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Democracy: Vote and vote again but forget the term limits

By Farai Sevenzo
Posted on Friday, 20 November 2015 07:32

African elections kept coming, and Guinea, Tanzania and Côte d’Ivoire all went to the ballot box in October. It is a fine opportunity for the commentariat, the rights folks, secretaries of state and billionaire philanthropists to make their pronouncements on the current state of African democracy and, of course, governance.

The similarity is uncanny between the football official and, say, Denis Sassou Nguesso

Away from the polls, Mo Ibrahim’s Index of African Governance, as we read in this issue, looks at changes in security, economic opportunity, human rights and development.

It suggests “recent progress in other key areas on the continent has either stalled or reversed” over the past four years. We learn from the index that Côte d’Ivoire has made the most improvements since the violence of 2010, and even President Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe has shown better governance.

It is difficult to tally such measures with the picture on the ground, where thousands of civil servant jobs have been cut and the economy is only functioning for the very few at the top.

Unemployment is at 80%. People are struggling with electricity blackouts daily and are being governed mainly by the politics of the stomach. It brings about a kind of mass apathy towards the democratic process, and elections in Zimbabwe have their own particular story to tell.

Earlier in October, US secretary of state John Kerry commented on this year of elections and observed: “For decades, poverty, famine, war and authoritarian leadership have held back an era of African prosperity and stability. In Africa, as elsewhere, there is a deep hunger for governments that are legitimate, honest and effective […]. Progress in democratic governance will lead to gains in every other field about which we are concerned.”

In truth, the year of the African vote that is 2015 has been delivering more of the same. An attempted coup against Prime Minister Thomas Thabane, which had threatened to upset the peace of the mountain kingdom of Lesotho, resulted in February’s snap elections.

And all over the continent, outrageous strains against the democratic process were evident in Burkina Faso, Burundi, the Republic of Congo and now Rwanda.

Violent protests over Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term made no difference as he took nearly 70% of the vote.

For the first time, the African Union stood down its election observers in protest, and the European Union made noises about travel bans and asset freezes on officials accused of ordering excessive force against protesters.

“The point is, I don’t understand why people want to stay so long,” US President Barack Obama told the African Union in a speech earlier in the year, “especially when they’ve got a lot of money […]. When a leader tries to change the rules in the middle of the game just to stay in office, it risks instability and strife.”

Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame and, indeed, the Republic of Congo’s President Denis Sassou Nguesso have simply employed the flexible nature of democracy by announcing they will be taking their decisions to a referendum and declaring – without a tongue in either cheek – that it is the people who will decide on whether they should stay on for unconstitutional third terms.

The year of the African vote has been abandoned in South Sudan, where Africa’s youngest country postponed her first election since independence because of continuing violence and the full return to hostilities that began in December 2013.

In Ouagadougou, Blaise Compaoré left power only to return in the shadow of a coup staged by his former presidential guard, whose leader in turn is now in custody.

On 14 October it was 16 years since Tanzania’s great Julius Nyerere shuffled off this mortal coil. Tanzania’s ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) – the party he founded – has been lighting the way for the past five decades.

Even as President Jakaya Kikwete steps down, the competition amongst his would-be successors is an in-house affair. It is the kind of democracy that is most regular and it is difficult to see how any other way would be acceptable to African governments.

Over on the islands of Zanzibar, a storm had been brewing over biometric voter registration. In every election, Zanzibar threatened Tanzania’s governance reputation with simmering calls for the full independence taken away in the 1964 union with Tanganyika.

The Civic United Front has been extending its influence beyond Pemba to Stonetown, and the massive differences in religion – Zanzibar is staunchly Islamic – and attitudes threatened a rejection of the CCM’s control over the isles’ future.

It is impossible to fit the democracy cloak on the African body politic and not find it wanting and ill-fitting. States are evolving into entities that serve their citizens, but only after they have served their parties and political leaders.

Good governance is seen as the absence of dissenting voices, the steady balance of the leadership status quo.

Truer measures of development are those states where jails are empty of the opposition rabbles and the police are catching criminals, not divergent politicians.

But why stop at the politicians? Entire African boards of business and government commercial concerns are being run by the same men – it is usually men – who have run them for years. It is the African way.

Issa Hayatou, the Cameroonian at the head of the Confederation of African Football (CAF), now finds himself in charge of world football’s governing body, FIFA, for the next 90 days, following Sepp Blatter’s suspension amid a corruption investigation.

Earlier this year, Hayatou, the son of a sultan from Garoua, simply scrapped the rules on age limits, which had required CAF officials to step down once they reached 70. Hayatou is 69; he is now eligible to stand again as the head of the CAF when his current term ends in 2017. Or he may run for Blatter’s job as head of FIFA.
The similarities in governing style of a football official and, for instance, Denis Sassou Nguesso, the president of Congo Brazzaville, are uncanny.

Sassou Nguesso’s referendum proposals would allow candidates aged over 70 to run for office and also scrap the two-term limit. Hayatou did not marshal tens of thousands to march on his behalf in a state capital like Brazzaville, but it is essentially the same grip on power across Africa’s leadership class.

Democracy and the rules of governance are merely tools of the game, to be forged and bent in one direction or another – not religious tablets written in stone and brought down from Mount Sinai.

Lessons in democracy and governance, in ending poverty and eradicating malaria, are touted widely and loudly by Western capitals and rich philanthropists.

But the real difference is always the African citizens themselves who, in this year of the vote, have often paid with their blood on the streets.

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