Africa is often imagined to be a place in which presidents can do whatever they want, unencumbered by constitutional or democratic constraints. A large body of literature has developed around the idea that the law can be flouted at will, leading to a situation in which what really matters is the personality of the president, not the rules of the game.
The implications of this way of understanding the continent are profound not just for how we think about Africa, but also for how we study it. If democratic institutions don’t constrain leaders, there is no point in researching them. Instead we should spend all of our time looking at informal processes such as ethnicity and patrimonialism.
But, although this image is often repeated within policy circles and the media, it is wrong. A new book I edited, Democracy and Institutions in Africa, argues that approaching the continent in this way creates a deeply misleading picture of politics that underestimates the potential for democratisation.
In other words, if we want to understand democracy in Africa, we need to take the official rules of the game more seriously.
The book covers a wide range of institutions, including political parties, legislatures, constitutions and judiciaries. As a taster, here are three important ways in which democratic rules constrain African leaders more than you might think.
Holding elections promotes democracy
It’s often said that Africa features elections without change. But repeatedly holding elections not only creates opportunities for the opposition to compete for power. It also promotes democratic consolidation.
Looking at all elections held in Africa since the early 1990s, Carolien van Ham and Staffan Lindberg find that as long as a minimum threshold of quality is met, holding elections increases the quality of civil liberties. This in turn creates greater opportunities for opposition parties to mobilise.
That’s because elections have a number of democratising effects. These include training voters in democratic arts, encouraging coordination between opposition parties and increasing the pressure on ruling parties to reform the political process. This last happens for example by allowing for a more independent electoral commission.
Repeatedly holding elections fosters new democratic openings that tend to make it more difficult for leaders to hold on to power in the long-run.
Legislatures are tougher to manage than before
The common depiction of African legislatures is that they are weak and feeble. They’re portrayed as “rubber stamp” institutions that can do little to hold governments to account. But this is not an accurate depiction of what happens in a number of countries where conflict between parliaments and presidents is becoming a more common.
As Michaela Collord highlights, in recent years the Ugandan legislature has threatened a government shutdown over an unsatisfactory health budget. Tanzania’s parliament has also forced seven Cabinet reshuffles. South African MPs from the radical Economic Freedom Fighters party captivated TV audiences nationwide by repeatedly calling President Jacob Zuma a thief because he was accused of corruption.
Significantly, parliaments are also beginning to play a role in some of the most important decisions. In both Nigeria and Zambia, it was the legislature that ultimately rejected efforts by sitting presidents to extend their time in office beyond constitutionally mandated limits.
Term-limits are starting to bite
On the theme of term limits, pretty much the only time you will read about this particular institution in the media is when an African leader has changed the constitution to remove them. In the last 20 years this has happened in a number of countries including Burundi, Chad, Uganda and Rwanda.
By contrast, when a president respects term limits and stands down, it goes largely unnoticed. This has created the misleading impression that African leaders can break the rules at will. The reality is that in most cases they can’t.
Reviewing every country in Africa from 1990 to the present, Daniel Young and Daniel Posner find that term limits are twice as likely to be respected as broken. This is especially true for states that lack natural resources.
Significantly, they also demonstrate that when one president respects term limits it creates a powerful precedent that subsequent rulers feel bound to follow. To date, there is not a single country in which a president has tried to outstay their welcome after their predecessor willingly stood down.
The shape of things to come
These examples are part of a broader trend. In 2015, a sitting civilian Nigerian president lost power to another civilian ruler for the first time. In 2016, the same thing happened in Ghana. In 2017, it was Gambia’s turn. Since then, Liberia and Sierra Leone have also seen opposition victories.
From a few isolated examples in the early 1990s, almost half of the continent has now witnessed a transfer of power.
Moreover, it is not only when it comes to elections that things are changing. In 2017 Kenyan became the first country in Africa – and only the third in the world – in which the election of a sitting president was nullified by the judiciary.
In South Africa, President Jacob Zuma never lost a national election and the African National Congress continues to dominate parliament. But he was nonetheless forced to resign and leave power early by a combination of public hostility and the emergence of Cyril Ramaphosa as the party’s new leader.
Of course, this does not mean that all presidents have to follow the rules, or that all of these institutions are starting to perform well. The continent features a remarkable variety of political systems and some of its states are on very different political trajectories. In more authoritarian contexts such as Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Rwanda and Zimbabwe, the quality of elections remains extremely poor; even when leaders suffer a setback they may be able to bounce back.
But while the process of institutionalisation may be patchy and uneven, one thing is clear: Africa is not without institutions, and we will deeply misunderstand its politics unless we pay careful attention to the rules of the game.
