Africa's Sad Comfort Over US
By Tom Kamara
November 22, 2000
Africa's apologists of political anarchy and electoral fraud are reeling with thrill over the current row in the controversial US elections. "See, we are not alone. No elections are perfect," is the new absurdity circulated to compare tyrants forced into elections against their will with a system withstanding its resiliency.
No doubt, the exposed weakness in US elections, seen around the world as a mirror of fairness, now calls for reflection, an expected development since not even the Bible is beyond scrutiny. So the controversy places serious dents in global demands for fair elections as the basis of democratization, particularly in hellish African anarchies ruled by tyrants. Sure, America's self-appointed "holy" elections crusaders such as former President US Jimmy Carter, who have certified a number of fraudulent elections in Africa as "free and fair" even if mass killers and looters were the winners as in the case of Liberia's Charles Taylor, must now think twice before seeing themselves as unchallenged high priests of fairness of elections in a corrupt world.
For instance, in Liberia, a country with no electricity, water and a few passable roads only within city confines, it took less than a week for all the results declaring warlord Taylor winner with 86% of the votes to be counted and certified. The results showed declared enemies voting for enemies. Krahns or Mandingoes (the two tribes Taylor's rebels killed in large numbers and sought to totally eliminate) were declared voting for Taylor en masse. Since then, he has executed and arrested many political leaders from the two ethnic groups. But the declared Krahn-Mandingo results for Taylor are comparable to declared Florida results showing Pat Buchanan winner in predominantly Black and Hispanic communities in Florida, something the rightwing Buchanan himself has honorably rejected. Now, the moral authority of people who legitimize such farce in chaotic backwoods is seriously undermined.
Nevertheless, comparing the America experience with Africa's ingrained chaos built in so-called elections is to compare day with night, or Satan with Jesus Christ. There is no basis for comparison or for joy. Africa is simply another world apart when it comes to elections, democratic principles or simply following adopted rules.
Whatever the bruises of credibility sustained in American elections, they provide transparency unknown and unimagined in many Africa countries. The integrity of American elections is made bare by the fact that the faults were discovered and exposed without supporters invading CNN or NBC to take over. All sides in the contest have expressed the desire to let the Constitution reign supreme. No strongman has issued orders to kill or to arrest opponents. In the absence of official results, a contender, Vice President Al Gore, conceded defeat and congratulated the presumed winner George W. Bush. Only after clear errors emerged did Gore insist on fair play. Although Bush tried to declare himself President, he knew he was bluffing without institutional and legal endorsement.
It is difficult imagining an African politician conceding defeat without blood, destruction, or controversy. Angola, Burundi, Congo Brazzaville, Sierra Leone, Liberia, etc, are agonizing after elections. Unlike Africa's recent electoral example in the Ivory Coast where over 200 people were shot dead, not a single American has been wounded, let alone killed. Public property and public safety are well protected and not threatened. No curfew has been declared and no one has been imprisoned. And when it is all over, the loser will congratulate the winner. Losers will not have to escape from the country fearing their heads will be cutoff.
Then we must look at the character and substance of many African elections in comparison with the American experience. Americans are known for unhindered scrutiny of public office holders. The mirror of public opinion is a prime determinant in the contest for public officials, sometimes brutally so. Their private and public lives are scrutinized beyond belief. Which African president, commanding brutish "security" forces to intimidate and silence enemies, would have tolerated the humiliation meted on Bill Clinton? No America candidate has a monopoly of public means of information. No candidate possesses the power to intimidate voters or competitors into fear. There was not a single reported act of violence.
But African elections are the direct opposite. Most candidates must first loot or command public resources, as Liberia's Taylor, Burkina Faso's Blaise Compaore, Ivory Coast's Gen. Robert Guei, Ghana's Jerry Rawlings, Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo, Togo's Eyedema, and many others have shown. African societies have no qualms with such methods. Men who spearhead such mayhem are hailed as heroes, followed by many admirers. Yet, by some strange logic, such individuals are expected to uphold the rule of law, build democratic institutions, and practice financial probity. Rarely do you have an honest individual from private life, untainted by theft of public resources and backed by honest financiers, vying for an African presidency and winning. Senegal's Wade is an exception. But he was jailed, humiliated several times before setting this rare example. So is the Ivory Coast's Laurent Gbagbo.
Most winners in African elections are former coup makers, or now warlords. Once in office through plunders, the president is assured of life presidency, thus accountability to voters in expectation of the next election is not a necessity. In many cases, the "Constitution" is altered to meet the demands of the incumbent. Unlike in America where institutions such as the courts, the Army, Police are beyond the manipulative reach of the incumbent, once President in Africa, you are God. Checks and balances in the political system exist only in theory. An impeachment possibility of an African President does not exist regardless of evidence. The only person capable of impeaching an African president is Honorable Gun.
Another factor is the character of African elections. Institutions needed for fair elections are commanded by cronies of the main challengers, or by individuals with questionable character. In the Ivory Coast, main candidates were banned from contesting under dubious court rulings. Alasane Quatattara, a powerful contender, was declared a foreigner. As a result, as many as half of the voters believed to be his followers did not vote. In Zambia, the father of the country's Independence Dr. Kenneth Kaunda, who lost a previous election, was declared a foreigner by the winner Frederick Chiluba. Although the Zambian Supreme Court recently ruled that Dr. Kaunda is indeed a Zambian, he had already lost the right to contest years before.
African elections are hardly characterized by objective exchange of views, review of candidates' backgrounds, their capabilities to fulfill campaign promises. Independent media outlets are non-existent, and where they are, they are silenced. The Nigerian General then commanding peacekeeping forces in Liberia, Victor Malu, now Chief of Staff of the Nigerian Army, publicly warned candidates during Liberia's 1997 elections against dwelling on the records of the warlords. In his eyes, the election was no more than a beauty contest with Sani Abacha determining the beauty queen. In Ghana, even before the December polls, a private radio station, on state charges that it was inciting violence, has been shutdown. During the Liberian so-called election, warlord Charles Taylor was the only one with the means of reaching voters with public radio stations he looted during the war. Attempts by donors to bridge the gap through an independent radio station failed. The station, after the elections, was shutdown, with the president claiming that it was brought into the country to operate against him.
So let us not congratulate ourselves because elections in America have gone wrong. The outcome will amplify the vast difference between Africa and America. As Africans, we should be ashamed of ourselves in pointing to the American experience as an excuse for our savagery in the name of politics. There is nothing to be proud of. When all is done in America, both losers and winners will live in the same country, uphold the laws. No one will seek political asylum in Cuba, Libya or Moscow. This is the strength of American democracy, whatever its many shortcomings.