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Making democracy work in Africa

Moky's musings

Making democracy work in Africa

Most people in Africa vote with their hearts rather than on policies, but is it any different from advanced democracies such as the US, where people vote according to their ‘tribes’, asks Moky Makura.

When my son was about eight, I recall him swimming for his school house and we parents supported our children and their houses. However, towards the end, there was a closely contested race between two of the top swimmers in the school – one was Black and the other was White. That day every Black parent rooted loudly for the Black boy regardless of the houses our sons were in. 

That day we voted with our hearts, not our heads. It was the day I realised that artificially constructed groupings like school houses in this case, count for nothing when tribe and race are concerned. 

 It’s similar with elections in Africa. Like the parents at the swim meet, Africans have historically voted along ethnic, not political lines – with their hearts rather than their heads. 

And there is a lot of ethnic diversity on the continent. In 2002 a landmark paper for the Harvard Institute of Economic Research showed African countries as the least homogeneous in the world (20 of the most diverse countries were in Africa). Uganda had the highest ethnic diversity rating, followed by Liberia. With over 3,000 ethnic groups spread across 54 countries, it’s easy to see the limitations of a system that assumes one votes on the issues rather than with your tribe. 

There is a lot of evidence that shows much of the post-election violence in democratic countries in Africa has been driven by ethnic tensions. The better-known examples include the 2007 disputed Presidential elections in Kenya which saw violence break out between the country’s two largest ethnic groups – the Kikuyu followers of President Kibaki and the Luo followers of opposition leader Raila Odinga.

There are numerous other examples of ethnic-based political struggles across Africa. In fact, it is rare indeed to find a country where ethnicity – or religious affiliation – is not the central issue during elections, unless the country is largely ethnically homogeneous, like Botswana.

Despite this, Africa has run a total of 187 democratic elections over the 18-year period from 1999 to 2017. In contrast, over the last 10 years there have been 29 attempted coups on the continent, although only six of them were successful (Niger, Egypt, Zimbabwe, Sudan and Mali – twice).

Elections more than politics

But voting with one’s sentiments rather than on policies is not confined to Africa. The US elections that brought in Trump laid bare the deeply divided ‘tribes’ in that country.

Only, instead of the Kikuyus vs Luos, Hutus vs Tutsis or Shonas vs Ndebeles, it was the Right wing (representing national populism – anti-elitist, anti-establishment and largely racist) vs the Liberals (representing civil liberty, equality, support for social justice and cultural pluralism). It was driven by deep divisions between the ‘Confederates’ and the Black Lives Matters movement, the Hispanics, Indians and so on.

Another issue is the assumption that all votes and therefore voters are equal. In places where the majority of voters are poor, hungry and poorly educated, one’s vote is easily traded for a bag of maize or 500 naira, a branded T-shirt and lunch on voting day.

But even in places where education levels are high, lack of understanding or misinformation can also distort the democratic process: In the UK with Brexit, many voters didn’t understand the implications of leaving the EU; and amazingly in the US, many still do not seem to be able to distinguish truth from falsehood or reality from fantasy.

 According to the 2019 Democracy Index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit, there are four ranks of democracies; Germany, France, the UK, Australia, New Zealand and the Nordic countries are all in the top category, along with one African country – Mauritius. 

America is in the second category of ‘flawed democracies’ and is ranked at number three behind Japan and South Korea. The US joins five African countries, including South Africa, Ghana and Namibia in this category. Which proves that those who said the US Capitol riots made America look like a third world country were right.

Despite its flaws, democracy is still the best system of government invented by humans but like everything else, it takes a lot of thought, effort and dedication to make it work. We in Africa have not yet got there, but we are on the way. 

Moky Makura is the Executive Director at www.AfricaNoFilter.org 

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