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Can democracy work in Africa?

By Christina Okello

Allegations of vote-rigging have mired elections in both Zimbabwe and Cameroon, and risk overshadowing upcoming polls in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Vote fraud appears to have become a trend across the African continent, begging the question of whether democracy is really working for Africa.

"Although elections are not working particularly well, I don't think the alternative of shutting down elections leaves us in a better position," says Nic Cheeseman, co-author of the book How to rig an Election.

From Cameroon and Zimbabwe to the Democratic Republic of Congo, opposition leaders are crying foul, saying their country's election was rigged, or is about to be.

"What frustrates me is that there are countries where we regularly send election monitors, where we see election monitors saying there are numerous problems with this election and these recommendations are never put in place," Cheeseman told RFI, commenting on his experience covering the Zimbabwe presidential election in July.

"Democracy is not working at all in Africa," reckons François Ndengwe, president of the African Advisory Board.

"It's not working at all because of external forces that are enforcing a world order."

West ignores African traditions

The end of the Cold War in the early 1990s brought with it a new wave of political and economic liberalisation that swept away long-standing autocratic leaders.

Yet, in its desire to promote democracy, the West neglected to build upon Africa's own democratic traditions.

"Africa has not been given the possibility to fully choose their leaders," continues Ndengwe. "The fault is not only on Africa, even those who trumpet from outside that they're supporting democracy, they are the same people who will support leaders who are not obeying their people, because these leaders are more easily manipulated to serve their interests."

Another criticism of the West is that it has used foreign aid as a tool to promote its own agenda.

However, this form of intervention has reached its limits.

"The US, the UK, France, Germany, are not as powerful as they used to be," says Cheeseman.

"The rise of China, the production of alternative models, the fact that African governments have a choice now of where they can get their economic support has weakened the position of those countries."

Confronting Mike Tyson

External forces may be part of the problem but why do Africans not stand up and express their frustration with bad democracy?

"Africans are trying and Africans are standing up," insists Ndengwe.

"You cannot go and fight someone who is armed. If you are just starting to box, you are not going to confront Mike Tyson. Are you going to go to war? And this is a trap to the opposition in Africa who wants to reach power through the ballots."

Virtually all of Africa's civil wars were started by politically marginalised or excluded groups, as the crisis in south-western Cameroon illustrates.

There Anglophone separatists lcalling for an independent Ambazonia have clashed with government forces.

And in Zimbabwethe opposition is contesting the results of the July poll, in the same manner as Maurice Kamto in Cameroon.

Another challenge facing opposition leaders, even before the voters get to the polling booths, is the use of money.

Money politics

On Sunday a candidate in Nigeria's upcoming primaries announced that he rejected an offer of a private jet and bribes worth nearly two million euros.

How can the influence of money on elections be reduced?

"It's very difficult," explains Cheeseman, particularly when "two of the oldest democracies in the world [the UK, and US] can't really deal with money in politics. It's not surprising that somewhere like Nigeria, which only introduced multi-party politics in 1999, also struggles.

"At the minute, it's cheap for candidates to bribe voters. They are not always successful because a lot of people vote with their conscience."

In Zambia in 2011 and in Nigeria in 2015, outgoing presidents lost "despite spending more than the opposition", Cheeseman says.

The distribution of cash to voters during elections is extremely widespread in many African countries, raising concerns about the quality of emerging democratic institutions.

"A lot of people would say it's not that I want to have my vote bought, but these are a set of politicians that only engage with me when there are elections and this is the only time I have to make the government work for me rather than the other way round," explains Cheeseman.

Colonialism to blame?

"I think colonial rule has a big role to play here," he says, referring to the emergence of big men established by colonial powers to act as intermediaries.

"But it's now been 70-80 years since the end of the colonial period, where there could have been democratisation: Kenya in 2007 when the government could have allowed the opposition to win and in Zimbabwe where the MDC [Movement for Democratic Change] looked like they were going to win."

Each time they were prevented by autocratic leaders who refused to share power, reckons Cheeseman.

François Ndengwe disagrees.

"Colonialism is to blame, because it's not stopped," he argues. "If colonialism had stopped, Africa would be in a position to decide who will be their rulers. This is not the case."

Africans like Nana Kobina Nketsia of Ghana have sought to encourage their peers to adopt their own system of governance, notably through the book African culture in governance and development: the Ghana paradigm.

For Ndengwe "The solution must come from within Africa, not outside."

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