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Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Can Democracy Prevail in Africa?

Kenya has a General election today. Already, before the election, a senior electoral official has been found dead, with irrefutable evidence of torture on his body. Massive preparations have been made to ensure that the voting is properly conducted, but opposition leaders are ready to claim that the presence of security officials at all polling stations is for the intimidation of voters rather than for securing the fairness of the poll. The electronic voting machines will prevent any tampering with paper ballot forms, but can give rise to massive possibilities for malpractice in the processing of the votes. The last election was followed by a period of violence in which at least a thousand people died; and a repeat of that horror is dreaded by the peaceful mass of the population. Much of the voting will be on tribal lines, which gives the Kikuyu the strongest chance of retaining power since they remain the largest tribe.

Kenya, at least, has elections; with are conducted with every appearance of propriety. Most of the people obey the law, and most of the elected opposition MPs take part in civilised debate, most of the time; and the civil service is broadly professional, and corruption is not crippling to normal economic processes. Not many African countries have a similar level of adherence to the sort of constitutional norms that the former colonial powers left them with.

Most African countries' boundaries were set by conventions between the European occupying powers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There is little concession to ethnicity in the allocation of people to states, which were given independence by their former occupiers within the nonsensical frontiers that their colonisers had compromised upon. Thus some parts of some tribes live in reasonably prosperous countries where to some extent the rule of law is respected; while their ethnic cousins are repressed and suppressed in adjacent states.

From the northern tip of the continent to the extreme south, and from east to west, with just a few exceptions like Kenya where a form of democracy prevails, there are two options for the state to operate: strong-man dictatorship with reasonable social stability, or anarchy. Some states, particularly in central Africa, have been in anarchy for decades; with internationally-recognised governments controlling little more than the capital city, the airport and the ultimate pinnacle of corruption in the distribution of the mineral royalties and international aid that comes into the country. China has been willing to exploit such situations where a Chinese corporation has been able to secure a defensible area of land for exploitation for farming or mining, and in some cases that has helped greatly to stabilise the country in which this takes place. But in general, from Libya to South Africa, the tragic abuse of the majority of the population goes on.

The umpteenth attempt to rid South Africa of its demonstrably corrupt president is taking its course, and may at last succeed: shortly before his term is due to come to an end anyway. Many of the formal procedures and processes that were established by the British colonial regime, and retained by the white supremacists during the apartheid era, are still maintained; thus it is curious to see forms of procedure that seem to accord with the European democratic tradition still being used to cover the chaos into which South Africa seems inexorably to be descending.

I was studying politics when the first former colonial territories were granted independence; and was bemused to see tribal politicians wearing western suits and ties as they sat on parliamentary benches modeled on those of their former coloniser, in some cases - briefly - deferring to a 'Mr Speaker' in a black gown and a white full-bottomed wig. Such images quickly disappeared from the world's newsreels. There is now little reportage in the west of the day-to-day politics of any African country: the stories are all too sad and too familiar. Nobody expected the election in a former Belgian colony last week to produce any result other than what happened; just as nobody expects change in Kenya. There is a chance that the logjam will break in South Africa, but the prospect for returning to the 'rainbow nation' image of the first years of Mandela's presidency are slim.

A small part of the tragedy can be ascribed to the colonial frontiers and the colonial legacy: but, after half a century of independence, most of the blame for the chaos is ascribable to Africa: and so the solutions must emerge from African minds and become accepted in African hearts. That is the only way in which true progress in politics and in economic affairs will be achieved.

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