Are African Elections Only Free and Fair When The Opposition Wins?

Are African Elections Only Free and Fair When The Opposition Wins?

This is a question I found myself asking after Zimbabwe’s opposition – MDC Alliance vowed to challenge the results of the July 30 elections in court after the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) declared that President Emmerson Mnagagwa was dully elected president after winning more that 50 percent of the votes cast.

The opposition camp had claimed victory and argue that the polls have been rigged in favor of the incumbent.

Just a day after the elections the opposition candidate Nelson Chamisa had declared that he had won the popular vote even though ZEC were yet to declare the results.

Various commentators accross Africa’s social media landscape are claiming that Managagwa rigged the elections to have him declared winner. These sentiments and order of events are not anything new in African elections.

In August 2017, Kenya’s opposition candidate Raila Odinga declared that he had won the Presidential election several hours before the country’s electoral agency declared the official results which were in favor of President Uhuru Kenyatta. Mr. Odinga challenged the results in court and succeeded in having the results overturned and a fresh election which he boycotted called. Mr. Odinga would later heighten the stalemate when he had himself sworn in as President in Nairobi – albeit illegally. During the confusion that lasted several months before a surprise handshake between Kenyatta and Odinga, tens of lives were lost.

In Uganda, opposition candidate Kizza Besigye claims he won the 2016 elections with 52 percent of the votes cast.  Besigye also proceeded to swear himself in as President an action that would then trigger violent confrontations with police leading to several deaths, injuries and destruction of property.

In the same year and miles across to the west of the continent, an African electoral commission was being hailed for conducting free and fair elections. The opposition candidate Nana Akufo-Adde was declared president having won 53.8 percent of the vote. This declaration saw the beginning of a continental shower of praises for the electoral commission with it’s commissioners being invited to give talks and share strategies with their peers across the continent.

In Kenya some 14 years earlier, another opposition candidate was declared president trouncing the ruling party’s candidate (who interestingly is president today). The then electoral body under the leadership of the late Sammuel Kivuitu received tons of praise and accolades from home and abroad. Kivuitu would again be called to action three years latter in a referendum that pitted the new government against some of it’s supporters who were now turned foes and teaming up with the opposition. In this instance the result was again in favor of the opposition and the commission’s chairman was again a hero. As Kenya headed to yet another presidential election in 2007,  opposition supporters even composed songs in favor of the electoral commission boss. That election result was in favor of the incumbent President Mwai Kibaki and would turn out to be the most contested election result in Kenyan history. More than 1,000 lives were lost and 300,000 people displaced when violence erupted following the declaration of the results.

So, are elections only fair when the opposition candidate wins?

This article does not by any means claim that there have been not incidents where the incumbents have used instruments of power at their disposal to determine the outcome of electoral processes. There has been evidence of the same in certain instances where violence has been used to silence or threaten candidates and their supporters and as the Supreme Court of Kenya said in their ruling that nullified President Kenya’s initial win, “election is a process not an event.” This means that anything that interferes with the administration of a fair exercise especially when it’s in favor of a single candidate can be considered as rigging, we have seen enough of that across the continent.

My argument though is that there are instances where the opposition has lost fairly. As much as we are currently claiming that Mnagagwa had the elections rigged in his favor, the truth could be that he actually won the popular vote. What many people making this argument ignore the importance of the rural voter in countries like Zimbabwe. Fellow Africa Blogging author Takura Zhangazha points this out in his recent article.

But as always the electoral disputes around the rural voter will be about the numbers.  And its understandable.  This is because the same voter has generally been taken for granted by all of the political parties.  Largely because of assumptions of remoteness from the center but also because of his/her assumed conservatism or even ‘backwardness’.  They are however the statistical majority of voters. And a greater number of them are women. Any national political party contesting for national elected seats would do well to take them extremely seriously.  Or at least with equal priority to urban voters.

– Takura Zhangazha

That though is not the only argument as to why opposition candidates are always losing elections in Africa. In 2014/15 a non-partisan African research network Afrobarometer conducted a survey in 36 African countries. The results of that survey indicated that opposition parties had the lowest levels of popular trust among 12 types of institutions and leaders. While trust in ruling parties was 46%, it was only 35% for opposition parties.This was an improvement over the situation more than a decade earlier when trust levels in opposition parties was much lower.

Clearly the trends are changing and we might gradually see more cases of opposition parties winning elections. There is however a need for these parties to change tact if this is to happen soon.

Daniel Okoth
Daniel Okoth
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