Saturday, April 02, 2005

How To Hand Over To Yourself

As I listened to reports of the results of the voting in Zimbabwe's Parliamentary elections supposedly anointing Robert Mugabe with enough of a majority to (yet again) modify the constitution at will and rule until the age of 100, I thought that there was a sense of deja-vu about all of this. Hence I looked into my archives and found the following article I wrote in 1993 for Roots & Culture magazine. Back then, I was a cynical Harvard man reflecting on the first batch of stage-managed and flawed elections in the democratic thaw of the early 1990s.

Surprisingly, a fair bit has changed in the intervening years in sub-Saharan Africa with some notable successes (Mali and Ghana, for example, have emerged with robust democracies after decades of misrule) while other countries are works in progress (say Mozambique) and some are frankly catastrophes (Sierra Leone, Liberia, Congo and Zimbabwe being the worst). We'll see what transpires in Togo in the coming months (post-Eyadema The First) and cross our fingers that things might work out there. Yet if even Ukraine (modulo poisonings), or the more recent Kyrgyzstan (modulo opportunist politicians) can see change, maybe there's cause for some tentative (if limited) optimism.

Not that I care for the Heritage's foundation's libertarian politics or their methodology with the primacy being given to economic (as in their peculiar free-market-when-it-suits-us dogma) rather than political freedom, but this year's chart of their Index of Economic Freedom is a decent stand-in for the state of the sub-region. By their reckoning with the notable exceptions of Senegal and South Africa, most countries fall into the "mostly unfree" or the frankly "repressed" categories. I prefer to use the UNDP's Human Development Report or the World Bank's World Development Report to assess the state of the world but the broad strokes that these kinds of reports outline speak to how far Africa needs to go.

It was a fun article to write yet sadly, as I contemplate the tragicomedy of Robert Mugabe's reign in Zimbabwe, it's still relevant today. Herewith then the article:

How To Hand Over To Yourself

Helpful Hints From African Dictators


In this, the last decade of a tumultuous century, change, political and otherwise, seems to be on the agenda in most parts of the world. The post-Cold-War era sees the reawakening of democracratic sentiments long suppressed for reasons of political expediency. The consensus seems to be that governments must perform what they are supposed to, or at least display a certain measure of respect for the common-folk of their countries. The West, after looking for so long to containment in the East, has begun the process of looking inwards. However during this transition period, donor nations look towards former battlegrounds in the South with some disquiet. The existence of such a large number of dictators, plain thugs, and thieves of all sorts, installed, and sustained by shortsighted foreign policies, is an embarrassment few leaders can afford at such times. The scrutiny of donor nations, looking to a normalization of economic and political processes in the south, will consequently be most severe during the next few years. The "trustworthy" dictators and strongmen of southern nations have thus arrived at potentially hazardous crossroads.

African rulers, whose excesses have arguably been the most destructive, seem to have a restricted number of options at their disposal when faced with this unusual examination. A possible avenue they may choose is simply to ignore the West and carry on plundering, albeit at a more restrained pace. This, though, is problematic since it leaves open the door to further tightening of donors' purses. Add to this the very likely prospect of further riches once this unfortunate period is past, and one might reasonably predict only a few takers to this proposal. The other option, though, will tend to be more palatable to the temperamental and theatrically-minded characters that have governed African nations for a good number of years. The plan is to generously allow the good people, on whom you have been trampling for so long, to consecrate you and ask you to stay on. By handing over to yourself, you appease the donors and quash the cries of the opposition movements in the country at one stroke. The fruits of appearing legitimate are plainly evident. The unspoken plan is, of course, to declare a State of Emergency in a year's time, and shut down the irritating parliament.