The last twelve months have been a confusing time for African democracy. We have seen coups that didn’t look like coups and elections that didn’t look like elections. In this sense, it was a year of illusions.
As in 2016, the broad trend is clear: with a number of notable exceptions, the gains made in the early 1990s are under threat from governments with little commitment to plural politics. It’s true that 2017 provided further evidence of the danger of democratic backsliding. But it also saw powerful presidents suffer embarrassing setbacks in a number of countries.
So what lessons does 2017 have to teach us, and what is going to grab the headlines next year?
1. Don’t mess with the military
In November 2017 the Zimbabwean Defence Forces placed President Robert Mugabe under house arrest and subsequently orchestrated his removal. The intervention was cleverly framed as a corrective action to remove “criminal” elements around the president. In reality, it represented an effort by the military to protect its own political and economic interests.
Once General Chiwenga had spoken out against the sacking of Emmerson Mnangagwa – the political leader closest to the security forces – he faced being replaced, arrested and charged with treason. In other words, Chiwenga had little to lose and everything to gain from military intervention. The ousting of Mugabe therefore serves as an important reminder that despite thirty years of multiparty elections in Africa, messing with the military can still be fatal.
2. If you’re polite, you can get away with murder
The military intervention in Zimbabwe was also remarkable for being the politest coup in history. To avoid domestic and international criticism, the coup plotters went to remarkable lengths to make their usurpation of power look constitutional. Instead of being executed or sent into exile, Mugabe was allowed to remain in his house and posed for pictures with his captors.
Amazingly, the theatre worked. Delighted to see the back of Mugabe, even some committed democrats were prepared to hold their nose and welcome the “transition”.
The willingness of many people to play along with the idea of a bloodless coup is deeply problematic, first because it may encourage security forces in other countries to try and repeat the trick, and second because it is false.
There are growing reports that a number of deaths and human rights abuses occurred as the military moved to exert political control. When the testimonies of the victims are finally heard, it will cast a very different light on the coup and its aftermath.
3. Judges can’t promote democracy on their own
The Kenyan Supreme Court made history when it became the first judicial body on the continent to nullify the election of a sitting president – Uhuru Kenyatta – on 1 September. This remarkable assertion of judicial independence was celebrated throughout Africa and beyond, as democrats dared to dream of a new phase of judicial activism.
But any hope that the need to repeat the election would lead to widespread reforms and a better quality process turned out to be overly optimistic. Instead, the second poll was just as controversial as the first as evidence emerged of continued political interference in the electoral commission and the main opposition candidate, Raila Odinga, boycotted the contest.
The Kenyan experience is significant because it demonstrates that while independent judiciaries can have a major impact on democracy, their effectiveness is constrained by weaknesses elsewhere in the political system. Because Supreme Courts lack both legislative and enforcement powers, they are dependent on others for their decisions to be implemented, and so have a limited capacity to enforce the rule of law.
4. Political exclusion breeds secessionism
One of the main stories of the last 12 months is an upsurge of secessionist sentiment in Cameroon, Kenya and Nigeria. Significantly, while the demand for the creation of a separate state has complex roots, in each case it was triggered by perceptions of political and legal exclusion – and the fact that certain ethnic and linguistic communities have not held the presidency for decades, if at all.
Although these movements have very different dynamics, they have all led to protests and met with a hostile state response.
Perhaps somewhat paradoxically, they are also movements full of people who don’t really want to secede: in each case, opposition leaders are using the threat of separation as a way to highlight – and contest – their political exclusion. Nonetheless, unless some of their demands are met, secessionist sentiment is likely to harden, undermining national identities and paving the way for future political crises.
5. Western companies are part of the problem
The last year has revealed the extent to which Western companies have become involved in helping political leaders in Africa run divisive public relations campaigns to boost their electoral prospects.
The most high profile example of this was Bell Pottinger, a British “reputational management agency” that was accused of designing a campaign to stir up racial tensions in South Africa as a way of deflecting attention away from the poor performance of the African National Congress government.
The company was paid £100,000 a month, although this proved to be little compensation when the scandal broke and it was forced into administration.
While Bell Pottinger has gone, many of the multinational companies who do this kind of work continue to operate – although exactly what they do remains unclear. Given the lucrative nature of these contacts, we can assume that Western companies will continue to play a questionable role in African elections in the future, unless their activities are exposed.
2018 and beyond
The next 12 months are not likely to be kind to African democracy. Very rarely has the continent seen so many elections scheduled in such unpromising contexts. Early elections in Sierra Leone have the best prospects of going well, but after that a series of general elections will be held in particularly challenging contests: Cameroon, Mali, South Sudan and Zimbabwe.
