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Why Africa’s elections are becoming irrelevant

Events of the past months make it very difficult to defend the relevance of elections. The cases of Kenya and Zimbabwe point to the need for a new thinking around governance. In these two cases, elections have betrayed people’s wishes and subverted their democratic right to a leader of their choice. Such scenarios call for more substantive processes beyond elections.

This is an invitation for more thinking and debate on the role of elections, particularly in Africa. I am aware of good electoral conduct in other countries. In South Africa, for example, the outcome of Polokwane was accepted by President Thabo Mbeki and his colleagues. This is very rare, though, on the continent. It is my view that in Africa, we are increasingly requested to revisit our understanding of democracy in ways that would seek alternatives for elections or bolster the electoral process so that voters achieve their desires.

I am certain everyone is tired of waiting for the results of the March 29 Zimbabwean presidential election. Tired is an understatement … we are frustrated, angry and confused. What is going on? The rumour mill has further obfuscated the situation: some humorous theories have been doing the rounds. The Movement for Democratic Change has peddled its own and so has Zanu-PF.

The MDC argues that Morgan Tsvangirai won the elections by attaining the required 50% plus one. In their view, Morgan is just being delayed to get to State House. In fact, Morgan wants to be called “head of state”.

For almost two weeks now, the MDC has argued that the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission is buying time for Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-PF to “doctor results” in their favour. It is rumoured that Mugabe lost this election, but knowing him, he is not ready to relinquish power and — worse still — be beaten by Tsvangirai, a man he hates with a passion.

On the other hand, Zanu-PF argues that neither Mugabe nor Tsvangirai got the required threshold. In its view, there will be a run-off. Zanu-PF has also complained that the MDC rigged the election and has since called for a recount of about 23 constituencies. However, as I was writing this piece, the High Court had just halted the recount.

So much has happened and continues to happen resulting in real issues being lost. As Tawana Kupe wrote in the City Press this Sunday, eyes have been kept off the ball. People are chasing new issues such as the Zambia extraordinary summit, the talk about a government of national unity and the vote recount, rerun or run-off.

In the process, the focus on the main issue, the release of results, has been lost. If the results are not released, there is no way the country can embark on any other process. People voted in one day and counting has taken more than two weeks. This is not just absurd, but also nonsensical. The ZEC and the powers that be are taking the electorate for a ride. Why did Zimbabwe go through a tough and expensive election if the results are not to be released?

This raises the question whether elections are still relevant and meaningful if one just takes the cases of Zimbabwe and Kenya. In the latter, the controversial election was resolved through a power-sharing deal. The result was that the electorate was denied the right to know how it voted. Something classic happened there: Mwai Kibaki was immediately sworn in overnight as President of Kenya. He moved swiftly to appoint his Cabinet.

Just when we thought Kibaki had taken the trophy … events in Zimbabwe are more grave but hilarious. Just before the elections in Zimbabwe, many joked that Mugabe would take a page from Kibaki and be sworn in before the announcements of results. But no, Mugabe has instead opted not to be sworn in at all. It does not get worse than this.

We also know that Mugabe dissolved Parliament and Cabinet just before the March 29 elections. Technically, there shouldn’t be any Cabinet in the country now until a new president is sworn in. But followers of events in Zimbabwe will know that Mugabe still has a Cabinet; for example, he was represented by Patrick Chinamasa and other ministers in Lusaka at the heads-of-state summit.

That means Mugabe thinks he can subvert the will of the people and contravene the Constitution for his own interests. Brighton Matonga and his boss, Sikhanyiso Ndlovu, are still referred to as Deputy Minister and Minister of Information respectively. This is criminal. Constitutionally these guys can not be ministers at the moment.

Still on Matonga, the fellow is just comical. He is a classic case of someone who believes his own lies. I listened to him on Talk Radio 702 last week and I just could not believe what I was hearing. Matonga is disappointing, insensitive and … I run short of words to describe this guy. The leadership of people like Matonga says a lot about the direction that Zimbabwe is taking. With such people in power, elections are but a formality.

Beyond the bizarre events in Zimbabwe, I decided to follow closely the extraordinary SADC summit in Zambia. I had my doubts given the history of SADC on Zimbabwe. My hopes were further dashed by President Thabo Mbeki’s statement after visiting Harare; “there is no crisis”, he said. And this is the same line that the leaders used after 13 hours behind closed doors.

