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Hopeful signs of democratization in Africa

Edited by Admin
Hopeful signs of democratization in Africa

Advocates of democracy in Africa have reason to smile.  Once again, Senegal had genuine political competition early this month that left President Macky Sall without a parliamentary majority. Neither Sall’s governing coalition nor the opposition was able to win an outright majority. In the absence of a dominant ruling party, the government will have to engage in respectful dialogue and negotiations to pass its bills through parliament. 


The Senegalese election was important because President Sall, the country’s fourth leader, has shown signs of wanting to seek a third term in office, something that is prohibited by the Constitution of Senegal. The lack of a parliamentary majority may, hopefully, cure him of the addiction to power that afflicts many African rulers. However, Senegal needs close watching. 


Happily, we have a good number of African countries that are showing very encouraging indicators that they are serious about democratization, complete with refreshing of their presidencies and governments. Botswana, Cape Verde, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Mauritius, Namibia, Nigeria, Sao Tome and Principe, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, South Africa, and Zambia are examples of countries that appear to have chosen that course. 


The South African example is especially interesting. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) has, so far, removed its own leaders from power, an exercise in internal democracy that is very rare in Africa. Cyril Ramaphosa, the ANC’s current leader, who is facing serious allegations of impropriety, may well join Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma on the list of leaders that the party has democratically tossed aside.  That an incumbent president is not immune to censure by his own party is a sign of desirable political maturity. 


However, our celebration of these democratizing countries must remain tentative. Democratic regression is an ever-present danger. For example, the Republic of Benin, which enjoyed a well-deserved reputation for democratic freedoms after political liberalization in the early 1990s, has engaged reverse gear. Police brutality against the opposition is back. President Patrice Talon, in power since 2016, is following a script that is favoured by Africa’s autocratic strongmen, complete with banning and imprisoning of key opponents and handpicking his election “challengers.” He effortlessly “won” re-election in 2021 with 86 percent of the votes.  


Meanwhile, notwithstanding the ongoing disputation of the declared outcome of the latest Kenyan presidential election, one detects encouraging signs that that country is still determined to pursue democratization of its governance. That the country’s deputy president took on the president and fought him and the establishment’s preferred candidate was a pleasant and an unusual spectacle in our part of the world. 


That four of the seven members of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) openly broke ranks with their chairman after the latter allegedly rigged the results in favour of William Samoei Ruto was a healthy sign of a system that allows independence and dissent.  That the incumbent president has not used the armed state organizations to impose his preferred successor on his country is unusual behaviour in a region where the bullet tends to be mightier than the ballot. 


That Raila Amolo Odinga can petition the Court, not as a ritual, but with serious expectation that the judges will consider the evidence before pronouncing themselves on the matter, is a vote of confidence in a governance system that is trying to establish the rule of law in Kenya.  And that Kenyans have, so far, held their emotions in check as they await the process to run its course is very encouraging. 


The story of democratization in Kenya during the last thirty years is worth celebrating. Yes, it has been messy. Even bloody, with numerous fatalities.  However, after the country’s first three decades, during which formal opposition was not tolerated, Kenya’s political elite chose a path that created conditions for possible democratization. Whereas Daniel arap Moi was not a democrat by nature, he tolerated the emergence of opposition parties and groupings that ultimately forced him to surrender the State House in 2002 without a fight. 


Rather than forcefully impose a successor on Kenyans, Moi introduced young Uhuru Kenyatta to the country as his preferred choice. He accepted his protégé’s defeat by Mwai Kibaki, handed over power and retired with the assurance of his safety in his country. He enjoyed his retirement and, by the time of his death in 2020, had been rehabilitated to the status of a respected political force and kingmaker. 


President Kibaki, a half-baked democrat, albeit better than Moi, benefitted from an election in 2007 that, by most accounts, he had lost to Raila Odinga. The bloody fighting that followed stained his democratic credentials. Future historians will record his name among the legal-but-illegitimate rulers of Kenya. Nevertheless, his stepping down after the constitutionally mandated two-terms redeemed some of his political credentials and set a good precedent for Kenya. He too enjoyed peaceful retirement in his country until his death in April this year.  


Uhuru Kenyatta, who earned election and re-election to the presidency through stiff and disputed competition, is following in the footsteps of Kibaki. Rather than manipulate the Constitution to keep himself in power, he adhered to his promise to retire after two terms and let Kenya move ahead under a new leader.


It is instructive to note that, should the Court uphold the election of Ruto as Kenya’s fifth president, Uhuru Kenyatta will almost certainly hand over power to his nemesis.  I am tentative about this because Africa has a way of throwing surprises. However, the professionalism of the Kenya Army has, so far, given us no reason to imagine an incumbent refusing to hand over the keys to a new commander-in-chief. 


We do not delude ourselves that Kenya is anywhere close to the desired goal of stable democratization. Where money, intimidation, rigging, and other illegalities are key ingredients in politicians’ electoral strategies, the foundation for democracy remains very weak and at risk of collapse.


Furthermore, we cannot predict what direction the new leader of Kenya, whoever it may be, will take. Will he push his country forward, towards justice for all, regardless of potential disadvantages to his personal interests? Or will he drive Kenya in reverse, back to the era of personalized rule that requires autocracy, crackdowns on opponents, torture chambers, patronage, and other forms of corruption to keep his tenuous hold on power?


These are questions that time will answer. We hope that the new leaders of Kenya will choose continued progress towards democracy and freedom for all its citizens. 


©Muniini K. Mulera


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