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More African-Americans are running for governor than ever before.
Rigged elections are widespread throughout Africa, and not just in Zimbabwe.
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The Bush administration cozies up to China.
No evidence, but a Missouri inmate is facing execution.
Britain passes measures to elect more women.
Seeds of Destruction
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Pennsylvania debates are calculated to exclude Greens.
HMOs aim to stop even modest reform in its tracks.
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FILM: The moral dilemmas of Storytelling.
An interview with ®mark's Frank Guerrero.
March 1, 2002
Vote For Your Favorite Dictator
Rigged elections are widespread throughout Africa, not just in Zimbabwe.
he scene one recent Friday night in the Burma Camp military barracks here
was unthinkable a year agobefore this West African country held its freest
national elections since its independence in 1957. Inside the barracks, a string
of senior military officers pledged their support for Ghanas year-old
civilian governmentand vowed not to assist in any attempt to overthrow
the governments popular president, John Kufuor.
Last year, Kufuor, a lawyer and longtime critic of military rule, defeated
the handpicked successor of Ghanas longtime-strongman, former coup leader
Jerry Rawlings, in an election widely viewed as the fairest and least violent
in sub-Saharan Africa for many years.
That after a year in office, Kufuor still feels the need to hear repeated loyalty
pledges from his military commandand has installed his own brother as
defense minister to watch over the soldierssuggests that Ghanas
democracy is still fledgling. Elections are critical to the process of
reform in Ghana, says Harruna Attah, editor of the Mail, a daily newspaper
that relentlessly criticized the former regime. We are not in the clear
yet, but the likelihood of the military pre-empting the will of the voters is
Indeed, observers openly say that should Kufuor lose the presidency in an election
scheduled in three years, the country would be strengthened by the exercise
of transferring power from one leader to another without violence. The countrys
transition via electoral democracy remains a model for the region, a point emphasized
by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who visited here in February, and echoed
by many Ghanaians.
Unfortunately for Africa, Ghana is the exception, not the rule. Elections remain
stage-managed affairs in the sub-Saharan. Ruling parties go to great lengths
to win ballots, and dictators have taken to burnishing their image by imposing
sham elections on their populations. To be sure, elections are freer and
fairer than they were ten years ago, says Walter Kansteiner, undersecretary
of state and the senior official on Africa policy in the Bush administration.
But are they perfect? Heavens no. There are backsliders.
acksliders indeed. In Zambia earlier this year, the government stole the election
from the opposition party. In Madagascar, the ruling party held an election
so filled with inaccuracies that the opposition has paralyzed the country, calling
for its candidate to be declared the winner rather than submit to a run-off
election (because neither candidate achieved a majority in the official tally).
Then there is the case of Zimbabwe, where independence leader Robert Mugabe
seeks re-election as president on March 9 after 22 years in office. He faces
stiff opposition from the Movement for a Democratic Change (MDC), which two
years ago nearly won control of the parliament. Facing intense criticism from
European governments, especially former colonial master Britain, Mugabe cant
cancel the elections, yet he has unleashed wave after wave of withering violence
against members of the MDC. Killings and beatings of party membersat the
hands of Mugabe supportersare common.
The environment for democratization is very, very hostile, says
Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the MDC and Mugabes chief presidential
opponent. In the weeks leading up to the election, Tsvangirai has seen his supporters
beaten and killed, and the countrys newspapers have been bombed and threatened
by draconian press controls. Many people think that Tsvangirai, the son of a
bricklayer and a former miner, would win a fair election. But right now
the conditions for a fair election do not exist in Zimbabwe, says Kansteiner.
Better a flawed election than none, Tsvangirai insists. While disappointed
by the human costs of the March ballot, he wants the poll to go ahead. We
cannot abandon the people, he says on the telephone from Harare. The
people want change and they are going to obtain it in spite of all the obstacles.