If the people of Zimbabwe pinned their hopes on SADC, then it is time to look elsewhere. It is now clear that Mbeki holds the strings in SADC and what he says goes. The so-called extraordinary summit produced nothing. The leaders might as well have teleconferenced, instead of wasting taxpayers’ money and raising the hopes of the people of Zimbabwe by convening in Lusaka.

Just imagine, these guys meet to just echo what all of us individually have been saying. Who did not know that the ZEC has to release the results? Our leaders meet for more than 10 hours only to come out and urge the ZEC to release the results. No wonder Mugabe does not take them seriously … why would he travel to Lusaka to be told that the ZEC must release the results? Our leaders are letting their people down.

Having been disappointed by SADC, I thought I could find solace at least in the African Union. I remembered that in January last year; the Eighth Ordinary Session of the Assembly adopted the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance. I quickly went back to an article I had produced on the charter, especially on elections and the unconstitutional changes of government. At least the AU can do something, I thought to myself.

I wanted to look for answers not just for Zimbabwe but also for other cases in Africa. I re-read the charter. It reads well; it “seeks to entrench in the continent a political culture of change of power based on the holding of regular, free, fair and transparent elections conducted by competent, independent and impartial national electoral bodies”. There are many good things that the charter says. For example, on elections, it says;

“State parties shall 1) establish and strengthen independent and impartial national electoral bodies responsible for the management of elections; 2) establish and strengthen national mechanisms that redress election-related disputes in a timely manner; 3) ensure fair and equitable access by contesting parties and candidates to state controlled media during elections; 4) ensure that there is a binding code of conduct governing legally recognised political stakeholders, government and other political actors prior, during and after elections. The code shall include a commitment by political stakeholders to accept the results of the election or challenge them through exclusively legal channels.”

And on a related matter of unconstitutional changes of government, the charter says;

“State parties agree that the use of, inter alia, the following illegal means of accessing or maintaining power constitute an unconstitutional change of government and shall draw appropriate sanctions by the Union: 1) any putsch or coup d’état against a democratically elected government; 2) any intervention by mercenaries to replace a democratically elected government; 3) any replacement of a democratically elected government by armed dissidents or rebels; 4) any refusal by an incumbent government to relinquish power to the winning party or candidate after free, fair and regular elections; or 5) any amendment or revision of the constitution or legal instruments, which is an infringement on the principles of democratic change of government.”

I am sure readers can easily see whether or not the charter was violated in the case of Zimbabwe or Kenya. The articles are self-explanatory. The charter can be a useful instrument; it even provides for sanctions by the peace and security council of the AU. Also, cases such as those of Zimbabwe and Kenya can be taken to the union’s court if need be.

But hold on, there is a problem. The charter is not of use in its current state. It is hinged on state parties that it seeks to monitor. It assumes that state parties will have the political will to subject themselves to scrutiny as well as facilitate a political culture that might result in their rejection by the electorate.

One can say that the authors of the charter were naive to think state parties would cooperate. But even if there were political will on the part of state parties, only a ratified charter can be invoked. I decided to check the status of the charter on the AU website. You won’t believe this; not a single country has ratified it. Of the 53 countries, only 17 have signed the charter — Togo, Swaziland, Rwanda, Nigeria, Namibia, Mauritius, Mauritania, Mali, Guinea, Ghana, Gambia, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Congo, Burundi, Burkina Faso and Benin.

There you have it. Even the charter can not be used at all. It is useless in its current state. In the face of stubborn incumbents and ineffective legal instruments and bodies, elections will increasingly diminish in relevance.

Note that this article is posted a night before the Zimbabwe High Court makes a judgement on the release of results. A lot might change in a few hours, but I have my doubts.


  • Bhekinkosi Moyo is trained in political science and currently shuttles between Southern Africa and West Africa. He works for TrustAfrica-a Pan African oriented foundation that works to secure the conditions for democratic governance and equitable development. In 2007, he edited a collection of chapters: Africa in Global Power Play. He has just completed editing an 18 country book on DisEnabling the Public Sphere: Civil Society Regulation in Africa.