Such an ingenious option will probably be the only conceivable one to people who have already done the impossible by "conquering" a whole country. Certainly it does not require a great leap of faith to imagine Houphouet-Boigny of Ivory Coast, Eyadema of Togo and other venerable old men of the continent proceeding down this avenue. Why, Daniel Arap Moi of Kenya, and even President (for Life) Banda of Malawi (!!!), have announced elections!!! The quest to legitimize oneself will undoubtedly attract its fair share of harassed leaders. An examination of the tactics of the pseudo-democratic Paul Biya of Cameroon, and the "mercurial" Flight-Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings of Ghana in their recent elections, may prove instructive as we await similar events all over the continent.

From the outset, 'leaders' start off with advantages that are nigh insurmountable. For all, the method is simply to tilt the playing fields in the desired direction using deceit, intimidation, or any other means. Plain intimidation would probably be a thug's instinctive action and indeed, the nearly-fatal attempt on the life of Silvio Olympio, the popular Togolese opposition figure, should be seen along the lines of Eyadema reverting to type. In Ghana, the laws allowing detention-without-charges on the order of the Executive, were still in place a month prior to the elections.

Rawlings built on this foundation by simultaneously being a candidate, judge, as well as the jury of the electoral process. He was able to force his own timetable on the process, and, like Biya, started his 'campaign' a year before official campaigning was supposed to begin. Political parties, on the other hand, were given less than six months to form and were only allowed to start campaigning three months before the elections. In any case, the Flight Lieutenant was the only one who knew when the elections would be scheduled, packed the Electoral Commission with lackeys and, the best stroke, chose to hold elections on November 3, the day of the American presidential elections. A strongly-worded condemnation by State Dept officials would clearly be impossible on that date and therefore suspicious results could be entered in through the back door. The recent attempt by Moi of Kenya to hold elections barely months after allowing political parties to form, is an ominous development along the same lines. Another possible path might be to cajole some money out of the World Bank and/or the I.M.F. to help your campaign. It was announced two months before the Ghanaian elections that all public servants would enjoy a 50(!!!) percent pay rise: the first pay rise in 11 years of military rule.

If all these gestures fail to bring any tangible popularity, the obvious thing to do is simply rig the elections. After all, the intention is to pretend to submit to the democratic process. For Rawlings this was in the main achieved by adding almost 2 million fictitious voters to the electoral register and by denying a large number of potential voters the chance to register. The use of pre-marked ballot papers is another option that should not be discounted and indeed appears to have been used extensively in both the Cameroonian and Ghanaian elections. In the latter case though, the level of vote rigging seems to have been a touch unsubtle: in some parts of the country, fully 100 percent of the votes were supposed to have been cast in Rawlings' favour; the implication being that even the opposition candidates voted for him in their wards. Fraud though, could be conducted with greater subtlety; the sight of 99.99 % election results might strain donors' credulity too far.

With a little fine-tuning of the above methods and perhaps a little improvisation, one might expect incumbents to win by relatively comfortable margins in a number of forthcoming elections. It is not implausible that many leaders overcome their current difficulties and live to chuckle even louder at their good sense. Indeed with such advantages, it is hard to imagine other outcomes.

As for the people? Well Africans have long seen frauds come and go. It would be almost out of character for them to rise up and put an end to the plain nonsense played out daily by many of their 'leaders'. Still, the continent-wide apathy towards politics and central authority gives cause for concern because it goes against the grain of traditional African life. Community government has always been an integral part of African culture, and it should continue to be important to all in the new Africa. Reassuringly though, there are signs that the slumbering African giant is being awoken, more angry than ever. The spontaneous rioting in many parts of Ghana after the extent of Rawlings' vote-rigging became apparent is probably an indicator of things to come. Similarly in Cameroon, the shock and immediate anger at the announcement of the 'official' results might indicate that an unspoken line has been crossed. Handing over to oneself might well break the camel's back.

Taken from Root & Culture magazine, Spring 1993. Vol. 1 No.2

A publication of the Harvard-Radcliffe Carribbean Club and the Harvard African Students Association

(Roots & Culture was a precursor to the latest publication from
HASA, The Harvard African)

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