As In These Times went to press, Tsvangirai was formally charged with treason
by authorities, who claim that he had been plotting to assassinate Mugabe. Released
after questioning (but still facing the charges), Tsvangirai has vowed to continue
his campaign. Observers say that the election will likely go on as planned.
hy are Mugabe and other African autocrats holding elections in the first place
if they cant bear the possibility of a change in power? Simply, foreign
donors demand it. Under pressure from the international community, African governments
are holding more contested elections than ever beforeand these elections
are getting more scrutiny too. In Ghanas election, the United States paid
for much of the election costs and an independent monitoring effort that effectively
prevented ballot-rigging. Even so, when voters defeated the candidate backed
by Rawlings, the old dictator tried to organize a coup, rallying loyalists in
the military. He only relented after British and American diplomats prevailed
Rawlings still lives in Accra, periodically blasting Kufuor and implying that
a military coup is inevitable. But even he found elections inescapable. After
10 years as a dictator, he democratized himself in 1992 by winning
a rigged election for president and then won a second term four years later.
Like Rawlings, many of Africas big men and their ruling parties
try mightilyand violentlyto rig elections.
Consider the election in Uganda last March. President Yoweri Museveni, who
came to power in a military coup in 1986, sought a new five-year term. Museveni
is credited by foreign donors, who pay for half of the governments budget,
for lifting Uganda out of the disorder that characterized the infamous regime
of Idi Amin and his lesser-known successor, Milton Obote. In bringing a measure
of growth and order to Uganda, Museveni relied on what he calls his Movement
system, essentially a one-party state borne from the leadership of his guerilla
Museveni argues that Ugandansand by extension, all black Africansarent
ready to handle party politics, which he thinks distract a society from important
issues and spawn tribalism and in-fighting. In recent years, however, both Ugandans
and foreign-aid donors grew more insistent that he allow the formation of multiple
political parties. Last year Museveni agreed to hold a contested election, and,
determined to win handily, he suffered a setback when his personal physicianand
the husband of a Movement parliamentariandecided to run against him. While
observers think Museveni would have won a free and fair poll, he took no chances
and viciously attacked his opponent, whose leadership consisted chiefly of renegade
The election exposed us to violence at the hands of Musevenis security
forces, says Okwir Rabwoni, a member of Ugandas parliament and an
opposition leader. Raboni was arrested weeks before the election, jailed and
tortured. Museveni, who won the election with an official tally of 69 percent,
so hounded his electoral opponents that many, including Raboni, were forced
ll this election violence has Africans asking whether elections are worth
it, if they are only for show. If Western donors are going to insist on
elections, they should provide the money and the real support to ensure that
these dont turn into pretexts for violence against the governments
opponents, says Sam Doe, director of Accras West Africa Network
for Peace. They dont do enough now, and without more protections,
elections will inspire more violence.
Doe worries especially about Sierra Leone, where he helped mediate a peace
deal between warring factions. Pushed by the British, the countrys rump
government is holding an election in May. The last time an election was held,
rebel groups under now-jailed Foday Sankoh chopped off the arms of prospective
voters as a message against the electoral processin many African countries,
voters have to leave a thumbprint to make sure they dont vote twice. Chopping
off peoples arms sounds deranged, and it is horrible, Doe says.
But these acts were linked, however insanely, to an election in which
the opposition feared, for some reasons, would be unfair.
Democratically elected governments, meanwhile, dont always perform. Nigerias
mounting problemscoming under a civilian government, freely elected in
1999further suggest that elections arent a panacea. In recent weeks,
Africas most populous and oil-rich country has been rocked by crime waves,
ethnic strife and, in early February, a mysterious explosion at a military arms
depot in Lagos, Nigerias largest city. The explosion killed more than
1,000 people. Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, who wants to win re-election
next year, has played down the mayhem, seeming unfeeling to ordinary people
and evoking nostalgia for military governments which, however corrupt, at least
The lesson of Nigeria is that fair elections may only produce more unstable
conditions, says Ibiba Don Pedro, a leading Nigerian journalist who writes
for the countrys Guardian newspaper. Not because democracies are
inherently weak, but because the problems they inheritthe legacies of
dictatorshipare so great.