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Elections – An African Playbook

Coen Van Wyk

Posted on September 25, 2020 16:55

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Elections are in the weather these days, with a number of countries approaching consultations with their electorates. In Africa many leaders cling to power by all means possible.

Consider Uganda: After disastrous dictatorships under Idi Amin and Milton Obote, Yoweri Museveni, then aged 46, was sworn in as President in January 1986. In 1996 he won an election despite having promised to go farming at age 56. Since the Constitution had changed, Museveni's supporters claimed that his rule under the temporary Constitution did not count towards his Presidential term.

Museveni and Reagan in 1987. White House Photo, Public Domain.

In 2001 Museveni won another presidential election after promising that he was contesting for the last time. The Supreme Court ruled that there was cheating and that in some areas "the principle of a free and fair election was compromised." Three out of five judges ruled that the irregularities were not substantial enough to prevent him from taking office.

In February 2006 the first multiparty elections were held in Uganda, after the main opposition leader, Kizza Besigye, Museveni's erstwhile compatriot and doctor, who had been charged with treason, was released. A change of the Constitution made it possible for Museveni to stay in power after 20 years. Allegations of fraud marred the outcome. The Supreme Court ruled that intimidation, voter disenfranchisement and violence had compromised the elections, but voted 4-3 to uphold the results.

Mountains of the Moon or Rwenzori's. Photo Ingo Wölbern. Public Domain, Wikipedia

In February 2011 Museveni again won in elections marred with avoidable administrative and logistical failures, according to international observers. Once again it was alleged that voters had been disenfranchised. In 2016 Museveni once again won the elections, having passed legislation that would allow him to remain in power until 2031. He will be 87 by then. But rest assured, he has a good farm manager.

Robert Mugabe 1982. Hans van Dijk. CC0 Wikipedia

Robert Mugabe, first Prime Minister and later President of Zimbabwe, was elected in 1980. He used North Korean Special Forces to help him consolidate military power, crushed ethnic opposition, and consolidated his party and associates' hold over the economy. Constitutional reform gave Mugabe a stranglehold over the government and unlimited opportunities to exercise patronage. Elections were frequently characterized by "war veterans" intimidating and eliminating opposition members. In March 2008 the general elections were won by the opposition, with 47.9% of the votes going to opposition leader Morgan Tshivangirai and Mugabe securing only 43.2%. Mugabe saw this as an unacceptable humiliation and his party claimed that the opposition had rigged the elections. A run-off was scheduled, but due to violence and intimidation, Tshivangirai pulled out.

The Great Zimbabwe ruins, dating to the 2nd century. Janice Bell. CC BY_SA4.0

Characteristic of Museveni and Mugabe's rule was that erstwhile comrades and supporters became disenchanted, and a constant search for enemies within energized the presidential circles. Supreme or Constitutional Courts, in both cases, gave favorable rulings. Making sure that unfriendly voters did not vote was important in both cases.

We have not touched on the role of the military in African elections, a subject that I might touch on should readers be interested.

Coen Van Wyk

Posted on September 25, 2020 16:55

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