Vote For Your Favorite Dictator

Rigged elections are widespread throughout Africa, not just in Zimbabwe.

G. Pascal Zachary

Top to bottom:</b> Zimbabwe&#146;s Robert Mugabe, Uganda&#146;s Yoweri Museveni, Zambia&#146;s Frederick Chiluba, Ghana&#146;s Jerry Rawlings.
The 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 growing less.

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.

Backsliders 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.

Why 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 on him.

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 army.

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 Movement members.

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 into exile.

All 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 kept order.

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.

G. Pascal Zachary is the author of the memoir Married to Africa: A Love Story and The Diversity Advantage: Multicultural Identity in the New World Economy. From 1989 to 2001, he was a senior writer for the Wall Street Journal. Zachary has contributed articles to In These Times for more than 20 years and edits the blog Africa Works, about the political economy of sub-Saharan Africa.
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