Sunday, May 31, 2009

Holding on to your crown even when you’ve lost*

Monday’s celebration of Africa day — the 45th commemoration of the founding of the Organisation of African Unity — caused me to ponder the link between President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and last month’s co-winner of Idols, Sasha-Lee Davids of Atlantis.
They have more in common than you might imagine. I now she looks sweet and youthful, and neighbouring Bob is neither, but read on.
In a world first, Davids held onto her Idols crown (or half of it, at least) even after it was revealed that, because of botched technology, she had received 200,000 fewer SMS votes than Jason Hartman of KwaZulu-Natal. Competition organiser M-Net decided to split the difference and enthrone them as joint winners: a neat solution, though it did some violence to the concept of popular participation.
Something similar, but seriously violent, happened in Zimbabwe last year. In the March first-round presidential poll, despite energetic electoral malpractices and his vast powers of incumbency, Mugabe actually lost to the MDC’s Morgan Tsvangirai.
But Mugabe didn’t rely on faulty SMSes to achieve final victory. For the next round, he unleashed a wave of violence and intimidation. Amnesty International estimated that 180 people were killed and 9000 injured. Tsvangirai was forced out of the subsequent runoff and, voil€, Bob was installed for his sixth presidential term.
The ever-accommodating leadership of the African Union and the regional honchos in the Southern African Development Community faced a far more serious problem than M-Net did. But, essentially, they arrived at the same conclusion.
They declined to call a fresh contest and used the flawed result to broker an unwieldy power-sharing compromise. Like a Montessori school, everyone would get a gold star. Mugabe would continue as president and Tsvangirai would become prime minister. It was rather like placing a python and a gazelle together, and expecting them to co-exist peacefully. The stalled progress on implementation, more than a year later, points to the limitations of this approach.
Africa has made much democratic progress since the formation of the OAU in 1963. For its first 30 years of freedom, the spectre of one-party states, presidents for life and violent usurpations of power were a continental reality. Extraordinarily, Africa scholar Larry Diamond notes, only one African president was defeated at the polls between 1960 and 1990.The unfortunate incumbent, Aden Abdullah Osman of Somalia, was hardly an advertisement for regime change. His country today is the most failed of states.
A recent study by Daniel Posner and Daniel Young shows that, today, an incumbent president has a 14% chance of losing office — happy odds for him, but at least suggesting the prospect of occasional change.
If you want to know why the odds are so long for the challenger, Kenya in December 2007, like Zimbabwe a few months later, provided an instructive example.
Prior to the presidential vote there, challenger Raila Odinga led the incumbent, Mwai Kibaki, in all opinion polls — some placed him 15 points ahead.
With half of the constituencies reporting, Odinga had a commanding lead. The electoral commission of Kenya, stacked with the president’s loyalists, abruptly stopped the count. When it resumed, Kibaki surged to a disputed lead. Within hours, he was installed as president. Predictable outrage and violence followed — 1000 people died and 600000 were displaced.
The solution? Ignore the flawed process and result, the subversion of democratic process and outcome, and give the probable winner, Odinga, the consolation post of prime minister.
The AU blessed the outcome; indeed, it had helped to arrange it. And the West, grateful for an end to violence, quickly resumed its aid payments to Kenya. It chose to ignore the report of chief European Union monitor Alexander Lambsdoff, who said the tallying process “lacked credibility”.
I suppose the same label could be applied to the infamous Florida recount in 2000, which swept George Bush to power, assisted by a craven US Supreme Court. But no one there suggested or entertained “power sharing” as a solution.
Our continent, notwithstanding multiple virtues, suffers from big blights of bad governance. These usually can be traced to the misuses and abuses of incumbent power. Reining in those powers is a key step to improving and deepening democracy.
Before we “do an Idols” when the next disputed election occurs, the AU, and the world, should move in the opposite direction.
Our common law does not allow a person to profit from his own crime. We should apply the same standard to stolen elections and cease building rickety compromises on the back of them.
True democracy goes way beyond credible elections. But they are the essential precondition for its existence. At the next major milepost celebrating African unity, let’s aspire to celebrating the power of real democracy, not the triumph and weary continuation of “incumbentocracy”.

*On the Contrary column, Published Sunday Times May 30, 2009

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