Should democracy vote itself out of Africa?
Africa's most anticipated election finally happened. After two years of waiting, the Congolese went to the polls to vote for President Joseph Kabila’s successor. Many thought that after delaying the elections for two years Kabila had run out of tricks but keen observers knew he was not going to go quietly.
After all, he had attempted to change the constitution to give himself a new term and only backed off after pressure. He then tried to install a pawn as in his handpicked former minister, the Congolese people wouldn’t fall for that either.
No one saw his most audacious plan coming - the deal with Felix Tshisekedi - who was announced as winner of the 30 December election. It was stunning that Mr. Tshishekedi was quick to say "I pay tribute to President Joseph Kabila and today we should no longer see him as an adversary, but rather, a partner in democratic change in our country”, prompting allegations of a power-sharing deal with Kabila’s party.
In an unprecedented move, the African Union (AU), the continental body issued a surprise last minute call for Kabila’s government to suspend the final results citing “serious doubt” about the result. However, a national unity government is still being mooted, possibly with a role for Kabila, even before the court rules on the presidential vote challenge.
Martin Fayulu, another opposition leader and the likely winner based on the influential Catholic Church report (possibly the only institution trusted by the people), alleges that, Mr. Tshisekedi came nowhere near victory. Whatever the judges rule, Kabila has already rewritten the African election theft book.
It surprises no one that an opposition in Africa has ‘lost’ an election and is crying election fraud. This time however, in an exceptional situation, it’s alleged that the state helped another rival opposition to win.
In spite of this, Zambia’s President Edgar Lungu, as the chair of Southern African Development Community’s (SADC) political arm, has since withdrawn his proposed plan to allow for a court challenge for government on national Unity. This system of government has become the African Union (AU) default solution in countries where an opposition ‘loses’ an election. Kenya and Zimbabwe have previously had the “so-called governments of national unity”. The last election in Kenya was finally settled by a handshake. Another handshake in DRC has already happened.
The AU has sent a high-level delegation to Congo to find “a solution to the post-electoral crisis”. Whether the court will emulate Kenyan’s precedent, rule in favour of the opposition, it is even very possible that AU will once again call for a government of national Unity or just stay silent.
Even the much trusted Catholic Church is so far reluctant to release its own results probably in fear sparking violence, meaning that Felix Tshisekedi is likely to be the next president of DRC.
But why do most African elections results have to always end up in courts? Is this symptomatic of a failure of liberal democracy or is it its deficiency in addressing elections in an African community setup?
Diehards of liberal democracy are of the view that “A backroom deal” that goes against the actual election results would be non-democratic,” said Sasha Lezhnev, deputy director of policy at the Enough Project, a US-based non-governmental organisation working in conflict areas. “The United States, SADC, and the European Union should respond strongly with sanctions if that occurs,” he added. However, the recent SADC statement suggests otherwise and, it is likely that DRC will have the so-called “government of national unity”. The AU is likely to support it.
To understand why “unity governments and backroom deals” are common and why DRC is not going to be any different, one has to analyse liberal democracy principles and its assumptions especially when it comes to making choices in a voting booth.
Democracy is desirable and has potential to transform politics in many African countries; however, only if it can to adapt to diverse African realities- that many people are more unlikely to vote for what is in not necessarily in their best interest as individuals-but vote more as a community, a tribe or even region. This is because; voting this way is the basis of their basic survival.
The DRC election was not different, that’s why the government prevented an estimated one million voters from voting citing the Ebola outbreak, but observers were quick to point out that the region would not have voted in line with the government.
The Liberal democracy applied in Africa is based on an assumption that people go to vote mainly due to their individual “rational choice” (what is individually considered as the best choice) and the need to protect their personal property and interests. This individualistic approach to democracy is a not suited for many community-leaning African societies. This is not to say that individual choices do not exist or are not important in Africa but, an acknowledgement of realities on the continent that many people may prioritise voting as a group.
Away from the continent, democratic elections developed alongside system such as welfare state, the government is capable of providing basic needs such as health, education and security; meaning that, people did not have to think about leaning back to family networks for basic welfare needs. People would make choices relatively unbounded when it came to voting. However, in countries like DRC, as long as one is still relying on family and community networks for basic needs and survival, the electorate are unrealistically expected to forget that they survive on and vote for candidates in mind of survival and community networks.
Imagine growing up in Eastern Congo in an almost a twenty-year period of instability and no government to rely on. You rely on family and community networks to survive. Not only for welfare, but for personal security as well. Now “democracy” presents an opportunity for anyone to use rational choice; and suddenly one is expected to ignore completely the region and tribal networks they have always survived on? It’s very unlikely.
Let’s not forget that even in Western Europe where liberal democracy started, voting is still very much aligned to class systems. It is plausible to interpret this as to say “I vote Labour in the UK because I am from a working class background” which is almost the same as saying that ‘I voted her/him because she or he is from my region, tribe etc.
That many people in African countries will vote along tribe and regional lines should be an acknowledgement of our realities (and even adopted in their electoral systems).
Looking ahead, Felix Tshisekedi will be president, Kabila may not still be in charge but will be highly influential. His party won more seats so Tshisekedi will almost be used as be a puppet. On the other hand its also going to be hard should court rule in favour of Martin Fayulu and he is elected as president with Kabila’s party in control of legislature. This being a reality, its important that Westminster liberal democracy be revised to suit African community setting.