There were a record 17 presidential elections in Africa in 2011.
There were face-offs in Benin, Bourkina Faso, Central African Republic, Uganda, Zambia, DR Congo, Sao Tome and Principe, Seychelles, Liberia, Nigeria, Niger, Madagascar, The Gambia, Ivory Coast, Djibouti, Chad, Cameroon, Cape Verde.
Except in Zambia (where the volatile but intriguing Opposition leader Michael Sata defeated president Rupiah Banda), Cape Verde (Islands), Sao Tome & Principe (Islands), and Seychelles (Islands), the rest of the elections ended in tears, heartbreaks, acrimony, arrests, blood, and bullets. That was only 22 percent “successful” elections. Or, put another way, Africa had 78 percent disputed or stolen presidential polls in 2011.
Which raises two uncomfortable questions. Are honest elections unAfrican? Are African rulers generally capable of holding fair presidential polls?
The answer to the first question is we don’t know. And to the second we can say NO; African big men (and now it seems women too if the opponents of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liberia President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf are to be believed) are mostly incapable of holding clean polls.
There is one racist-sounding, but still “good”, reason why election cheating is so rampant on the continent. Its proponents say it is because Africa didn’t have a tradition of the referee.
I was thinking about this, and figured that in the good old days, if one can put it that way, all sorts of contests in Africa were settled by an honour system. Even to this day, for example, wrestling matches in African village squares have no referee. Two well-oiled men tackle each other, and the one who pushes the other outside the circle or pins the opponent on his back wins. The announcement of the victor is crowd-sourced, so to speak – the crowd proclaims the winner. Seen from that perspective the referee, in modern context the electoral commission, is in many ways an “illegitimate” intrusion.
That is problematic because in Africa’s case, the very introduction of an electoral commission was necessary because the trust and honour system that delivers a fair result had broken down, yet the authority to call a winner has not been entrusted to the election commission.
Now, Africa had and still has absolute monarchs (the harem-owning King Mswati of Swaziland) who were, of course, not elected. It also had chieftains. Chiefs, however, were kind of elected. Either the clan, village, or council of elders elected the chief.
Fair enough. What happened next is what interests us. Until about 30 years ago in many parts of Africa, once a chief was picked, he died on the job.
Therefore, people like the admirable Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere were right to claim that old Africa had a democratic system of appointing leaders. However, what they didn’t have was a democratic system of removing them.
Even in parts of West Africa today, you find this system of chiefs-for-life. African chiefs ruled so long, by the time they died, villages, wells, and hills would have been named after them because they seemed to outlive everything else. They were deeply embedded in local folklore and oral history.
I can only guess why this aversion for removing people from chiefly positions was strong. In Uganda today, for example, when someone says you have “taken food out of a child’s much”; it means you are the most lowly and despicable person.
I suspect that we equated removing someone from a job to taking food out of his mouth, and there is a part of us that is still queasy about doing that. That might be why we tend to be divided over condemning corrupt rulers – perhaps because it is difficult for many to see what is wrong with “eating”.
© Charles Onyango-Obbo / twitter@cobbo3