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May 22, 2008
Zimbabwe a good case of Africa's failed democracy
By Devapriyo Das

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 economy.

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 stability.

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.


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