Should the Electoral Process in Some African States be Discontinued?

By Asa Owusu-Darko

One may argue that the winds of democratic change have finally reached the shores of Sub-Saharan Africa. Who could have ever foreseen the downfall of Africa’s longest serving President, Mr. Robert Mugabe? Neither did we anticipate Mr. Jacob Zuma of South Africa and Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn of Ethiopia tumbling along. After jubilating for hours on the streets of Harare, Addis Ababa and Capetown, we solemnly return to our homes with an unknown future ahead of us.

The end of colonization ushered in an era of unimaginable freedom.  Most of the charismatic yet inexperienced leaders from the post-colonial world, specifically in some African nations, sought to establish state structurers that were independent from their colonizers. They sought to replace oppression and the lack of political participation with freedom through the electoral process while increasing access to public goods and social services. Somewhere down the line, these dreams quickly faded.  Elected leaders rose to become dictators, while revolutions and coup d’états ushered in strongmen. Political institutions were built on corruption, patronage, exploitation of ethnic differences and abuse. Sadly, our polarized world remained silent as long as these leaders espoused liberal capitalist beliefs.

The fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 ushered in a global political state structure under the auspices of the United States of America and its global institutions. Liberal democracy and capitalist ideals reigned supreme and the nations on Africa had to follow this global order. To encourage this push to democracy, western aid packages were contingent on liberal democratic ideals such as free and fair multi-party elections, respect for minority groups as well as opposition parties. Some countries like Ghana embraced this change through the election of Jerry John Rawlings and the creation of its Fourth Republic. Other African countries such as Cameroon, Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe circumvented these restrictions by legitimizing their one-party state rule through multi-party elections yet with varying results.  

It is fair to argue that the comparison between the democratic process of Botswana or South Africa to that of Cameroon and Zimbabwe maybe a bit far-fetched. Some may even add that there are relatively few instances of electoral malpractice in the former while the latter has been plagued with numerous cases of political intimidation and other forms of electoral malpractices. Although I concur to these sentiments, I argue that some African leaders are using the electoral processes and the institution of the party as a means to legitimize their rule to their western counterparts and not to their people. Thus, the electoral process has failed to represent the views and needs of the people while instigating violence and resentment within communities as we saw in Kenya in 2008.  Due to the reasons listed above, we may see quite a number of popular uprisings as the despondent youth within these countries rise up and organize using social media platforms such as Facebook and Whatsapp.  

The electoral process in some African states pose a threat to the stability of the continent and these popular uprisings may pose a greater threat.  This can be attributed to the lack of institutions, inadequate education and a lack of clear purpose and direction to these popular uprisings. So how can we create an electoral system which protects the rights, voices and needs of the despondent while still maintaining the legitimacy and the sanity of the electoral process? First and foremost, the electoral process of most African states should remain independent and free from outside influence if the aim is to give the citizens a voice. Secondly, civil society groups, the intelligentsia, and workers’ unions must be empowered. I will argue that a significant portion of western aid should be geared towards these groups since they tend to be non-partisan and they engage in advocacy work. In addition, they help create and support institutions and also act as whistleblowers when the need arises. Finally, people from African states must value their rights, the need for democracy and the rule of law. For if they fail to do so who will.

Asa Owusu-Darko is a junior at the University of California Berkeley, where she studies Political Economy. She is the blogger for African Affairs. 

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