At the time of filing this column, it is still early in the Kenyan elections. But it is highly unlikely that Raila O Odinga will overcome incumbency power to defeat Uhuru M Kenyatta.
Odinga may have had his clear victory in 2007, a feat he won’t repeat. There have been only a few cases where a sitting African president has lost an election, the most recent and infamous being Yahya Jammeh in the Gambia.
But even after losing, Jammeh attempted to cling on but for the threatening power of the West African regional bloc Ecowas. West Africa has moved ahead of the rest of the continent in passing the test of not who wins but who loses a presidential election.
To pass the test of consolidating democratic practice, it is critical that an incumbent party or leader loses power and bows out peacefully. In Rwanda last week, there was no contest at the ballot. In all ways, President Paul Kagame ran against himself and won resoundingly.
The idea that has been oversold is that Rwanda’s brand of democracy is built on consensus, and not contestation.
But there is an obvious oxymoron here: you cannot have elections by consensus! Elections by definition are competitive processes where a winner cannot be predicted in advance.
There has to be credible contestation with the real likelihood that all contenders can lose. Was there ever any doubt that President Kagame would be declared winner with over 90 per cent?
There is something quite enigmatic about Rwanda. Only time will tell. Many African countries routinely undergo election-like events. In February, there was such an event in Somalia, a country still lacking the basic rudiments of a functional modern state.
One wonders how elections can be conducted in the absence of minimum effective government and a functioning state system. Yet, on the whole, there has been a remarkable shift on the African continent from the era of rampant military coups in the 1970s and 80s to more routinized contests for power at the ballot box through open competition.
We have had not just a significant increase in the number of countries holding elections regularly; we also have had a commendable transformation in the quality of election management and the credibility of ballot results.
On the balance of things, therefore, one can say that the African continent is more democratically governed today than it was four decades ago. There has been incremental qualitative improvement.
A key pillar of democratic governance is elections. Elections, even though problematic, are by far the best way through which individuals and organizations seek and secure from citizens the right to manage public affairs.
Elections are a fundamental requisite for democracy, but they do not, on their own, produce democracy. In other words, you can’t have democracy without elections, but you can have elections without democracy.
A great number of African countries still fall in the latter category: there are frequent elections but there is a dearth of genuine democracy. The frequency of elections has been in tandem with the mastery of how to game and fix them especially by incumbent parties and leaders.
This has been partly fueled by expansion in competition. The higher the competition, the bigger the stakes and the temptation to subvert the very essence of electioneering, which is intended to give citizens the right to peacefully and transparently decide who to lead them.
Instead of peacefully campaigning and transparent conduct of polls, elections in many African countries have tended to stir up social tensions. They are conducted with a heavy tinge of fraud and the results, therefore, fall short of being credible.
Because of the continent’s high social diversity, both linguistic and ethnic, elections tend to generate social disharmony and ultimately violence as political actors mobilize and appeal to social differences so as to gain electoral advantage.
Rather than contest over policy and principle, there is more recourse to ethnic mobilization and religious appeal.
Also, electoral pressures and the distortions that attend seeking the people’s popular vote tend to compromise provision of public goods and services on the basis of rationale, competence and prudence.
Against the many problems associated with elections, some commentators and political actors have hurriedly concluded that electoral politics, and indeed democracy, is bad for Africa. Fair enough. But what then is good for the continent? I haven’t come across any persuasive alternative arrangement.
The one supposed alternative sold to Ugandans at the onset of the current regime, the so-called no-party Movement democracy, turned out to be no more than a deceptive scheme for consolidating a firm grip on power.
It was a fraud that laid the ground for successive rounds of fraudulent elections. The charges against elections and democracy are a little disingenuous. For one, there is a dishonest and rather self-serving claim that these are Western values and practices not suited to the African socioeconomic environment.
The issue can’t be the principle of elections and the value of democracy; the problem is how they are practiced as instruments of private benefits and narrow-group interests.
Why should we believe there is an African way of conducting elections and practicing democracy?
The author is the interim secretary, Society for Justice and National Unity, a Kampala-based think tank.