In DepthSoapboxOpinion: The days of the dictator are well-nigh over


Posted on Tuesday, 17 September 2013 16:58

Opinion: The days of the dictator are well-nigh over

By Shadrack W. Nasong’o and Maurice N. Amutabi

Shadrack W. Nasong’o (Left) and Maurice N. Amutabi (Right)The spread of a culture of political succession is to be applauded, but many countries still need to strengthen their judicial structures to uphold democracy.

One of the greatest achievements of the struggles for democracy in Africa has been the institution of presidential term limits.

As a result of this, political succession has become a reality and the phenomenon of retired presidents is increasingly becoming the norm.

In West Africa, Ghana is a good example of a country wherein democracy has taken root. Consequently, political power has moved among three presidents since the reintroduction of democracy – from Jerry John Rawlings of the National Democratic Congress (NDC) to John Kofi Agyekum Kufuor of the New Patriotic Party and from the latter to John Atta Mills/John Dramani Mahama of the NDC.

In Central Africa, Zambia is a good example of a country where political succession has taken place from Kenneth Kaunda to Frederick Chiluba through to Levy Mwanawasa/ Rupiah Banda to Michael Sata.

In Eastern Africa, the institution of a limited mandate in Kenya has seen the retirement of presidents Daniel arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki and the ascension of Uhuru Kenyatta.

Tanzania is an interesting case where political power passes alternately from a Christian to a Muslim president – from the Christian Julius Nyerere to Muslim Ali Hassan Mwinyi, to the Christian Benjamin William Mkapa and on to Muslim Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete.

Competitive politics

A number of critical factors are at play in this emerging politics of presidential succession. First are the rules of the game as provided for by the constitutional dispensation.

In situations where electoral victory is hinged on the need for an absolute majority of 50 percent plus one vote, electoral politics is much more competitive, providing for a greater possibility for opposition political parties succeeding incumbents.

This was illustrated in the early 1990s by the first multiparty elections in Benin, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville, Madagascar, Mali and Sierra Leone, where an absolute majority was required to win the presidency.

In all these countries, a run-off was necessary between the top two contenders as neither won the requisite majority in the first round.

In all these cases, except for Chad, the incumbents were defeated by the opposition candidates.

The second critical factor is related to the strength of opposition parties. In many countries, parties are fragmented, minuscule and provide little institutionalisation.

As a result, political competition tends to be concentrated among elites within incumbent parties rather than between competing parties.

This is the case in Tanzania, where, in spite of an alternation in power between different individuals, all of them are from the incumbent political party – Chama cha Mapinduzi. If one of the hallmarks of a democratic society is the alternation of power between political parties, then Tanzania falls far short of this.

In Kenya, opposition frag- mentation led to the victory of the incumbent party in two consecutive multiparty elections even when cumulatively the opposition won the overwhelming majority of the votes.

It was not until they decided to join hands in a grand alliance that they defeated the incumbent party in 2002.

The third and final critical factor is the role of identity politics, especially ethnicity. The political elite in Africa have perfected the art of ethnicised politics, or, conversely, politicised ethnicity.

Political party affiliation and electoral mobilisation along such ethnic lines has obviated political organising along political agendas, ideologies and party platforms.

This has rendered elections in many countries largely an ethnic census.

It is this reality that informs the perception of electoral competition from the ethnic lenses of 'us versus them', occasioning the kind of electoral debacles and violence witnessed in Mwai Kibaki's Kenya, Laurent Gbagbo's Côte d'Ivoire and Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe, among others.

In countries where political succession is becoming routinised, the future of democracy depends on good, effective and efficient judicial institutions.

These judicial structures need to operate as checks and balances to the executive and legislative excesses. The courts stood firm in Malawi and rejected Bakili Muluzi's attempt for a third term in 2009, but such firmness has not been felt anywhere else in Africa.

There is no record of any country where an election of a president has been nullified by a court of law despite the fact that many opposition leaders have taken election petitions to court, some with sound evidence of electoral fraud.

In the final analysis, political leaders who have remained intransigent against the forces of democratic change, such as those in Uganda, Zimbabwe, Gabon and Cameroon, have inevitably been put on notice.

The people's revolutions that have toppled autocratic leaders in North Africa point to the fact that the days of the dictator in Africa are well-nigh over. ●

*Shadrack W. Nasong'o (Left) - Chair, Department of International Studies, Rhodes College, Tennessee, United States*

* Maurice N. Amutabi (Right) - Professor, Political Science, The Catholic University of Eastern Africa, Kenya*

*Co-editors of Regime Change and Succession Politics in Africa: Five Decades of Misrule, Routledge African Studies, February 2013.


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