A tense presidential election run-off is on the cards in
Zimbabwe. Meanwhile, Cameroon’s President Paul Biya
has pushed legislation through parliament, allowing him
to stand for another 7-year term. (Biya revised the charter
in 1996 to extend the presidential term of office from five
to seven years, renewable only once. He won the first seven-year
term in 1997 and was re-elected in 2004).
Botswana has witnessed a quiet presidential succession,
while Kenya is held in the awkward embrace of a coalition
government. African democracy is in full flow. Or is it?
“In Africa, the focus on what people say is democracy
is actually just the aim of holding elections,” says
William Gumede, a South African intellectual and author
of the recently published best-seller, Thabo Mbeki and the
Battle for the Soul of the ANC (reviewed in The Weekly Observer
of May 8, 2008).
“Everybody pushes through elections at all costs
and gets on with election-day. Often, what African observers
and peer leaders – in the case of Zimbabwe, the Southern
African Development Community and the African Union - are
interested in, is the actual day of elections. If it goes
well, it’s deemed a free and fair election. That’s
where it’s gone wrong in Africa.”
Failure to assess the political climate taints the rosy
picture, he says.
“Take Zimbabwe – none of the parties is supposed
to have foreign funding. But the ruling party (ZANU-PF)
itself has funding from Iran, China, Libya”.
The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) too
receives funding from Europe, Australia and North America,
often through unofficial channels. With MDC leader Morgan
Tsvangirai challenging the octogenarian Robert Mugabe for
the Zimbabwean presidency, there are signs of a new age
of leadership emerging. But is African democracy waiting
for an entire generation of leaders to retire?
“Everybody is trying to get him out. It’s almost
as though only when he leaves can real democracy occur.
But it’s not only him, it’s a whole generation
that is steeped in a certain way of doing things.”
Most African governments who emerged from liberation struggles
have remained in power for 20-30 years, with the “same
group of people just re-arranging the deckchairs”.
Lacking flexibility and new talent, Gumede finds, current
leadership has fossilised.
“The people under Mugabe are exactly those who started
with him. There may have been occasional individuals like
Simba Makoni (the former ZANU-PF finance minister who contested
the polls as an independent), but there has been no internal
infusion of new blood.”
In South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC) leadership
election of December 18, 2007 saw Jacob Zuma ousting incumbent
South African President Thabo Mbeki as party leader.
Gumede observes that the contenders are “almost the
same age, born just two months apart. Both of them grew
up in a phase during the Cold War where the context of democracy
and what it meant, was very limited.”
History shows that in extricating themselves from brutal
and exploitative colonial systems, liberation governments
were inevitably authoritarian when ruling in their own right.
“That’s the majority of countries,” says
Gumede, “and then there are others who said –
‘This is what we’ve inherited from colonialism.
How do we move forward?’” He takes Botswana
and Mauritius as model cases.
The latter at independence inherited a society “as
ethnically diverse as Nigeria’s”, but nevertheless
managed to find a way of pulling its minorities and others
together. The challenge now is to “create a system
that works for us, a system where we discourage people from
voting on the basis of ethnicity, and where you get rewarded
for being inclusive.”
Lamenting the hierarchical and ageist nature of African
politics, Gumede fears that whole layers of government are
so dominated by ‘liberation mindsets’ that it
is difficult for new voices to emerge. Nevertheless, solutions
do exist: empowering women, strengthening civil society
organisations, promoting a genuinely free press, developing
coherent long-term foreign policy, bargaining for equal
trade rights and fostering a national spirit of shared responsibilities.
Most especially, Gumede believes a new language of leadership
is required which drops the rhetoric of anti-colonialism
and stops bullying minority opinion, focusing instead on
making Africa technologically competitive in a globalised
Nelson Mandela’s exceptional foresight in “holding
the ANC together in terms of creating a non-racial tradition”,
while leaving the business of South Africa’s economy
to qualified technocrats, is a case in point.
It is debatable if leadership change will make any difference
to the citizens of Zimbabwe. With inflation at 165,000%,
a HIV/AIDS crisis, poor access to health, water and sanitation,
and mortality rates amongst the highest in the world, it
would take years of stringent economic management to achieve
The Zimbabwe election outcome may signal a dramatic shift
in the nature of African democracy. But don’t expect
Zimbabweans to hold their breaths; even if the West feels
they have to.
The author is a freelance journalist
associated with The Weekly Observer.