Is free and fair election possible in Africa?

Okot Nyormoi

is Associate Editor of Nile Journal, professor of Biology, human rights campaigner, author of novel about Africa, Burden of Failure, lives in Huston Texas

African leaders do not lose elections. It is a truism that has endured for decades and that has so to speak stood the test of time. The leader’s permanent victory at the polls, often scoring well over 90% of the votes cast, was at one point interrupted by its twin, the coup d’état  

Despite the decline of coups in recent years, the list of African leaders who hung on to power through by some form of electoral vote, has grown longer. A few examples will suffice. Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea has been in power for 40 years and is going strong. Paul Biya of Cameroon has been in power for 37 years, won the last election by 99.9 per cent. Denis S. Nguesso of the Republic of Congo, 35 years in power now and is just beginning. Idriss Deby of Chad, 29 years in power and is still winning by landslides. Isais Afewerki of Eritrea recently clocked 26 years in power. Ismail Omar Guelleh of Djibouti, at 20 years in power, is a relative novice in this African game of longevity in power. And there are the up and coming men in Central Africa: Paul Kagame in Ruanda and his brother Nkurunziza in Burundi. Others like Dos Santos of Angola retired after 37 years, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe was deposed by his own army after 37 years. Recently in Sudan, Omar Al-Bashir after 30 years was driven from power by the peaceful uprising of the people he always claimed were 99.9 per cent, his supporters.

In contrast, opposition parties in Africa always lose election. Although now and then an opposition party was able to win, as happened in Malawi in 1992 when Hastings Banda tried his hands at multiparty election for the first time, and to his consternation lost the vote. And as happened in Nigeria during that country’s last election when Goodluck Jonathan lost and bowed out. Otherwise voters have become accustomed to hearing the usual opposition cry of rigged ballots, followed by futile court challenges that always end in the much-touted independent Courts, ruling in favor of the Ruler, and reaffirming his Excellency’s life presidency.

Many people have asked why opposition parties cannot win elections in Africa. To answer the question, it is helpful to examine the demographics of these countries. Most citizens of these countries are peasants living in the countryside. They would not want to do anything to risk hurting themselves or their families. Life has taught them that most times they do not benefit anything from the sacrifices they make in the struggle for change.

Instead of agitating for change, most peasants would rather lay low, fully submerged in the subsistence economy, where they are endowed with fertile land and good rainfall. They therefore rely neither on the empty promises of ruling regimes nor on the equally empty promises of the opposition. This means that most agitations for change occurs in the urban areas.

Of course, the ruling parties do not leave the opposition alone. They use whatever means available: military, police, intelligence, judiciary and elaborate patronage system to ensure that no opposition party rises to a level serious enough to challenge them.

In the neo-colonial era, regime leaders in Africa are like farm managers for the old and the new imperial powers who lord it over Africa, and care nothing of human rights as long as their demands for African resources are satisfied. The so-called electoral triumphs in Africa by long stayed rulers must be seen against this background. The sole goal of this rulers has become their continued control of state power. To this end they are prepared to commit any crime.

We come around now to the burning question. Is free and fair election possible in Africa? Yes, it is, in the long run. The challenge is enormous, and it may take a long time, it may take years of struggle on the part of ordinary people in the towns and villages. But the struggle must go on.