The great challenge facing Mali and South Sudan is to organise a credible contest against a backdrop of political instability and weak institutions.
The situation is markedly different in Cameroon and Zimbabwe, where entrenched regimes that tightly control the political landscape will hold elections that they have no intention of losing.
But it’s important not to be defeatist. In the last few years the most significant democratic breakthroughs – in Gambia, Nigeria, Kenya and beyond – have been unanticipated. The next great democratic moment could be just around the corner.
Election manipulation is a hot story. In the last few days, Cambridge Analytica, which claims to use data to change behaviour including that of voters, has been accused of breaching Facebook rules in its efforts to collect personal data and use them to bring Donald Trump to power.
Cambridge Analytica is accused of interfering in elections on a very broad canvas. In Nigeria, it’s said to have used underhand tactics to try and secure the re-election of then President Goodluck Jonathan in 2015.
Allegations in Kenya have focused on claims that Cambridge Analytica helped president Uhuru Kenyatta to retain power in 2017 by designing divisive campaigns that demonised opposition candidate Raila Odinga, bringing the country closer to civil conflict.
But caution is required, at least when it comes to the stories about interference in Nigeria and Kenya. The company’s impact has in fact been massively exaggerated as a result of claims made by Cambridge Analytica itself.
Speaking about the campaign of Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party, managing director Mark Turnbull has been caught on camera claiming to have “staged the whole thing”. Unsurprisingly, given the willingness of employees of the firm to talk about the use of underhand strategies such as honey traps and fake news, opposition leaders are up in arms. National Super Alliance official Norman Magaya has called for a full investigation into Cambridge Analytica’s role, accusing it, and the ruling party, of trying to
subvert the people’s will.
But while such investigations need to be conducted and questions raised by the opposition need to be answered, we should also ask a prior question: can Cambridge Analytica deliver on its claims?
The evidence from Africa is no.
This is not to say that Cambridge Analytica doesn’t present a threat to democracy, or that it should not be ashamed of itself or face investigation. But it is to say that its impact in Africa has been over-hyped because it serves a variety of interests to do so.
Failures in Nigeria and Kenya
In Nigeria, the company was brought in to save President Jonathan by wealthy supporters desperate for him to stay in power. It failed. In the 2015 elections, Jonathan became the first ever Nigerian leader to lose at the ballot box. In fact he didn’t only lose. He was soundly beaten by an opposition party competing with one hand tied behind its back in a political system that conferred massive advantages of incumbency.
There are also reasons to think that the company’s impact has been overstated in Kenya. It is true that Kenyatta was eventually declared the winner of the election – though the first contest was nullified by the Supreme Court for procedural irregularities and the opposition did not take part in the re-run – but there is little evidence that Cambridge Analytica’s much vaunted ability to manipulate “big data” was the reason for this.
Take the question of targeted social media campaigns. It is true that material was circulated attacking Odinga as a dangerous and irresponsible leader. Cambridge Analytica may have advised the government to adopt this strategy – although we know that some of the worst videos were actually made by another company Harris Media.
But even if they did, there are two reasons to doubt that it was a new or particularly effective tactic.
First, these messages do not appear to have been targeted. Ahead of the elections, and as part of a comparative research project on elections in Africa, we set up multiple profiles on Facebook to track social media and political adverts, and found no evidence that different messages were directed at different voters. Instead, a consistent negative line was pushed on all profiles, no matter what their background.
Second, the vast majority of Kenyans are not on Facebook, and so there is no reason to think that messages circulated in this way would swing the wider electorate. Instead, surveys show that radio remains the major source of information, and that Kenyans are highly sceptical of the reliability of social media.
In other words, the campaign led by Cambridge Analytica does not seem to have been that different to the ones that preceded it. For all the claims of a hi-tech innovative strategy, their real role appears to have been to advocate negative campaigning. But there is nothing new about this.
Back in 2007, when Raila Odinga’s opposition appeared to be on the brink of winning power, his rivals claimed that his victory would lead to the country’s collapse and circulated flyers with his head superimposed on Idi Amin’s body to drive the point home. This was well before Cambridge Analytica was even formed, and stands as proof that Kenyan leaders don’t need foreign consultants to tell them the value of ethnic scaremongering.
It is also important to keep in mind that you cannot simply use messaging to win votes in a system in which the ethnicity, patronage and credibility of candidates are major drivers of voter behaviour. To mobilise voters to the polls, leaders reinforce their support base by attending funerals and giving generously to the bereaved; attending church and contributing to building funds; turning up at parent-teacher meetings and paying school fees for poor children.
