Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1356, (10 - 16 August 2017)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1356, (10 - 16 August 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Africa elections: Stability or freedom?

Rwanda and Kenya face critical elections, with violence widely predicted in the case of the latter, writes Haitham Nouri


Africa elections: Stability or freedom?
Africa elections: Stability or freedom?

This year, several presidential races will be held in Africa in countries that have struggled with various degrees of violence in the past and live in fear of recurring violence that could result in chaos, turmoil, civil war or even genocide.

These fears were the backdrop for elections in Rwanda on 4 August where President Paul Kagame ran for a third term since he came to power in 2000, and won by a sweeping majority of more than 98 per cent. Kagame was able to run for a third term after the constitution was amended to allow him to bid for seven years in office, then two more terms of five years each.

Despite much opposition, Kagame succeeded in passing the constitutional amendments, which is a goal his counterparts Blaise Compaore in Burkina Faso and Joseph Kabila in Democratic Congo failed to do. Nonetheless, several constitutional amendments were successful in Angola, Uganda, Chad, Algeria and Congo Brazzaville.

Like other African and developing countries, Rwanda is struggling with a difficult choice: a president who theoretically can remain in power until 2034 or change to an unknown who could fail or drag the country once again to genocide  — something Kagame rescued the country from in 1994. A small country, Rwanda was the crucible of a civil war that deteriorated into genocide, killing 800,000 from the Tutsi minority (15 per cent of the population) and moderate Hutus (85 per cent).

Kagame, who is Tutsi, is the leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) that has been in power for more than 25 years and primarily represents the Tutsi. It came to power in 1990 and assisted in ending the genocide that swept across the country for 100 days between 6 April and 4 July 1994. Since then, Kagame became the country’s strongman even though he was vice president and defense minister at the time.

Despite human rights and media reports about suppressing newspapers, freedoms and the opposition, the country is torn between a man who brought stability and quick development (seven per cent growth rate which is among the highest on the continent) in a divided country, and a leader who decided to remain president for life.

“Nothing can stop change,” according to Mo Ibrahim, whose foundation monitors sound governance in Africa, “even if the leader is clinging to power for a few more years.” The Mo Ibrahim Foundation grants an annual prize for achievement in African leadership, the largest in the world, worth $5 million, as well as $200,000 annually for 10 years. The prize is given to African presidents and heads of government who reached power democratically, left their posts by law and achieved development and political stability in their countries.

In Kenya, north of Rwanda, the capital Nairobi has become a ghost town after thousands fled to villages and small towns, and those who remained stocked up on provisions in case violence erupts during the presidential race 8 August. The US State Department issued a warning to its citizens in Kenya to leave, as many other nationalities had temporarily done.

Although previous elections in 2013 were peaceful, the race in 2007 was very violent and continued to be for several months after the election, killing around 1,000 people and displacing 500,000. The race at the time was between the current leader of the opposition Raila Odinga and then president Mwai Kibaki who won re-election. Odinga did not accept the results and supporters on both sides clashed on the streets in the most violent confrontations since Kenya’s independence from Britain in 1963. Violence ended after mediation by former UN secretary- general Kofi Annan, and both sides agreed to share power whereby Odinga became prime minister.

This month’s presidential race is similar to the one in 2013, whereby Kenya seems to be in a time warp. President Uhuru Kenyatta (the son of indepedence leader Jomo Kenyatta) is running for a second term against opposition leader Odinga (the son of Kenya’s first vice president and rival of Kenyatta the father). In 2013, Kenyatta won by a small margin against his perpetual rival Odinga (this is his fourth bid for the presidency), and the close results could trigger violence – which no one wants to see happen.

Although voting is done through electronic ballots in Kenya, which theoretically is a good system, if it breaks down for any reason it would make voting more difficult and dubious. Suspicion that electronic voting may be faulty were heightened when Chris Msando, in charge of computerised voting on the election commission, was tortured and killed days before the election. For weeks, Msando appeared on television explaining the computerised voting system and reassuring voters about the difficulty of tampering with votes and rigging the results.

When his body was found 31 July, rumours were rife that someone is planning to rig the elections, which has overshadowed the stability of the country itself. Since this may be the last time Odinga, 72, will run for office, he may change his modus operandi of contesting results in court — as he has done in the past —and take to the streets if he believes the elections were rigged. Meanwhile, media outlets are not focussed on coexistence and peace as was the case in 2013. Opinion polls show that it is a close race and there could be a runoff.

The day after the presidential election, voters will cast their ballots for governors and local parliaments, which the 2010 amended constitution gave greater mandates, which makes these critical and serious elections. In anticipation of violence, the govenrment has assigned 180,000 security and military troops to secure elections, making these the most expensive elections in the country’s history.

Whomever wins will face serious challenges, including 22 per cent employment in a country where 80 per cent of the population is under 35 years of age. The country is also facing a drought in northeastern regions which has skyrocketed food prices. According to UN reports, 45 per cent of Kenyans live in poverty.

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