My tribe, not my nation: Multi-party elections in Africa may cause as many problems as they solve. Richard Dowden explains

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The Independent Online
RECENT calls by King Goodwill Zwelithini for the full sovereignty of the Zulu people in South Africa will be seen by good democrats everywhere as another wrecking move by the Zulus to undermine the brave and patient work by President F W de Klerk and Nelson Mandela towards a democratic South Africa.

The position of the king, and more especially his minister, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, is widely interpreted as atavistic and sectarian, putting the interests of the tribe before those of the nation.

However, it will strike a different chord among those in Africa who are increasingly worried that a first-past-the-post system of multi-party democracy means the domination of one tribe by another. At the moment the basic political unit throughout the continent is not the nation state left by departing colonial powers, but people of the same tongue and culture. Political labels such as democratic, liberal or national are being stuck on parties that are in essence regional, ethnic or tribal (though 'tribe' does not adequately describe most of these affiliations - it is equivalent to talking about tribalism in former Yugoslavia or, perhaps, English, Welsh and Irish tribalism in the British Isles).

If the political map of Africa is not 52 nation states but a jigsaw of hundreds of cultural, linguistic, ethnic or even religious groups, then the constitutional relationship between these is what provides the cornerstone of stability on the continent. The will of the majority, the essential tenet of Western democracy, cannot be the ultimate arbiter of political power for Africa: constitutions have to be based on groups as well as individuals.

In Ethiopia the government has set as its prime task the forging of a new relationship between the country's different 'nations'. Like South Africa, it is holding elections shortly, in June. At first glance it seems that while South Africa is abolishing a state based on race, Ethiopia, at the other end of the continent, is setting one up. The Ethiopian government believes that until the relationship between the country's 80 different language groups has been settled, there can be no peace.

While the South African government was abolishing racial classification on identity cards, the Ethiopian government was introducing it. You can no longer be just Ethiopian: your identity card must show whether you are Amharic, Tigrayan or Oromo. South Africans will vote in their first democratic non-racial election, for parties that shun ethnic or regional labels, at the same time as Ethiopians will choose between candidates who explicitly represent the interests of their group. And while the South African parliament is aiming to provide representation for all in a pre-agreed national constitution, the Ethiopian constituent assembly will try to draw up a new constitution that will balance the interests of the various ethnic groups and their relationship to the centre of power. In theory, the options include 'nations' (as the language groups are called) leaving Ethiopia altogether, as Eritrea has done.

This, more or less, is what King Goodwill and the Inkatha movement are calling for in South Africa. It may be a cynical ploy, an excuse for boycotting elections that they suspect they will lose badly. They say the African National Congress (ANC) represents, in the main, one group, the Xhosa, and that it will try to dominate the Zulus. They can point to other states in Africa, such as Angola and Burundi, where civil war has followed elections in which one group refused to accept the result.

Zulu nationhood may be backward-and inward-looking, but it is a common theme in Africa these days, and it would be a rash politician who tried to take it on by force and ploughed ahead with an election which marginalised people with that view. It may even be necessary to offer regions the option of seceding altogether. The ANC and the National Party have spent many hours in patient negotiation, trying to build a house in which everyone can live, but they may have to add a door by which groups can leave, rather than obliging them to remain part of a state to which they feel no allegiance.

In the first 20 years of statehood in Africa, from the early Sixties, it was fashionable to argue that the one-party state best suited the continent's political and developmental needs. By 1990, however, that political system was seen, in nations such as Zaire, Kenya and Angola, to have produced corrupt tyrannies that served self-perpetuating elites. One-party states went out, and within four years 34 out of 45 states in sub-Saharan Africa had introduced multi-party systems, held elections or undergone major political change. Three of those that did not change were already functioning multi-party democracies.

This outburst of democracy at least rid the continent of some tyrannies, and even the tyrants who survived had to submit to elections. It also allowed Africans to say what they felt and criticise their governments. Political prisoners were freed and a flood of independent newspapers appeared in Malawi, Ghana, Zaire and Mozambique, among others. The elections were almost all peaceful and produced turnouts that often reached more than 90 per cent.

My abiding image of an election in Africa is a queue of people standing for hours under a hot sun, having walked for three or four hours to a polling booth. In many cases they would run out of time and have to return the next day. When they finally did cast their votes with great seriousness and meticulous care, people would emerge and greet their friends, saying: 'I have voted.'

But multi-party democracy has brought division. Ten years ago a person's tribe or mother tongue was a taboo subject in many African countries, and governments strove to abolish 'tribalism'. The introduction of parties resurrected rivalries that had lain concealed during colonial times and the post-independence period. Suddenly, in Kenya, Nigeria, Togo and Ethiopia, group loyalties became explicit and exploitable by power-hungry politicians. Elections have produced few successful new governments on the continent.

The new political system has failed to answer the basic questions of African politics: what happens to the losers, and what happens to the army, the guarantor of power? In Angola, the loser, Jonas Savimbi, went back to war. In Nigeria, when the 'wrong' man won, President Ibrahim Babangida cancelled the election. Only those from the winner's own group took to the streets to defend the election. In Burundi, where the parties were split along ethnic lines, the winner was murdered by army officers from the opposing group and the country was plunged into one of Africa's worst massacres. In Kenya, the opposition split and allowed President Daniel arap Moi, an opponent of multi-party democracy, to return to power. Since then his government has exploited tribal and regional differences and striven to eradicate the hard-won democratic culture built up before the election.

One African leader has stood out against Western pressure for a multi-party system and forged a case against it that should be heard in the rest of Africa. President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda argues that in post-industrial societies parties divide a country horizontally, according to class. Class conflict, he argues, is dynamic and people's class position may also change. But in pre-industrial societies, political parties express vertical divisions that are static and unchangeable. It is, he points out, impossible to change one's tribe, therefore political parties simply allow politicians to exploit and widen these divisions, creating the sort of problems for which Uganda was once notorious.

Uganda's election next week is to be held on a 'no-party' basis. Individuals may stand on their personal records, but are not allowed to stand in the name of a religious party, ethnic group or political party. President Museveni has allowed four former nations to reestablish their monarchies as 'cultural symbols' in the hope of channelling ancient tribal and ethnic sentiment into non-political areas.

If the Ugandan experiment works, it may be a path to democracy for other African countries. President Museveni may have a human rights problem at the moment by banning free association, but he has not rejected the idea of political parties in the longer term. Or perhaps by suppressing group political activity he is simply storing up trouble for the future. Is Ethiopia's president, Meles Zenawi, perhaps right in choosing to confront the ethnic question?

In their elections this year Ethiopia, Uganda and South Africa have each chosen different routes to try to build coherent nation states from peoples of disparate ethnic and cultural backgrounds. That they have done so underlines a growing recognition that what looks most successful and desirable in Western liberal democratic terms may not work in Africa. And what King Goodwill demands for Zulus in South Africa may be nearer the aspirations of many other groups on the continent.

(Photograph omitted)