To show generosity at these events is to demonstrate that the candidate acknowledges the morality of voters’ claims and will not forget them once elected. If you don’t do this you will not win, no matter what your PR team is doing.
The tendency to exaggerate Cambridge Analytica’s powers is no accident. Exaggerated claims are part and parcel of the company’s marketing strategy. For journalists, the more powerful the company, the bigger the story. For opposition parties, the more effective Cambridge Analytica is seen to be, the more it can be blamed for an electoral defeat.
There is also something more profound at work: the suspicion that Africa is the victim of European or American schemes is a powerful one. Many, in Africa and elsewhere, will see this as further evidence of that eternal truth. And we are all increasingly suspicious of the power of big data, uneasily aware that we may not have fully grasped the small print of our deal with the tech companies.
We may have good reason for that suspicion – but we should beware of flattering those firms by exaggerating their power and reach.
The threat of controversy and unrest looms over Kenya’s elections, which will be held on 8 August. Incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta is ahead by a whisker in the most recent opinion poll. His main challenger, Raila Odinga, has repeatedly alleged that Kenyatta plans to rig the elections.
Kenya has an unhappy history of violence, and of alleged election rigging, and the recent gruesome murder of a key official at the electoral commission has heightened anxiety. Some fear that – whatever the electoral laws say – no holds are barred in Kenyan politics.
That history of electoral problems is interwoven with a dynastic political drama that goes back more than 50 years. Jomo Kenyatta and Oginga Odinga were political allies turned enemies in the 1960s; now their sons continue the rivalry.
Kenya’s most powerful politicians are a small group, many of whom know one another socially, and many of whom have served in government together over the years. Raila Odinga’s running mate was in office for years under the old ruling party. So too was Musalia Mudavadi, one of Odinga’s close allies in the opposition coalition, whose father was also a senior politician.
Kenya’s politics can sometimes look like long-running squabbles amongst a gang of cronies, and newspaper cartoonists like to portray the Kenyan voter – routinely personified as an oppressed but doughty woman, Wanjiku – as the victim of these scheming rivals.
All the more so because these dynasties are linked to ethnic rivalry. The muted background narrative of Kenyan politics is that access to the presidency has made some communities rich while others stay poor, and politicians stand accused of fostering that narrative, stirring up tribalism to win office and pitching ordinary Kenyans into violent confrontations.
Politicians are blamed, too, for the widespread use of gifts, and cash handouts, in elections – buying votes for a few shillings and a bottle of fizzy drink, and then going on to abuse their elected office to enrich themselves through corruption.
Kenya’s elections then, appear as the ruthless game of leaders who pursue power at the expense of their people, not on their behalf. But talk to any candidate at a level below the presidency – for Kenya’s elections involve six separate ballots, for multiple positions in national and county government – and a slightly different picture appears.
The moral economy of elections
Candidates constantly complain of the demands of voters.
Need to meet women voters in a particular village? It can be arranged, but often requires ‘facilitation’ to be provided – money to organise soft drinks, and hire chairs. And once you have spoken, you cannot leave your audience empty-handed. Each person must get at least a token gift, even if it is only fifty shillings (about half a dollar).
Need to reach a wider group of influential people? Easy – speak at the funeral of some well-known local elder. But if you are to do that, you must make a donation to the grieving family. Or perhaps you are anxious about the youth vote? Here is a youth group, willing and ready to hear your message. But they might also expect that you will help them set up as motorcycle taxi riders.
And then there are the personal requests: the voter who cannot afford school fees for their children; the constituent who needs help with mounting hospital bills.
A commentator even recently suggested that the demand for “something small” was so high that the 2017 elections had made the 50-shilling note an “endangered species”. Faced with these multiple demands, candidates find little support from the party whose colours they wear. They spend their savings, or sell their assets. They borrow from family and friends. Some lose everything, impoverishing themselves and their families – and still lose the election.
Those who do win election take up office with multiple debts. The temptation to use office corruptly to repay those debts, and build up funds for the next campaign, is a strong one.
Yet many voters don’t consider their demands wrong; after all, they say, those elected often enrich themselves and ignore their constituents. Voters’ demands are a moral test.
The overall message of elections in Kenya is a simple one: government exists to bring development, and those elected are delegates, sent by their constituents to secure at least a fair portion of development - which may take any material form from youth training centres to tarred roads to a cabinet seat for a local. Voters need to be sure both that their representatives can deliver, and will respond to local demands. As a result, the campaign becomes a prolonged test of politicians’ virtue – will they meet constituents’ expectations?
