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Even Africa’s most entrenched presidents are still preferable to dictators

From God’s mouth to a ballot box near you. EPA/Aaron Ufumeli

There are fewer and fewer outright dictatorships in Africa, but even as elections are held across the continent, still the same faces have occupied the same elected presidential offices year after year.

All over Africa, leaders are using elections to legitimise themselves and shore up international support – or at least to make sure the rest of the world tolerates them. An uneasy but still secure tolerance is extended to Paul Kagame of Rwanda, who’s extended his tenure via a democratic referendum – and the president of neighbouring Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza, has followed suit.

Elsewhere, parties with historically massive majorities, including the ANC in South Africa, know that they still have electoral breathing space – even after their leaders are exposed as failures and even fraudsters. Party loyalties take a long time to fade. Promises for a better future are easily made by incumbents and oppositions alike – except that whereas incumbents can point to their record in office, most oppositions can’t.

Most oppositions haven’t been given the chance to become governments, despite election after election. There are conspicuous exceptions, such as Ghana and Zambia, though the latter is showing signs of a new authoritarianism. And some strong ruling parties – in Ethiopia, for instance – are yielding to huge public protest and starting to incorporate opposition personnel and policies.

Provided a ruling party is strong enough not to lose office, it can afford to do this in the name of sustaining itself. Even Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, after some protracted interventionist diplomacy from South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki, gave in and formed a coalition government with the opposition in 2008. Then again, he went on to defeat that opposition once more in 2013.

Till the bitter end

Until he was ousted at the end of 2017, Mugabe was the ultimate presidential limpet. He subjected himself to regular elections, but somehow, for nearly a quarter of a century, his popularity and that of his party proved remarkably enduring. In his latter years that changed dramatically – and Mugabe is now gone. But today, his successor and party comrade Emerson Mnangagwa hopes to secure an electoral victory of his own in July – promising, as Mugabe did, to win it freely and fairly.

The ANC’s Cyril Ramaphosa rallies the faithful.

That Mnangagwa and his ZANU-PF party will win is highly likely. The opposition, having lost its charismatic leader Morgan Tsvangirai to cancer, has a new young and untested leader – but not everyone in the opposition wants to follow him. At time of writing, there are at least two major MDC parties, with several splinter parties that were once part of the MDC or ZANU-PF.

It would take a remarkable swing to the MDC, now run by Nelson Chamisa, to make ZANU-PF lose its nerve and resort to irregularities and the massive powers of incumbency. The party’s contingency tactics are all-too familiar: sudden splurges of public spending in electorally volatile areas, police forces being mysteriously slow to permit opposition rallies, electoral espionage into the plans and strategies of the opposition parties – all this even before any intervention in the vote-tallying itself.

The bad and the ugly

This sort of thing is unedifying, to be sure – but it needs to be kept in perspective.

These “masquerade democracies” aren’t all that outlandish by global standards. At least they have opposition parties – which is more than can be said for China, among others. While many of sub-Saharan Africa’s opposition leaders face intimidation, their travails generally pale in comparison to the deadly government retribution meted out in Russia. And then there are the various Western powers, especially the UK and the US, where two long-established parties simply trade power back and forth while their governing institutions remain largely unchanged.

Even where real change is not forthcoming, elections at least allow for some sort of political debate and airing of political demands. Even if the incumbent government knows it’s going to win, it has to make a show of listening to the public. Of course, as in Uganda, an uneasy government can imprison or prosecute opposition leaders to stop them leading a national campaign – but most governments’ tactics are now more sophisticated and subtle than that.

Yes, the results are less than ideal, to put it mildly. But better than out-and-out dictatorship? The answer can only be yes.

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