The African way of handling voter rejection

2008-01-05 00:00

It is not as if President Thabo Mbeki doesn’t have enough problems. Now the democratisation of Africa, one of his pet out-of-town projects — to the detriment of holding his internal party power-base — is unravelling. The past weeks have been disillusioning for those who swallowed the beguiling African Renaissance stardust that Mbeki sprinkled so assiduously.

The crisis in Kenya confirms that while it is true that an African economic revival is taking place, it occurs against a still brittle political backdrop.

It is galling that incumbent Mwai Kibaki rigged the polls and stole the election, but not unusual. This is the African way and as the enduring popularity of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe with other African heads of state attests, it is an approach that is admired, not reviled.

Hundreds of Kenyans have died. In spite of the intervention of the United Nations, the African Union, the European Union and the United States — all undeterred by their abject failures in other genocidal African nations such as Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi — more will die in the coming days. Tribal enmities are being fanned to the point of civil war and the Kenyan dream of a functioning democracy is again in tatters.

It is a measure of the increasingly dysfunctional nature of Mbeki’s administration, riven between his supporters and those of his former deputy, Jacob Zuma, that the best the Foreign Affairs ministry has managed in response is an anodyne statement of concern. There has been no South African offer to mediate, perhaps because it is Zuma, not Mbeki, who would be the natural choice for such an intervention. It is a pleasing irony, although it is unlikely to resolve the Kenyan crisis, that it is Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a thorn in the side of both Zuma and Mbeki, who immediately jetted off to Nairobi to head an inter-church attempt at mediation, rather than an envoy of Mbeki, George W. Bush’s designated “point-man” for resolving continental conundrums.

The point-man’s efforts in Zimbabwe can be measured against a report released by the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute late last year. It said that the country faced a “grave constitutional crisis” because of widespread police torture and brutality and the government’s “contemptuous disregard” of high court orders.

It concluded that under such circumstances it was unlikely that free and fair elections could be held later this year. A similar conclusion appears at last to have permeated the thinking of Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, which this week threatened to boycott the election unless Mugabe implements agreed constitutional changes.

What is unfolding in both these countries suggests a potential role for South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission, which steered South Africa through three flawlessly executed elections and which some want to disband because it is “too expensive” to maintain.

The EU was at first reluctant to send observers to Kenya, arguing that resources for Africa were slim and that the country was “too stable”, whatever that might mean. A week later the country teeters on the brink of civil war, because electoral oversight was lax and corrupt.

The Kenyan electoral commissioner who announced the win of Kibaki at an impromptu swearing-in ceremony, now says that he was pressured to do so. In fact, he is “not sure” that Kibaki did, indeed, win.

Kenya is the usual African story of dashed hopes. Kibaki was elected on the promise of ending corruption and authoritarian rule by a deeply unpopular president. Does that perhaps sound familiar to a scenario unfolding closer to home?

It was a commitment that did not survive Kibaki’s first term of office. The man who was going to “save” Kenya has expended all his energy on saving his own skin.

He joins a long line of African despots. Although there have been many peaceful and fair elections in Africa, the crunch comes when the ruling party starts losing its grip on power. Scarcely any African president has been willing to step down when he loses the support of the people.

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