Ethnicity plays into this. Bureaucratic accountability does not always work in Kenya: people don’t necessarily follow the rules. So having someone on the inside – a cousin, an in-law, a friend of a friend – is always useful. So too with politics: voters want representatives on whom they feel have some moral claim. That need not be ethnic – but it may often coincide with ethnicity.
And, of course, voters want to feel that their representative, in turn, has similar claims on people further up in the hierarchy of power. Ordinary people do not need to be ‘tribalists’ to vote on ethnic lines; they just need to doubt the impartiality of the system.
Once they do, they will begin to think that development may be denied them unless ‘their man’ wins office. Which is not to say that Kenya’s politicians are not culpable, for their behaviour has encouraged ethnic politics, and lavish electoral spending. Nor is it to excuse the high-stakes games around the presidential election that currently threaten to generate political unrest.
But this moral economy of elections does help to explain why Kenyan voters turn out in large numbers to cast their ballots. Kenya’s electoral politics are not just an elite game of thrones; they are driven by the demands and concerns of ordinary people, trying to navigate their way to the uncertain promised land of development.
Kenya’s general election will be contested by a large number of hopefuls, but in reality it’s a two-horse race between Raila Odinga of the National Super Alliance and Uhuru Kenyatta of the Jubilee Party.
Unsurprisingly in a country in which the executive continues to wield a dominant influence, coverage of the campaign has focused on the personalities and records of Odinga and Kenyatta.
What does their candidacy tell us about Kenyan politics in 2017?
The first and most obvious lesson from the 2017 election campaign is that dynastic politics is alive and well in Kenya. Despite all of the contestation, efforts and plotting of rival leaders hoping to push their own ambitions, 2017 will be fought between a Kenyatta and an Odinga, just like the elections of 2013 and the Little General Election of 1966.
The second is that ethnicity only gets you so far. In 2013, Odinga outperformed rival presidential candidate Musalia Mudavadi within his own Luhya community. This was possible because while Odinga was seen to be a credible opposition leader, Mudavadi’s dalliance with Kenyatta – with whom he formed an extremely short-lived alliance – raised concerns that he was a State House puppet. Kenyatta’s recent rehabilitation as the dominant leader among the Kikuyu community following his electoral humiliation in 2002 also demonstrates this point well.
So who are the two leading contenders?
Odinga, the opposition stalwart
Raila Odinga is the son of Oginga Odinga, a prominent independence leader and Kenya’s first vice president who never realised his dream of occupying State House. Like his father, Raila has campaigned tirelessly against considerable odds, and has so far been unsuccessful. He narrowly lost elections in 2007 – when many believe he was rigged out – and in 2013.
Odinga’s great ability is to be able to mobilise well beyond his own Luo community, and to sustain his political party – the Orange Democratic Movement for a decade. Given that most Kenyan parties collapse within a few years, this is some achievement.
The breadth of Odinga’s support base is also impressive. In 2013 he performed well among Luhya voters in Western Kenya, Kamba voters in Eastern Kenya and also at the Coast.
Odinga’s capacity to mobilise support across ethnic lines has two sources. On the one hand, he receives some votes “second hand” as a result of the efforts of his allies from other regions and ethnic groups to direct rally their communities to his cause.
On the other hand, he’s built a strong reputation for representing historically economically and politically marginalised communities. Indeed, while he has never secured the presidency, he has contributed to political reform. Most notably, Odinga played an important role in bringing about constitutional reform in 2010 that introduced devolution and hence a degree of self-government for the groups in his coalition.
Kenyatta, born to power
In contrast to Odinga, Uhuru was born into power as the son of the country’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, and secured the presidency in the 2013 general election having previously failed to do so in 2002.
Kenyatta’s supporters like to say that he was born in State House, and hence born to power, although this is not actually true. But it is true that he has spent his life close to the machinery of government, and his family’s political influence and wealth give him a clear advantage in the elections. His gift is to be able to look and sound presidential when he has an important speech to make, despite his playboy lifestyle.
Although it’s tempting to see Kenyatta’s rise to power as inevitable, this is not the case. In 2002, he failed to mobilise support among his own community because he had been selected by the outgoing Kalenjin President Daniel arap Moi to be his successor. He was then widely seen to be a proxy for Moi’s interests. At that point, his political career appeared to be over.
It was not until Kenyatta developed a reputation for defending Kikuyu interests by allegedly funding and organising militias in the violence that engulfed the 2007 elections that he emerged as the dominant figure within the Central Province. It is for this alleged role that he faced charges (that were subsequently dropped) of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court. This, and his electoral alliance with his co-accused – the influential Kalenjin leader William Ruto – were critical factors in his victory in 2013.
The 2017 race
During the campaign Kenyatta and Odinga have been a study in contrasts.
