Five African presidents with a collective 90 years of leadership under their belt are meant to hold elections in the next five months. Among them, only Joseph Kabila, who “inherited” the presidency of the Democratic Republic of Congo from his assassinated presidential father in 2001, is ducking the challenge, claiming his country is too broke to organise a poll. Four out of five, as they say, ain’t bad.
The elections that will take place — starting with Rwanda on August 4, followed by Kenya, Angola and Liberia — tell the variegated story of African democracy. Two of the four, those in Kenya and Liberia, will be genuinely competitive and fiercely fought. The other two, in Rwanda and Angola, will be walkovers for the dominant ruling parties, though in Angola, President José Eduardo dos Santos is calling it a day — after 37 years. He has already anointed João Lourenço, defence minister, as his replacement.
Elections in Africa have become routine affairs, although some are more honestly contested than others. Even Congo’s Mr Kabila went through the rigmarole of holding polls in 2006 and 2011 and putting in place a constitutional two-term limit that theoretically obliged him to step down last year. Pressure from international donors and a greater commitment, at least in theory, from the African Union to the idea of democracy have played a part. More importantly, African people themselves, according to numerous surveys, are strongly committed to an ideal of competitive electoral politics, even if the reality often falls short. As Africa becomes more urban and connected, civil society has grown more active, especially around election time.
In Kenya, which moved to multi-party democracy in 1991, nothing is stage-managed about elections. So brutally are they fought — and so high the winner-takes-all stakes in power and money — that they fit the description of “war by other means”. In 2007, more than 1,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced in orchestrated violence. This year, the veteran oppositionist Raila Odinga, who lost that contest, will challenge Uhuru Kenyatta in what will probably be his last stab at power.
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Across the continent, in Liberia, it is anyone’s guess who will win in a crowded field that may include the current vice-president, several experienced politicians, as well as a former Coca-Cola executive, a former warlord and a one-time football star. The only thing certain is that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the continent’s first elected female leader, will step down after two terms. That she will go without a fuss remains noteworthy in a continent where leaders of three decades’ standing, including Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, are seeing out their “immortocracies” to the bitter end. But in west Africa, the most democratic part of the continent, it has become the norm for incumbents to go when their time is up.
That is not true of Rwanda, where Paul Kagame, a guerrilla turned wily, and mostly admired, leader, has amended the constitution so that he can extend his 23-year stint. In previous elections, he has won more than 90 per cent of votes, a trick that could be repeated this time. That is both a result of the respect (and fear) in which he is held, as well as the no-holds-barred tactics employed. Days after Diane Shima Rwigara declared she dared run against him, nude photographs of her circulated on the internet.
If the four elections cover the range of Africa’s modern democratic experience, the missing contest in Congo, where Mr Kabila is clinging grimly to power, smacks of the past. One of his would-be opponents, the businessman Moise Katumbi, has been manoeuvred into exile. Another, veteran opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi, died last February in Belgium. So scared is Mr Kabila, even of a corpse, that he has resisted the return of Tshisekedi’s body for burial. If the remains are eventually allowed back, it will be progress of a sort.
At least, then, it will be four elections and a funeral.