African Elections: Democracy or Dictatorship?
By David Zarembka, Coordinator
Elections in the
United States can be annoying. Those incessant ads on TV where one
decent person abuses another decent person; the simplification
of complex issues into slogans; the spin, half-truths, and lies for
political advantage; and the pundits contradicting each other; all
this leads one to wish that the election day would come quickly. In
this region of Africa – Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic
Republic of the Congo, Sudan, and Ethiopia – elections are much
more than an annoyance. Election periods are fearsome times. Intimidation,
violence, government suppression of normal freedoms, and even armed
conflict that leads to the destruction of the country are the results
The practice in
this region is that the ruling party never loses an election. The
only exception was the 2002 defeat of the KANU government
in Kenya. At that time I thought that this would be a major watershed
for democracy in Africa – the overthrow of a repressive regime
by the ballot box. How wrong I was! This was no more than the exception
that proved the rule. If the constitution of a country has term limits
for president, rather than stepping down, the president changes the
constitution. In 2006 President Museveni did this in Uganda. If the
president actually loses, as probably happened in the 2007 Kenyan election,
the president just declares that he won and is immediately sworn in
again. But in most cases the president wins with 90% or more of the
vote. When this happens, we should be suspicious.
Community – through organizations such as
the European Union, the African Union, the Commonwealth, the Carter
Center, and others – sends in election observers for all elections.
These observers show up a few days before the election, see that everyone
lines up nicely to vote, and that the results seem to be tabulated
in an organized fashion, and then may declare that the election met
acceptable international standards. One problem is that these standards
are extremely low. As long as people enrolled for the election had
a ballot, put them in boxes in an orderly fashion, and the results
were announced, the election is considered “fair”. The
President and his party then continue their rule when the election
was no more than a façade to hoodwink the international community
into thinking that the government is legitimate. If in rare cases,
the international observers declare that the election did not meet
international standards, then nothing happens as the president is sworn
in again, usually at a ceremony attended by the neighboring presidents
who have earned their positions by the same dubious methods.
How does the ruling party always win, even if it is unpopular? There
are so many ways for the ruling party to cheat that it is difficult
to even list them all. Here are some very common ones:
• The ruling
party uses government resources in the campaigns, thereby creating
an unequal playing field for opposition candidates.
• Opposition candidates are harassed, sometimes jailed on spurious charges,
their election campaigns are disrupted, and sometimes they are even
• Popular opposition political parties are not allowed to register or,
if registered, are banned.
• Client political parties of the ruling party are registered to confuse
the electorate and international community into thinking that there
is real opposition.
In Kenya the most common method is to bribe voters – one of the
corruption scandals was blamed on the need for the ruling party to
have enough funds to win the election.
In other countries rumors serve the same purpose. For example in Burundi,
people were told that the ruling party officials were watching how
they voted and if they didn’t vote for the ruling party, they
would not be allowed to use government services such as hospitals and
• Intimidation of voters is a common practice and is not done during
Election Day while the observers are watching. Rather it is done before
the election when youth groups sponsored by the ruling party visit
people at night in their houses and tell them to vote for the ruling
• Large groups of youth groups organized by the ruling party parade around
the community to show force. I have seen these groups in Kenya and
know how intimidating they can be.
The electoral commission is not a neutral body but is appointed by
the government; so clearly they are going to support the ruling party
who has appointed them. If the voting doesn’t go the way it should,
then the electoral commission “cooks the books” for the
ruling party – there are innumerable methods of doing this.
• Ghost voters are common. These may be people who have died or children
or foreigners. In the case of Uganda there were entire poling stations
that were fictitious.
These are some
of the methods that the ruling party uses to “win” an
election. But do not think that the opposition political parties are
innocent. They use these same techniques when they can. The contest
then becomes a question of who has “stolen” the most votes.
In one case in Kenya a candidate for Member of Parliament “won” by
over 10,000 votes. When the courts recounted the ballots, this candidate
lost by over 10,000 votes thus nullifying the election.
The African voter
is well aware of all this. They realize that they are just bit players
in a game of charades. As a result they have no
confidence in the legitimacy of the government, even if the international
community’s election observers have anointed it with their imprimatur.
The real, basic
problem, though, is that citizens now have no method of creating
regime change –except resort to violence. Every one
of the governments mentioned above – Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi,
Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, and Ethiopia – except
Kenya, seized power through armed violence as a rebel group or, in
the case of Sudan, a military coup. I have no understanding of how
a rebel group which has created destruction in their home country,
killed its citizens, and committed atrocities can then become the legitimate
government of a country. Governments should be run by educated, skilled,
competent people. Rebel soldiers and commanders are totally unqualified.
If there is mismanagement in these governments, there is no need to
wonder why. If a rebel leader is willing to kill his countrymen and
destroy the society and economy, when he and his party control the
whole country, they will just do the same thing, but on a grander scale.
This becomes a great road to riches. Elections are but a means of confirming
this dictatorship. All these governments that seized power through
the sword have never lost it through an election.
As the government becomes more dictatorial, more entrenched, better
able to control the outcome of elections, corruption and suppression
of decent people intensifies. Citizens, particularly the youth, can
revolt. This is what happened in the 2008 post-election violence in
Kenya. This, too, is not a constructive solution because certain ethnic
groups are targeted, property destroyed, and people killed. When the
masses revolt, it is not pretty.
This is not democracy. Democracy means that people have a chance to
choose their government through a fair playing field for all who wish
to contest. Democracy means that those same citizens can change their
government when they so chose. In this region of Africa such is not
What can be done? For starters, the international community has to
tighten up its standards on what is considered a fair election. It
cannot just observe on the voting day. Observing must include the campaign
period. Has the opposition been harassed, jailed, and even assassinated?
Have government resources been used to the advantage of the ruling
party? Have youth groups been used to intimidate voters? Were some
political parties banned from the election? Was the tallying of the
votes transparent in that the results from every polling station in
the country are available for inspection? Is the electoral commission
an independent body or appointed by the ruling party? Did bribery occur?
If these questions
cannot be properly answered, the election must not be considered “up to international standards”.
When this occurs, some consequences to those governments who have
and stolen elections must take place. They should be considered illegitimate
and not allowed proper standing in the international community, but
considered a pariah state, loosing, for example, their status and vote
at the United Nations and other international organizations. Foreign
aid should be curtailed; and so on.
Real reform will
only occur when there is an international, independent electoral
commission that will be part of the election process – not
just as observers – but as part of the whole election cycle itself.
Such electoral commissions should be filled with people trained and
skilled in the election process; even in poor, difficult countries
such Burundi or Sudan.
Modern communication technology should be used. For example, in the
last referendum on the new constitution in Kenya, votes were counted
at the polling station and results sent by a secured cell phones to
the tallying center. The results began coming in only a few minutes
after the polls closed and by 10:00 p.m. on the evening of the voting
the outcome of the election was clear.