OCTOBER MADNESS: Can Stolen Elections In Africa Ever Be Better Than Clean Unpredictable Polls? Yes And No

One of the things that most undermines African democracy is election theft.

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe (L) failed to pull off a clinical electoral swindle, and after months of stalemate, had to share power in a coalition government with Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai (R).

If you look at many bouts of violence and guerilla wars in several countries in Africa – from Yoweri Museveni’s war that started in February 1981, the Algeria civil war that began in 1992 after the military-dominated government cancelled elections set to be won by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), and Kenya post-election violence in early 2008 after the fiasco of the December 2007 polls – all them have their roots in a subverted vote.

For years many have been vexed by election rigging on the continent, but it persists. Lately, I have been thinking that perhaps we would do well to look at this issue in new ways, and to find explanations for why vote stealing does not go out of fashion.

First, perhaps we need to reluctantly acknowledge that not everyone can steal and election. You need to have the guts to take the risk; to have firm control of the state machinery; the ability to organise the heist; and the shamelessness to face the country and world as president, when they all know that that you stole the victory. Very few of us can do that. Election theft therefore is a reward for a rare type of gutsy, insanely shameless, and unusually power hungry and greedy individuals.

The second, and probably most important thing is that election rigging in developing countries might actually provide much needed predictability. The problem with our countries is that the level of uncertainty going into elections can be very high; look at Kenya, Nigeria, Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Egypt, Cameroon, Togo, name it – you are just not sure whether there will be violence, how many people will be killed, or whether a mad man (a tribal bigot, dangerous populist, or crazy religious fundamentalist) will emerge winner.

Compare that to the choices the US is facing in the November 6 election between President Barack Obama and his challenger Mitt Romney. The two men are known quantities, and you can be sure to a confidence level of 85 percent about what you will get when either wins.

As soon elections end in Uganda – usually in controversy – President Museveni lets the dogs out. He swamps the streets with soldiers, to discourage a violent fall-out.

The countries in Africa where uncertainty is low going into elections, are usually the ones where the governments have a record of clinical election cheating – for example in Uganda. There is a lot of noise, seesawing opinion polls, and Opposition energy during elections in Uganda (especially when President Yoweri Museveni is pitted against long-term rival, the brave hearted Dr Kizza Besigye), and government are cheats confronted by the people on Election Day.

As soon as the voting closes, however, the Museveni machine moves in. It sees to it that the vote is counted “correctly” to ensure the Big Man is not trailing. Newspapers and radio stations insisting on reporting results other than those vetted by the Machine, will have intelligence operatives visiting their offices, shutting down their websites, and pulling down their transmitters. Mysteriously, it becomes difficult to access Facebook and Twitter.

Then they let the dogs out. Heavily armed soldiers and Military Police, armoured cars, tanks, pour out into the streets and secure all key points, and around the country they will take over strategic hills and mount their anti-aircraft guns, and throw roadblocks all over the country.  The President will appear on TV to give a “stern warning” to troublemakers, and that will be it. Ugandans are stubborn and no longer fear guns that much, thanks to many years of war. However, very few ever have the nerve to confront Museveni’s post-election lockdown.

I think the knowledge that the state will leave no loose ends in rigging polls in that fashion, and that it will deploy sufficient terror resources to discourage violence and looting, is probably a great source of certainty in Africa, than not knowing how an election will end.

It is pretty much why if you are a journalist covering war, or a soldier, the sound of gunfire is actually good. You know that if you can hear it, then the bullets have not hit you and you are still alive – some bloke will probably be dead though. Also, it is a signal to take cover.

It is also the reason snipers are one of the most terrifying and demoralising features of war. You don’t know where they are hiding, and you are not sure whether they will shoot you next.

Election rigging removes all similar uncertainties. If you are an opposition politician and you have $10m for campaigns, then the high probability that the vote will be fiddled, guides you to invest only $7.5 million of that money in the election. The other $2.5 million you keep as insurance for paying rent, putting food on the table, fuelling the car, and paying the kids’ schools after victory is stolen from you. Of course, you would have been happier if you had got the prize you went in for – the presidency itself.

 cobbo@ke.nationmedia.com / twitter@cobbo3

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