While Odinga stresses his intention to shake things up, Kenyatta presents himself as a safe pair of hands who will protect the status quo.
While Odinga plays up his image as the representative of the excluded, promising to deepen devolution and invest in poorer areas, Kenyatta emphasises building a national infrastructure and maintaining economic growth, arguing that the gains of the rich will trickle down to benefit all Kenyans in time.
These images are further entrenched by the criticisms that each leader makes of the other. Jubilee caricatures Odinga as an unprincipled thug who cannot be trusted with the fine art of government. For its part, the National Super Alliance charges that Kenyatta is out of touch and only interested in serving the interests of the wealthy within his own community.
Some complain that these differences are more rhetorical than real, one thing is clear. In fact Kenyans have a real choice to make at the ballot box.
The greater resources available to Kenyatta, along with the more professional team around him, mean that the opposition faces an uphill battle. Moreover, government interference with the media – which is regularly intimidated – means that while election reportage is vibrant some of the stories that would most hurt the government don’t make it on to the front pages.
It’s therefore not surprising that, at the time of writing, Kenyatta enjoys a small but significant lead in the polls. A series of surveys conducted by different companies using different samples have put him on around 48% of the vote, with Odinga on around 43%. These polls suggest that about 8% of Kenyans remain undecided. This suggests that Raila can still win, but to do so he will have to capture the vast majority of “floating voters” in the last month of campaigning.
However, if undecided voters divide equally between the two main candidates, Kenyatta looks set to end up on something like 52% – surpassing the 50%+1 threshold for a first round win – with Odinga on 47%.
Given this, the record of no sitting Kenyan president ever having lost an election may survive for a while yet, despite the momentum behind the opposition. Although the country has made real democratic strides with its new constitution, the advantages of incumbency remain formidable.
The speaker of the Zambian National Assembly, Patrick Matibini, has suspended 48 opposition legislators for 30 days as a punishment for unauthorised absence from the parliament. Their offence? To have been missing for President Edgar Lungu’s state of the nation address in March.
The suspension of the MPs does not come as a great surprise. Hardliners from the ruling Patriotic Front have been pushing for something along these lines for some time. The ruling party was quick to try and disassociate itself from the Speaker’s actions. But, as Zambian commentators have pointed out, the action fits into a broader web of measures designed to intimidate those who question the president’s authority.
The most significant was the arrest of opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema, who remains in jail on trumped up treason charges.
While the latest development in Zambia’s growing political crisis doesn’t come as a shock, it will disappoint those who were hoping that Lungu would be persuaded to moderate his position. Instead, it appears that the International Monetary Fund’s decision to go ahead with a bail out package despite the government’s democratic failings has emboldened the president to pursue an authoritarian strategy.
As a result, a swift resolution to the current political standoff seems unlikely.
Roots of the crisis
For some time Zambia was considered to be one of the more competitive democracies in Africa. But a period of backsliding under Lungu has raised concerns that the country’s inclusive political culture is under threat. The current impasse stems from the controversial elections in 2016 when Lungu won a narrow victory that remains contested by the opposition United Party for National Development.
Hichilema, the leader of the United Party for National Development, has stated that his party will not recognise the legitimacy of Lungu’s victory until its electoral petition against the results is heard in court. The initial petition was rejected by the Constitutional Court. But its decision was made in a way that had all the hallmarks of a whitewash. The UPND subsequently appealed to the High Court. Hichilema’s decision to make his party’s recognition of the president conditional on the petition being heard was designed both as an act of defiance, and as a means to prevent the government from simply sweeping electoral complaints under the carpet.
Until the court case is resolved, the opposition is committed to publicly challenging the president’s mandate by doing things like boycotting his addresses to parliament. In response, members of the ruling party have accused the United Party for National Development of disrespect and failing to recognise the government’s authority. It is this that appears to lie behind Hichilema’s arrest on treason charges.
The suspension of United Party for National Development legislators needs to be understood against this increasingly authoritarian backdrop. It is one of a number of steps taken by those aligned to the government that are clearly designed to intimidate people who don’t fall into line. Other strategies include public condemnation of the government’s critics and proposals to break-up the influential Law Society of Zambia.
Efforts by the president’s spokesman to disassociate the regime from the suspensions have been unpersuasive. The official line of the ruling party is that the speaker of parliament is an independent figure and that he made the decision on the basis of the official rules. It’s true that the speaker and the parliamentary committee on privileges, absences and support services have the right to reprimand legislators for being absent without permission.
Nonetheless the argument is disingenuous for two reasons. The speaker is known to be close to the ruling party, a fact that prompted Hichilema to call for his resignation earlier this year. And the committee’s decisions are clearly driven by the Patriotic Front because it has more members from it than any other party.
