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A smarter African democratic model

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

Western-style democracy has not worked well in Africa, simply because the conditions in Africa are different to those in developed countries. Why not tailor-make a democratic solution to fit the nature and size of the challenge in Africa?

Governments of national unity that are usually cobbled together after election crises in Africa have been severely criticised for rewarding those who unleash violence on their political enemies.  This was starkly evident in the 2008 Zimbabwean elections, where armed gangs loyal to the incumbent Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party terrorised supporters of Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change. The compromise deal, brokered by then-president of South Africa Thabo Mbeki, saw the Zanu-PF and the MDC sharing power in a government of national unity.

The Zimbabwean experiment did not work out as planned because it failed to take into account the political allegiances of Zimbabwe’s powerful military, as well as Mugabe’s ability to outwit the politically inexperienced Tsvangirai.

A government of national unity was also formed in Kenya in the aftermath of the violence of 2008, when opponents of President Mwai Kibaki protested against what they perceived to be bias in his favour within the electoral commission of Kenya. Former UN secretary general Kofi Annan led a delegation to Kenya in 2008, and brokered a peace deal between Kibaki’s Party of National Unity and the Orange Democratic Movement of Raila Odinga, his main rival.

Under Annan’s deal, new positions in government were opened up and the president would have to appoint ministers to his cabinet based on each party’s relative strength in parliament. Kenya’s coalition government eventually led to a new constitution that reduces the executive powers of the presidency and grants a bill of rights to the people.

The eyes of the world are now turned to Côte d’Ivoire, where another post-election crisis is looming. The winner of the presidential race between the incumbent Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Outtara, was declared to be the latter by preliminary results released by the electoral commission. Gbagbo’s supporters immediately challenged the result before the Constitutional Council, which was packed with the president’s loyalists. Mindful of the bloody civil war that broke out in Côte d’Ivoire in 2002, the US, the UN Security Council and the regional Economic Community of West African States declared Outtara the winner, leaving Gbagbo with very few playing cards. Recent developments suggest Gbagbo is manoeuvring himself into a position where a government of national unity will be the safest and most politically palatable option for everyone involved.

The idea of the unity government has its merits, however, despite its failures in places like Zimbabwe. GNUs will remove from the election equation the greatest fear that plagues African politics: The losing party and its supporters getting spurned by government, or worse. The likelihood of this occurring is heightened if political allegiance is split along ethnic lines. To guarantee all sides a say in government, proportional representation should be written into government, and not just parliament. As happened in Kenya, parties that are shown to have popular support should not only have seats in parliament, but positions in government as well.

This solution may prove to be the most enduring one for a continent where almost every single country suffers a lack of powerful democratic institutions to protect the people against their own governments. Separation of powers is non-existent when institutions such as the courts, electoral councils and public protectors are packed with supporters of one political party, or are subjugated altogether by the executive branch.

The problem is often compounded by the fact that most of the economic power in African countries is held by governments and not ordinary civilians. The fight for power then becomes the fight for the biggest pot of honey in the country.

To guarantee the opposition its safety, and the government’s continued service towards it, there should be guaranteed participation in government, even if the opposition loses the elections (and in countries like Kenya and Zimbabwe, the opposition often loses by a margin of less than 10%).

And it would be relatively easy to set it up, as long as everyone knows the rules in advance. The problem with the Zimbabwean, Kenyan and Côte d’Ivoirian examples is that they are the results of he-who-controls-the-army-cannot-be-defeated. But if everyone knows what to expect, the de-stabilising element would largely be avoided. In the Philippines, as it was in the early years of still-shaky US democracy, the position of vice president is occupied by the runner-up, no matter how opposed to the winner.

The composition of such government does not have to be purely proportional, of course. The winner still has to be acknowledged, by occupying most of the important portfolios and being given all the shares the small parties won – small parties being those that couldn’t reach a threshold of, say, 10%. But ensuring the loser has a stake in the future of the country too could go a long way to assuring post-election reality is not a violent one. Once the political instability that follows hotly contested elections is removed, the next step of strengthening democratic institutions can be taken.

And maybe, just maybe, in 50 or so years of stable, participative democracy, the institutions thereof will strengthen sufficiently for the citizens to be able to relax and trust that, no matter who’s in power, they will be safe and prosperous. But it would be unrealistic to expect that it is possible these days in Africa to implement a rigid system – that took developed countries hundreds of years to achieve. DM


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