agreed to call off the violence and form a government of national unity. It has worked so far at the highest level, but Kenya remains more a patchwork of ethnic fiefdoms than a nation state.

And of course there is Zimbabwe. After Morgan Tsvangirai won the first round of the presidential election in March, the ruling Zanu-PF party launched a campaign to intimidate opposition supporters from voting in the second round. It worked. Tsvangirai withdrew and Mugabe "won" the runoff.

Later this year, elections are planned for Angola and Côte d'Ivoire. Both could explode if the ruling elites feel threatened by electoral losses.


Africa inherited multi-party democracy at independence, turned to one-party rule during the cold war and then returned to multi-party democracy when it ended. Now the wheel is turning again and the continent faces a conundrum. Multi-party democracy has brought freedom of expression and a flourishing of civil society, but almost everywhere it tends towards political fragmentation and bitterly divided politics. Elections are manipulated and often violent.

But the decline of western influence in Africa may now allow a more Africa-friendly form of democracy to emerge. From the late 1980s into the 21st century the western agenda—open your markets, allow multi-party politics and respect human rights—was written across Africa. But that period came to an end on 12th July 2008 with the Chinese and Russian veto of the UN resolution calling for sanctions on Zimbabwe. Now African governments have other allies, who ask no questions. With Asian support, African rulers will be able to resist western pressure to hold elections. But can they also remain democratic?

Those used to western multi-party democracy may see a government of national unity—outside a national emergency—as a form of authoritarianism. But looked at from Africa, from the village in The Poisonwood Bible, governments of national unity may be the best way of holding these countries together, as long as they are constrained by accountability and the rule of law. Elections would not bestow absolute power but serve to determine the share of power.

African leaders have failed to adapt the political systems they inherited from the colonial powers to their national situations. In only a few countries, like South Africa, has there been a proper process of political self-examination to work out a constitution and political system that suits their political culture.

A huge diversity of political parties now forms Africa's political landscape, and so returning to one-party rule is not an option. But at election time, do those who come second have to lose everything because of a handful of votes? Politically and culturally, Africa needs more inclusive systems—an African form of proportional representation. The trick is to combine this with the rule of law, checks and balances, and the right to dissent. A better system might be for electoral support to determine not only how many seats in parliament a party gets, but how many positions in government. It could hardly be worse.

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