The claim that the suspension was not government-led lacks credibility. This is clear from the fact that Patriotic Front MPS have been the most vocal in calling for action to be taken against boycotting United Party for National Development MPs.
IMF lifeline for Lungu
There are different perspectives on the crisis in Zambia. Some people invoke the country’ history of more open government to argue that Lungu will moderate his position once the government feels that the opposition has been placed on the back foot. Others identify a worrying authoritarian trajectory that began under the presidency of the late Michael Sata. They conclude that things are likely to get worse before they get better.
One of the factors that opposition leaders hoped might persuade President Lungu to release Hichilema and move discussions back from the police cell to the negotiating chamber was the government’s desperate need for an economic bail out. Following a period of bad luck and bad governance, Zambia faces a debt crisis. Without the assistance of international partners, the government is likely to go bankrupt. This would increase public dissatisfaction with the Patriotic Front and undermine Lungu’s hopes of securing a third term.
But the willingness of the IMF to move towards the completion of a $1.2 billion rescue package suggests that authoritarian backsliding is no barrier to international economic assistance. In turn, IMF support appears to have emboldened the government to continue its efforts to intimidate its opponents.
IMF officials, of course, will point out that they are not supposed to take political conditions into account and that their aim is to create a stronger economy that will benefit all Zambians. This may be true, but the reality is that by saving the Lungu government financially the IMF is also aiding it politically. Whatever its motivation, the agreement will be interpreted by many on the ground as tacit support for the Patriotic Front regime, strengthening Lungu’s increasingly authoritarian position.
The questions that I get asked most often by students, policy makers and political leaders are: “can democracy work in Africa?” and “is Africa becoming more democratic?”.
As we celebrate Africa Day and reflect on how far the continent has come since the Organisation of African Unity was founded in 1963, it seems like a good time to share my response.
Some people who ask these questions assume that the answer will be “no”, because they are thinking of the rise of authoritarian abuses in places like Burundi and Zambia. Others assume that the answer is “yes” because they remember recent transfers of power in Gambia, Ghana and Nigeria.
Overall trends on the continent can be read in a way that supports both conclusions. On the one hand, the average quality of civil liberties has declined every year for the last decade. On the other, the number of African states in which the government has been defeated at the ballot box has increased from a handful in the mid 1990s to 19.
To explain this discrepancy, I suggest that we need to approach the issue a little differently. Instead of focusing on the last two or three elections, or Africa-wide averages, we need to look at whether democratic institutions such as term-limits and elections are starting to work as intended. This tells us much more about whether democratic procedures are starting to become entrenched, and hence how contemporary struggles for power are likely to play out.
When we approach the issue in this way it becomes clear that democracy can work in Africa – but that this does not mean that it always will.
The rules of the game
Democracies are governed by many different sets of regulations, but two of the most important are presidential term-limits and the need to hold free and fair elections. Because these rules have the capacity to remove presidents and governments from power, they represent a litmus test of the strength of democratic institutions and the commitment of political leaders to democratic principles.
So how are these institutions faring? Let us start with elections. Back in the late 1980s only Botswana, Gambia and Mauritius held relatively open multiparty elections. Today, almost every state bar Eritrea holds elections of some form. However, while this represents a remarkable turn of events, the average quality of these elections is low. According to the National Elections Across Democracy and Autocracy dataset, on a 1-10 scale in which 10 is the best score possible, African elections average just over 5.
As a result, opposition parties have to compete for power with one hand tied behind their backs. This helps to explain why African presidents win 88% of the elections that they contest. On this basis, it doesn’t look like democracy is working very well at all.
Zambia has often been ignored by the international media. One reason for this neglect is that it’s been comparatively unexceptional, on a continent with more than its fair share of extremes.
Since the reintroduction of multiparty politics in 1991, the country has neither been a clear democratic success story like Ghana or South Africa , nor a case of extreme authoritarian abuse, as in Cote d’Ivoire and Zimbabwe.
Instead, Zambia has occupied a middle ground lacking a hook with which to sell coverage of the country, journalists have tended to steer clear. But in the last few months things began to change. First, the opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema was arrested on trumped up treason charges.
Shortly after, the Conference of Catholic Bishops released a strongly worded criticism of the government that concluded
Our country is now all, except in designation, a dictatorship
As a result, the country has returned to the headlines, and whether one agrees with the bishops’ evaluation or not, one thing is clear: it’s time to start talking about Zambia.
Until now, Zambia’s progress under multi-party politics has been quietly impressive.
