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Unrepentant autocrats and the sacrament of the franchise

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Unrepentant autocrats and the sacrament of the franchise

Gone is the age of primitive election rigging, the early multiparty era when Africa’s Cold Warriors secured re-election by sheer brute force. The new men in State House are adept at gaming the system, cleverly manipulating election commissions, courts and even violence. So, whither democracy? By Wachira Maina.

Following elections in Gabon in September, protesters attempted to storm the offices of the Electoral Commission in Libreville, the capital city, destroyed property, fought the police and eventually burnt down the parliament building, angry that the commission had declared President Ali Bongo – scion of the family that has ruled the country for half a century – victor over his opposition competitor Jean Ping, formerly of the African Union. They were protesting electoral fraud and suspiciously high voter turnout figures, especially the 99.9 per cent turnout reported in Haut Ogooué, Bongo’s home province. Though voting is compulsory in Gabon, that rule is not enforced; and even in countries where it is – such as Australia – turnout never reaches

The opposition suspected that the numbers had been souped up though Bongo might argue that such turnouts are not unusual; his late father, Omar Bongo, had a 100 per cent voter turnout in the 1986 election.

Supporters of Gabonese opposition leader Jean Ping demonstrate in front of security forces blocking them as they try to reach the electoral commission in Libreville on August 31, 2016 / AFP PHOTO / MARCO LONGARI

Gabon is not an outlier. In the presidential elections in Uganda in February this year, President Yoweri Museveni got 100 per cent of the votes cast in 47 of a sample of 60 polling stations that reported 100 per cent voter turn-out. In the 2013 presidential election in Kenya, comparable turnout figures were reported from polling stations in the strongholds of the leading presidential candidates, suggesting all round rigging. According to a statistical tool for detecting electoral fraud developed by Peter Klimek, Yuri Yegorov, Rudolf Hanel and Stefan Turner, such figures for a victorious candidate in unusually high voter turnout elections signal systematic fraud.

Welcome to Africa’s new wave of democracy: elections are as routinely held as their results are routinely challenged. In many places – Kenya, Uganda, Gabon, Ethiopia, Chad and even previously peaceful Zambia – they are either preceded or followed by violence. Court petitions challenging the victory of the president-elect have been dismissed on formal rather than substantive grounds in Kenya, Uganda, Ghana and Zambia.

Electoral Commissions are formally independent under the constitution. Their powers are often laid out in detailed statutes. In practice, however, they have proved ineffectual, exerting few of the powers that the laws assert and generally favouring incumbents. Ballot stuffing in the crude traditional manner no longer happens but systemic irregularities across all aspects of the electoral process now guarantee that the integrity of the election as a whole is compromised.

In a back-handed way, these shenanigans are a compliment to the moral force of democracy. Even unrepentant autocrats want the sacrament of the franchise. They know that blatant theft of the vote will not fly in these censorious times, so they have crafted new ways of conducting “soft coups”. Each irregularity is parcelled out in moderation: violence must be low intensity, not so intimidating as to stop voting altogether. And though technology could fail, it must not fail so catastrophically as to undermine the election. In short, failures must be such that international observers can plausibly conclude that the “elections substantially reflect the will of the people” and for judiciaries to judge that “the irregularities are not substantial enough to affect the result.”

This partly explains the evolution of electoral violence: it is usually low-intensity and localised rather than intense and widespread. Most intimidation is targeted, principally at candidates and pockets of voters, as is common in Uganda. Security forces are often deployed, not always to clobber voters but to create a climate of fear, as in the registration exercise and voting day deployment in Zanzibar in the 2015 election. The most serious violence and rioting are often after the election but that is usually after international observers have ruled the election kosher. More often than not, such violence can be blamed on the opposition whose discontented supporters typically take to the streets after results are announced. Sierra Leone, Senegal and Uganda.

But managing violence is only one part of the story. Those who want to rig elections have learnt to distinguish the authority the law asserts from the authority that it exerts. In most countries, elections are conducted by independent electoral commissions and electoral disputes settled by independent judges. Yet incumbents – or the candidates they support – are unfazed and have in fact thrived.

Governments have learnt – as voters have not – that though the independence of these bodies is a necessary condition of the legitimacy of the electoral process, it is not a sufficient one for their independence in practice. Electoral institutions – courts included – have not been ineffectual because they lack legal authority; they lack authority because they are unwilling to act when regimes’ vital interests are at stake. And they are unwilling to act because commissioners and judges are often vulnerable to pressure, including financial rewards and personal threats from the secret police.

