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There must be more to democracy than elections
Dianna Games
April 23, 2007

THE holding of multiparty elections is generally held to be a defining element in moving African states from a postcolonial era of failed socialism, political looting and endemic civil war into a modern, globalised, technocratic world.

But it is clear that simply staging a poll will not, of itself, achieve the ambitions for Africa outlined by the likes of the New Partnership for Africa-s Development (Nepad).

Last week-s Nigerian elections highlighted the issue. A Nigerian acquaintance asked me how it was that, after eight years of government failure to improve basic services, the inept ruling party was voted back in 28 of 36 states. Adding insult to injury has been the rampant siphoning off of development money into personal accounts of the political class. The majority voted for the very people who had robbed them.

It seems one of the key regulating functions of democracy — calling misrule to account — is not working.

There are various obvious reasons for this, voter ignorance, vote-rigging, and intimidation of the mass sectarian vote being among them.

The April 14 election of Nigeria-s state governors and legislators was characterised by allegations of rigging and inefficiencies that led observers to question the results in at least 10 states.

In some places, gangs hijacked ballot boxes and there were significant discrepancies between results announced at polling stations and later ballot collation at local government level.

As Zimbabwe has shown, the rigging of an election, and destabilisation of the political environment, can start long before polling day, and long before foreign election observers hit town. Local authorities and chiefs are bought off well in advance, and they in turn ensure compliance through a combination of fear and reward. Accountability is notable by its absence.

A lot is spoken about an "African democracy" in academic forums. This alludes to a democracy that takes into account the continent-s particular characteristics and accommodates factors absent from successful democracies in other regions. But surely chaotic polling, stolen elections and a perversion of the golden principle of accountability are not among these unique elements?

What are the ingredients of so-called mature democracies that make them models that the likes of Nepad aspire to, yet are missing from the equation in places such as Nigeria and Zimbabwe?

Obvious factors are better organisation and tighter, more scrupulous election controls. But, as suggested earlier, democracy is more than just an election, and perhaps we put too much store by actual polling days. What about the much longer intervening period, when politicians are supposed to fulfil their promises?

Indeed, elections can be viewed as a mirror of the political environment in a country. If the overall democratic ethos is improved, it-s just possible we will get better elections.

Effective political opposition is notably lacking in many African democracies. Having strong, critical voices raised as part of the continuing political debate within a society can only sharpen government effectiveness and accountability.

Unfortunately, in many African countries, opposition politicians are not seen as patriotic, concerned citizens who have the betterment of society as their goal. Rather, they are perceived to be enemies of the state; or avaricious individuals out to deprive incumbents of the spoils of power.

In many African states, opposition parties are barely tolerated, while in others they are openly persecuted. When Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai was beaten by government forces, the president blithely said he had it coming to him.

Demonising the opposition often has as a corollary: the blurring of the line between state and ruling party. The voting masses can easily get confused about nationality and nationalism, which serves incumbent governments well. Once the ruling parties have reinstalled themselves by fair means or foul, they carry on as before, citing the mandate they received at the polls.

Of course, Africa has to start somewhere in the democratising process, and an election is the logical place. And, indeed, conditions in African states struggling to emerge from the ravages of decades of exploitation and political experiment are very different to those in the developed world — so the talk of a special type of "African democracy" is probably apposite.

But this new form of democracy surely cannot leave out accountability, tolerate corruption by leaders and sideline dissenting voices. These are integral to the rule "of the people, by the people, for the people".

*Games is director of Africa @ Work, an African consulting company.

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