Although the level of corruption has remained high, and a number of highly controversial, elections, the country has consistently pulled back from the brink when authoritarian rule appeared a possibility.
Things appeared to be going downhill, for example, when Zambia’s second president, Frederick Chiluba, manipulated the constitution to prevent his predecessor, Kenneth Kaunda, from running against him on the grounds that he was not really Zambian. This strategy was clearly illegitimate. After all, Kaunda had run the country for over two decades.
But, Chiluba’s position was weaker than he understood and he overplayed his hand by trying to secure an unconstitutional third-term. He ultimately left office when his second term expired at the end of 2002.
While Zambians have been willing to defend their new democracy, political leaders have shown a greater willingness to share power than in many nearby states. On the one hand, presidents from a number of different ethnic groups have occupied State House, which has helped to manage tension. On the other, opposition parties have been able to use populist strategies to attract support in urban areas and build effective political machines. As a result, Zambia is one of the only countries on the continent – along with Benin, Ghana, Madagascar, and Mauritius – that has experienced two transfers of power.
Over the last year, though, things have changed.
Zambia’s fall from grace
According to the Conference of Catholic Bishops – one of the most influential bodies in the country – Zambia doesn’t deserve to be called a democracy. Instead, under the leadership of President Edgar Lungu and the Patriotic Front it has become a dictatorship - or getting there.
This statement needs to be taken seriously for two reasons. First, the bishops rarely speak out publicly. Second, many catholic leaders were seen to be sympathetic to the governing Patriotic Front, when it won power under Michael Sata in 2011. So, their actions cannot simply be put down to party political bias.
So what has changed? The bishops identify a number of recent developments as causes for concern.
First, they point to the treatment of opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema. Not only was his arrest conducted in an unnecessarily brutal manner, but the government has not yet provided any evidence to substantiate the treason charge. Instead, it appears that his detention is punishment for refusing to recognise the legitimacy of the president, who Hichilema believes won the last election unfairly.
For obvious reasons, his detention and the question of whether he will be released, has been the focus of recent media coverage. But for the Bishops, Hichilema’s arrest is clearly just the tip of the iceberg. The worries expressed in their statement are less about the fate of the opposition leader, and more about the systematic weakening of the state.
For example, the bishops lament the fact that the Constitutional Court failed to effectively hear the opposition’s election petition, believing the judiciary have “let the people down”. They also note that the politicization of the police force has resulted in the violation of citizens’ rights and that, partly as a result, the media has become entrapped in a “culture of silence”. The Bishops suggest that the political manipulation of these institutions has enabled the government to launch attacks on a number of civil society groups that have dared to challenge its authority, including the Law Association of Zambia.
While the charges against Hichilema may have triggered the Bishops to act, their letter is underpinned by a deeper and broader concern about the declining quality of governance under President Lungu.
This is not the first time that a Zambian president has sought to consolidate their authority my manipulating state institutions. Nor is it the first time that opposition leaders have been arrested, or civil society groups intimidated. In the recent past, these moments of high political tension have often been resolved peacefully and it’s not impossible that a similar thing will happen this time.
For example, the president may decide to release Hichilema and to pull back from the prohibition of the Law Society of Zambia in the wake of considerable criticism. If the recent spate of attacks has been designed to intimidate his rivals, Lungu may feel that his goal has already been achieved and that he has little to gain by following through with his threats.
But even if this were to happen, it’s unlikely that it would signal a period of a more accountable government, or that Lungu will cede his quest to remain in office. Many things have changed since Chiluba failed to secure a third term in office almost twenty years ago.
First, key civil society groups such as the trade unions have been weakened by privatisation, informalisation and unemployment.
Second, the Constitutional Court that’s responsible for interpreting the constitution was handpicked by Lungu, and is highly unlikely to oppose him.
Third, Lungu’s case is more complicated than Chiluba’s. In 2001, the second president had served two fill terms in office and wanted one more. Today, Lungu is arguing that he should be allowed to have a third term because his first period in office did not count, as he was just serving out the final year of Michael Sata’s term following his untimely death in office.
This reading of the constitution is highly questionable. The clause that stipulates that a period in office only counts as a full term if it’s longer than three years is limited to a set of cases that doesn’t include the way that Lungu actually came to power. But, it is less clear-cut than Chiluba’s power grab.
All of this means that Lungu is likely to get his way. But, his third term will not come without a cost. Opposition protests are inevitable, as is some civil society criticism. If past form is anything to go by, Lungu’s government will respond with threats and intimidation, fuelling public fears that Zambian politics has become significantly more violent since the 2016 election campaign. Given this, the Bishops’ recent letter is unlikely to be their last, and we need to talk about Zambia for some time to come.