Equally important is the ability of incumbents “to rig elections below the radar”, that is, to run an election so that although its overall integrity is compromised, none of its elements – voter registration, nomination, voting, tallying and collating results – fails entirely. Small failures across the electoral spectrum make it harder for observers to rule the election illegitimate, even though cumulatively and inexorably these failures give victory to the incumbent or to the favoured candidate. Distributing culpability across the electoral cycle is now a much-fancied incumbent sport in Kenya, Uganda and elsewhere.

Another arsenal in the electoral game is the marketing of fear. In the last decade, elections turned violent in Kenya, Zimbabwe and Côte d’Ivoire. In Kenya and Côte d’Ivoire, the violence looked like it could destabilise neighbours. From these experiences, electoral peace is now routinely privileged over substantial justice. In part, the courts have also accepted this narrative. As we have seen in Kenya, Uganda, Zambia and Ghana, when courts are asked to make findings on substantive violations of electoral law, they have taken refuge in excessive formality. In 2013 in Kenya and this year in Uganda, courts used procedural technicalities to reject additional evidence even though the constitutions of both countries required them to do “substantial justice without due regard to formalities.” It is now an inescapable fact of electoral case-law: courts will be deferential to incumbents and no court in the continent will hold a presidential election invalid once the declaration of results is made and the swearing-in complete.

It was thought, naively it turned out, that some of the opacity of elections – itself thought to be the source of fraud – could be cured through deployment of technology, especially Biometric Voter Registration, seamlessly linked to Electronic Voter Identification Devices. The assumption was that identifying voters by some biometric feature – such as fingerprints or the iris – would be foolproof. But as the case of Kenya showed, such a system forestalls rigging only if three conditions are met: one, the electronic database has integrity; two, the link between the database and voter identification system at the polling station is sound; and, three, the polling officials know how to use it.

If not, electoral technology can turn out to be an expensive indulgence, as it was for Kenya in 2013. After investing $293m in the election – three times what the previous election in 2007 had cost – the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission said that essential elements of the technology had failed. In other words, having paid $21 per registered voter or $29 per vote cast, Kenya had an electoral system inferior to the manual one it replaced.

It was once thought that these were afflictions of the old dictators: Mobutu Sese Seko, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, Mathieu Kérékou. Yet even the “digitals”, the successor generation of leaders, many of whom are quite literally, the sons of their fathers – Uhuru Kenyatta, Joseph Kabila, Pierre Nkurunziza, Faure Gnassingbé, Yahya Jammeh – have proved adept at these electoral tricks. Power is both seductive and addictive and age or education confers no talismanic immunity. Sometimes the case is made, as in Rwanda, that a dose of authoritarianism is necessary for development. But that misses the point: it is not dictatorship that develops countries, it is efficient government, property rights and investments in human capital. Democracies that make similar investments also grow, as shown by Costa Rica and Portugal after the Salazar dictatorship. There is really no basis – historical or factual – for sacrificing democracy for growth.

Opposition supporters hold up a mannequin part with a slogan attached as they listen to their leader during their weekly rally to protest against the country’s electoral body Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) in Nairobi, Kenya, 06 June 2016. Protests in the capital remained relatively peaceful, however, the local media reported that at least two protesters were shot dead in a protest in the western city of Kisumu. EPA/DAI KUROKAWA

Looking at Latin America’s experiences, it is easy to write off these electoral clawbacks as the birth pangs of nascent democracy, and to think that Africa’s fragile transitions will stabilise and democracy eventually consolidate. But there is some evidence that if democracy disempowers voters as current elections suggest it could, states could become unstable again as they were a generation ago.

Nothing, in short, is irreversible. In Madagascar in 2009, a political stand-off between two elected leaders – the mayor of the capital city of Antananarivo and the president of the Republic – nearly handed over the country to the military. In Mali, an elected government was overthrown by disenchanted soldiers in March 2012, protesting against what they termed government weakness in fighting an extremist insurgency in the north of the country. Though the Junta handed back power to Dioncounda Traoré, the transitional president a few weeks later, the fact that a coup d’état took place is a salutary reminder of the risk of slippage.

These risks have been compounded by a trend of constitutional backsliding: presidents are not only grasping for more powers through amendments, they are also eliminating termlimits, controls that were put in place in the legal reforms that followed democratic openings in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Truth is, African democracy needs new champions and stronger institutions. The West, once a vocal friend, is now in retreat. When it is not fighting jihadists in the continent’s hotspots, it is playing the game of battledore and shuttlecock with the Chinese and the Indians in Africa’s resource-rich countries. In addition, resurgent Africa is finding its voice and the African Union and member states are no longer as deferential to their allies in the West as they once were. A mortified West has once again traded in principle for interest and is no longer a friend of democracy.

That leaves the matter in the hands of Africans: it is they who must stand up to electoral fraudsters as they once did against one-party autocrats in the 1990s.

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