Written with Marian Tupy of the Cato Institute
South Africa and its partners in the Sothern African Development Community have again temporized with the tyranny of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. The announcement, after last weekend’s summit, that the opposition Movement for Democratic Change should relinquish claims for sole control of the Home Affairs Ministry, which supervises the country’s police force and electoral machinery, is a further blow to the faltering power sharing agreement brokered by South Africa’s now vanquished President, Thabo Mbeki. This latest “compromise,” which the MDC’s leader Morgan Tsvangirai has rightly rejected as “unworkable” is a further dilution of the March poll, which despite a widely flawed electoral process, saw the opposition gain a majority of the parliamentary seats. It also suggests that Africa’s democratic awakening, which has seen the demise of many one-party dictatorships and military rule since 1990, is, in many ways, only skin deep. An unfortunate pattern has emerged in some key countries, whereby elections are either rigged in favor of the incumbents or ignored if their outcomes are unfavorable to the ruling regimes. Shockingly, both African and Western countries have often been complicit in legitimizing and rewarding such election theft.
Take Kenya’s presidential elections in December 2007. Prior to the vote, the opposition candidate Raila Odinga led the incumbent, Mwai Kibaki, in all the opinion polls. Some had him 15 to 19 percentage points ahead. With half of the 210 constituencies reporting, Odinga had a commanding lead. Suddenly, the Electoral Commission of Kenya stopped the count. When the counting resumed, Kibaki surged past Odinga. An hour later he was sworn in to his second term at a hastily arranged State House ceremony.
According to the chief European Union monitor Alexander Lambsdorff, the tallying process “lacked credibility.” Enraged Kenyans took to the streets. In the violence that ensued, 1,000 people died and 600,000 people were displaced. Through a combined diplomatic effort of Kofi Annan, Condoleezza Rice and others, a compromise was eventually reached. It created a new position of the Prime Minister for Odinga, while leaving Kibaki as President. Kibaki and his henchmen subverted democracy and Western countries, grateful for an end to violence, quickly resumed their aid payments to Kenya. A similar arrangement is currently profiting Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. Having lost the first round of presidential elections in March 2008 to Tsvangirai, Mugabe unleashed a wave of violence against the MDC. Amnesty International estimates 180 people were killed and 9,000 injured, forcing Tsvangirai out of the subsequent run-off and ensuring that Mugabe was installed for his sixth term as President of Zimbabwe.
Given their own problematic accession to power, it is perhaps understandable that peer pressure from Mugabe’s fellow African leaders is both mute and moot. For example, Umaru Yar’Adua, the chosen successor of Olusegun Obasanjo, won the Nigerian presidency in an election marred by fraud. Obasanjo himself came to power in a poll where, according to the EU observes, the “minimum standards for democratic elections have not been met.” After losing the 2005 election, Meles Zenawi, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, ordered his troops to shoot anti-government protesters in Addis Ababa. Some 200 have perished. Yet, the West rewarded the former with debt forgiveness and the latter with large amounts of foreign aid. Allegations persist that the October election result in Zambia was doctored in favor of the incumbent. It would be sheer hypocrisy for many African leaders to call on Mugabe to go. And so, they did not. Even South Africa, which has the democratic credentials to speak out and to act, has over the past eight years cosseted Mugabe behind the veil of so-called “quiet diplomacy.” Undertakings by Mbeki’s successor, Kgalema Motlanthe, and other ANC leaders, to peruse a tougher line on Zimbabwe, were not on display over the past weekend. Botswana’s exceptionally critical attitude to Mugabe remains just that - an exception.
The original power-sharing compromise in Zimbabwe involved Mugabe’s ZANU-PF and the MDC sharing cabinet seats on an equitable basis, with Mugabe staying on as President and Tsvangirai becoming the new Prime Minister. But, even those generousterms were not enough for the Zimbabwean ruler. The latest incarnation of the “compromise,” will further strengthen Mugabe and undermine the outcome of the March 2008. Mugabe will thus literally get away with murder.
What we seem to be witnessing in Africa, therefore, is not the triumph of democracy but the triumph of incumbentocracy. Elections are held, but real transfers of power are still rare. Most worryingly, people who preside over electoral theft and sometimes murder are legitimized by their peers and rewarded with dollops of foreign aid. The will of the African electorate, in the meantime, goes ignored.