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Home » Elections and Governance, electoral

Looking beyond the veneer of African elections

Submitted by on 30 Nov 2010 – 16:26

By Dr. Phil Clark, lecturer in Comparative and International Politics, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London and Convenor of Oxford Transitional Justice Research, University of Oxford

The electoral cycle spins rapidly in Africa. In 2010, twelve African countries held presidential or parliamentary elections or constitutional referenda, including Sudan, Rwanda and Kenya which receive substantial UK donor assistance. In 2011, twenty-one African nations will go to the polls, with the world focused on the potentially volatile independence referendum in Southern Sudan, presidential elections slated for Nigeria, Egypt, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and a parliamentary election in Zimbabwe. All of these countries are experiencing ongoing or recently halted conflicts, and their internal politics invariably affect the entire continent.

The vast sums of international donor assistance spent on elections in Africa and the travelling hordes of foreign vote observers show the importance that Western policy-makers attach to electoral processes. But the focus on elections and their immediate aftermath often clouds deeper political realities in Africa, especially in countries recovering from mass conflict. Elections are often the public performance distracting from more important developments off-stage.

The recent example of Rwanda – the largest per capita recipient of UK foreign aid – is salient when considering the meaning and impact of elections in African countries recovering from mass violence.

Elections tend to bring out the worst in Rwanda and the 9 August 2010 presidential vote was no different. In the lead-up to the election, opposition leaders, journalists and dissident military officers were jailed, injured or murdered. Human rights groups accused Rwandan President Paul Kagame and the ruling party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), of authoritarianism and of rigging the election.

Understanding the local context highlights that elections in Rwanda both illuminate and exacerbate ethnic and political relations. Moves toward multi-party democracy in the early 1990s allowed the rise of extremist Hutu political leaders who sought the extermination of political moderates and Tutsi civilians, culminating in the 1994 genocide. Like the 2010 presidential election, the lead-up to the 2003 presidential and parliamentary vote was also marred by violence and the quashing of political dissent. In Rwanda, elections typically mean volatile contestation over power and fears that extremist ethnic voices will again be amplified.

The 2010 election period, however, was different. This time around, Kagame and the RPF faced little serious political opposition and were assured of victory. While the Tutsi-dominated RPF is hardly loved in the countryside, many Hutu (who constitute around 85% of the population) view a vote for Kagame as a vote for continuing peace and stability – no mean achievement after years of violence. Kagame could have won this presidential election without campaigning. So what explains the crackdown on the opposition and the press which generated global condemnation?

The answers lie inside the ruling party. Contrary to depictions of a cohesive, repressive state, the RPF is a deeply divided, fragile entity. It has a tendency to pursue innovative social policies during the good times but to lash out during periods of perceived uncertainty.

Kagame’s repressive tactics in the lead-up to the August election were less about external threats to his power than about internal RPF pressures. Kagame was sending a message to the RPF ranks that he is in charge. Increasingly, the divides within the RPF have widened and more moderate voices as well as senior RPF military figures have challenged Kagame over a host of issues, including the openness of political and media space and the question of presidential succession. To maintain cohesion in a divided party, Kagame struck out against relatively unthreatening targets as a show of strength.

With the election over, international actors must now work more closely with the many reformist members of the RPF who share their concerns over the current state of Rwandan politics. RPF moderates have substantial clout within the government and have scored major political successes in the past.

What are the more general lessons for Western policy-makers from the Rwanda example? First, democratic processes are unpredictable and can have very unexpected results. Elections in Africa are never a singular solution to issues of conflict or repressive government. Instead they can often exacerbate conflicts by encouraging further political contestation.

Second, external perceptions of African governments may not mirror the internal reality. Political fluctuations on the ground require sustained attention and the advice of domestic and international country experts to interpret the changing landscape.

Finally, African governments are never monolithic and rarely cohesive – they do not speak with one voice and invariably comprise factions of moderates, conservatives, radicals, hardliners, isolationists, multilateralists and numerous other political identities. Nuanced diplomacy requires identifying powerful individuals who are dedicated to popular advancement and political reform. Denunciations of authoritarianism or repression tend to sideline more moderate voices and thus empower hardliners. Outsiders can play an important role in encouraging and emboldening domestic agents of change. Such productive collaborations are only possible, however, if foreign policymakers look beyond the set-piece of elections to the political subtleties emerging within African countries.