William Gumede: Africa's version of democracy is in deadly crisis

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The Independent Online

Unless African ruling elites overcome their obsession that regular elections – where the winner takes all – is the main measure of democracy, the orgy of violence such as that over disputed elections in Kenya will be repeated elsewhere on the continent.

Western donors, with their requirements that elections are enough to warrant aid, have helped along this limited view of democracy. Zimbabwe is staging its long-awaited presidential election this weekend, with Robert Mugabe's ruling Zanu-PF so blatantly rigging the elections that the outcome risks the same terrible violence.

Because of this narrow view of democracy, very few African governments put much effort into building relevant democratic institutions. The separation of powers, such as an independent judiciary and a system of checks and balances between branches of government, exists largely on paper. Furthermore, the idea that there are limits to power, which need to be enforced, is mostly a foreign concept.

In Kenya, for example, President Mwai Kibaki appoints electoral commission officers and the judges that hear electoral petitions – mostly ones aligned to him. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe is directly manipulating the commission overseeing the country's coming elections.

Most African countries have adopted winner-takes-all electoral systems, ones ill-suited for such ethnically diverse societies. Winners of African elections often gain access to state power and to pork-barrel land, business and jobs for ethnic supporters. Losers are almost never accommodated. In fact, they are brutalised into submission, with opposition figures all too frequently jailed on trumped-up charges. Many African independence and liberation movements, now ruling governments, saw their movements as the embodiment of the nation or "the people", with the leader or founder the tribune of the "people". In this scheme of things, opposition parties are seen as the enemy, to be annihilated at all costs.

Some African leaders think they and their movements have the divine right to rule forever, because they "delivered" liberation – notwithstanding their poor records in power. Jacob Zuma, the controversial new leader of South Africa's ruling African National Congress, has said that the ANC will "rule until Kingdom come". Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's leader since independence in 1980, has vowed that the country's main opposition party will never rule during his lifetime.

Africa's high stake winner-takes-all electoral systems, and the damaging consequences for the losing party, often combined with ethnically based competition, make for a deadly and toxic cocktail. Unless Kenya and other African countries adopt permanent power-sharing arrangements that give electoral losers a stake in the political system, punish parties campaigning on ethnic lines and reward pluralistic ones, the orgies of electoral violence seen in Kenya will be endlessly repeated.

Most African countries are a hotchpotch of ethnic groups, ethnicities and languages. Diverse ethnic groups make building democracy more difficult, but not impossible. Yet most African political parties are dominated by the same ethnic group, and campaign on blood and clan grounds rather than policies or issues.

Very few African leaders turn their countries' diversity into strength. Instead, while preaching pan-Africanism and blaming the West for colonialism and imperialism, they have been quick to play the tribal card. Most African opposition parties also organise along tribal lines. They often appear to exist solely to oppose the sitting president or government, rather than providing an alternative vision of government with clear policies to match. In Zimbabwe, with the ruling strongman Robert Mugabe for the first time looking vulnerable ahead of the 29 March poll, the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change is split into two, mostly because of the brittle egos of its two leading figures, the old stalwart Morgan Tsvangirai and the Young Turk, Arthur Mutambara. The result: a weakened Mugabe may just scrape through because of a divided opposition.

In Kenya, a deal has now been stitched together to douse the ethnic flames which saw more than 1,500 killed and close to a million displaced. President Mwai Kibaki's ruling Party of National Unity (PNU) and that of opposition leader Raila Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement, will share power, with Mr Kibaki as president and Mr Odinga as prime minister. African countries will do well to learn from this deal.

William Gumede's latest book, 'The Democracy Gap - Africa's Wasted Years', will be published later this year

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