Togolese voters queuing at polling booth in Lomé during the presidential elections of 4 March 2010.

African elections, a naive European ideal?

Blinded by their desire to establish democracy, Europeans are inadvertently promoting the spread of a pork-barrel politics that is detrimental to the well-being of African populations, complains Alphonse Muambi. The Democratic Republic of Congo born writer and journalist insists that Africa's tribes should take charge of the political destiny of the continent.

Published on 29 April 2010 at 13:00
Togolese voters queuing at polling booth in Lomé during the presidential elections of 4 March 2010.

On 3 March, when I turned out to do my duty as a citizen in local elections in the Hague, I saw no long queues of voters of the kind you see in Africa. Over there, people get up at dawn and embark on long journeys that end with a long hungry wait outside the polling stations, which are the emblem of much-longed for democracy. The Dutch are enthusiastic proponents of the gospel of democracy, which they believe can deliver Africans from poverty. At the same time, hardly anyone in the Netherlands has bothered to ask the question: is the Western democratic model really appropriate for Africa?

It is already clear that 2010 will be a major year for democracy in Africa. The landmark presidential and general elections held in Sudan earlier this month will soon be followed by a 28 June vote to elect a new president in Burundi, which has just emerged from 15 years of civil war. For most people this is optimistic news, but not for me. The Dutch Ministry of Development Aid lists Sudan, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo as "fragile states:" a category reserved for countries with serious political and social issues, where governments that lack legitimacy are unable to provide their populations with sufficient security or a guarantee of fundamental human rights. These are states with undeveloped economies where education, sanitation and healthcare are largely unavailable: in short, fertile ground for virtually any type of regime, but not for democracy.

Elections create yet more tensions

On 4 February, at the Netherlands' Clingendael Institute of International Relations, Burundi's Minister of Defence, Germain Niyoyankana, gave an honest but gloomy account of the situation in his country, where funding for the army and the police is so inadequate, there is not even enough money to buy uniforms. "The Burundi population lives in a poverty so abject, there are no words to describe it," he simply said. But in spite of this terribly sad situation, and even though we know that they can result in renewed tensions, elections are to be held this year. Europe was more than eager to contribute to the 43 million euros that Burundi will need for this purpose, because the European view is that Africa should be democratised, no matter what the cost.

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Paul Collier, a Professor of Economics at Oxford who specialises in African economies, has argued in favour of prolonged military intervention which would not only establish democracy, but also maintain and safeguard it. In defence of this view, he insists that following free and fair elections, such a measure would protect the government from a coup d'état. Elsewhere in his work he acknowledges, as I do, that democracy is unworkable in the absence of a stable economy, but he nonetheless naively believes that free and fair elections are possible. But can we really speak of "fair" elections if they are characterised by campaign strategies that aim to win over voters by distributing rice, pens and school copybooks? Or the preponderant influence of multinationals who weigh in heavily behind some candidates? And can we speak of "fair" elections when a majority of the population is illiterate? We should bear in mind that certain regimes have deliberately avoided investing in education, because they believe that their power would be undermined by a more literate electorate.

Democracy thrives while the population does not

The belief that Africa can be saved by democracy is simply naive. In 2006, I worked as an election observer in the Congo, and since then, I have returned to the country ever year to see what has been achieved. I talk to journalists and the elite, and more importantly, I also speak to soldiers and teachers and ordinary people in the streets. Democracy is thriving, but the population is not. The president, the parliament and the senate fulfill their assigned role, and comply with the "international criteria" for democratic institutions. But the population, whose living conditions should by now have been improved, have continued to live in poverty.

On a visit to schools in the town of Kananga, which is 1,000 kilometres from the capital Kinshasa, I encountered a head teacher who was amazed when I offered to provide him with school supplies. He showed me a box of 100 pieces of chalk. "A hundred pieces of chalk for 1,000 students. That is all I have got to last until the end of the school year." The school managers only see representatives of the authorities at election time, which is why the head teacher asked me if was planning to stand as a candidate in 2011. Is this the type of democracy we want to see in Africa?

Elections create a dependence on Europe

Until African countries are able to finance them themselves, I believe elections should be discontinued. Not only are they costly to implement, but they also create a dependence on Europe. What would happen if Europe decided to cut off election funding? African leaders are answerable to their sponsors, but not to their own populations. This is not democracy. It is a loyalty programme, which is in direct contradiction to any reasonable interpretation of democratic ideals. I want to call on the evangelical proponents of the doctrine of democracy to join with me in a bid to design a new democratic model — a model that shifts the focus from elections to the dynamic of African tribal culture. A model in which leadership is passed from region to region or province to province, like an Olympic flame.

The result would be a predictable handover of power: a bit like the rotating presidency in the EU. Regional leaders would be temporarily appointed to the role of national president for a limited period, and they would no longer need to worry about how to hold onto control of the country, or campaigns to win the next election. The opposition would occupy a purely functional role, mainly focused on the preparation of its next period in office. Among other things, such a system would result in better economic landscape for investors. It would also enable Europe to harness its obsession with democracy to create a healthy impulse to boost growth in Africa.

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