Violence as a Path to Power: A Trend in African Politics

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Looking over the African political landscape today, it seems that the preferred and only option to stopping months or years of violence is by giving a government seat to those who use violence. Why reward those who use violence to fulfill their political dreams?  What does it mean for the democratic process in Africa?  A number of examples from recent history can be sited, and seen side by side, a disturbing trend arises.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Jean Pierre Bemba, leader of the Uganda-based rebel group, the Movement de Liberation du Congo (MLC) and Azarias Ruberwa, leader of the Rwanda-based rebel group, the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD) were each given the position of vice president in the Congolese transitional government in 2003 under the mediation of the international community.  This was not because of their competency to govern, but because the war had to end through multi-party compromise.  

The Republic of Kenya illustrates this trend from another angle.  Raila Odinga, leader of the opposition and presidential candidate in the 2007 elections, was given the position of prime minister in an effort to end the unprecedented violence that claimed hundreds of Kenyan lives following the elections.  While there are different opinions on who is responsible for the violence, the question remained for most people:  who won the presidential elections?  Did the appointment of Odinga as Prime Minister solve the issue of rigging the elections that Kenyan president Kibaki was accused of?  Did this deal establish the truth on the matter?  What happened in Kenya is good material to help us answer our question about this trend of violence and reward in African politics.

In the case of Zimbabwe, before, during, and after the presidential elections this year, President Robert Mugabe adopted the method of violence to keep power.  Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party violence against the opposition leader’s supporters forced Morgan Tsvangirai to drop out of the presidential election run-off.  This strategy allowed President Robert Mugabe to remain in power. As of Monday September 15, 2008, the opposition leader Tsvangirai is Prime Minister as a result of a power sharing deal.  Sound familiar? Zimbabwe is notKenya, but the violent circumstances of each election were so similar that the international community believed each crisis could be resolved in the same way.

 

They Killed and Became Head of State

Historically, the worst cases of this trend have been military coups or civilian armed rebel leaders who become heads of states. Once in office, these former rebel leaders prepare elections a few years later which are often unfair and never transparent.  In these cases, the election process is used to take care of two things.  First, in the case of a military regime, it allows the government to transition to a civilian regime and appear legitimate.  Second, it is a malicious way to move on from the fact that these leaders took power by force which most of the time involves the loss of the lives of innocent people and human right violations. Some examples are President Yoweri Museveni ofUganda who took power in 1986, and President Idriss Deby of Chad who has served as president since 1990.  Concerned about how to stay in power, they use force to silence and suppress civil society and the opposition in addition to manipulating the constitution to accommodate their ambitions.

The bottom line is that this trend may compromise the democratic process inAfrica. Free and fair elections are an imperative to help Africans improve their livelihood, provide the proper space and voice for civil society, and claim their rightful place in the community of nations.  Many African nations still have a long way to go in finding the path to prosperity, justice and peace. 

To make this point, let us take the case of the Republic of Burundi’s timeline. From 1962-1966 Burundi was an emerging democracy, but from 1966-1992Burundi was either a military regime (UPRONA), a one party regime (UPRONA), or both.  In 1992-1993 there was a transitional government that led to the first democratically elected president who was killed less than three months in office.  For the next eight years, Burundian leadership was in crisis with a continued civil war.  Between 2001 and 2005, a transitional government led to the current second democratically elected president.  Basically, Burundihas been at war since its independence from Belgium.   And being at war distracts any fledgling government from putting into place the needed sound infrastructure that can lead to true growth and development. 

 

The Future of Democracy in Africa

In the context of what is discussed above, skepticism of the future of the democratic processes in Africa is understandable.  Looking at the pattern of elections in different African nations, it is legitimate to ask ourselves what will happen before and after the upcoming presidential elections in a number of African nations.  The following countries face elections in the coming years: Ghana in  December 2008; Cameroon, South Africa, and Angola in 2009;Rwanda, Equatorial Guinea and Central African Republic in 2010; Benin, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Chad in 2011.

The trend of using violence to achieve one’s political ambitions happens when African governments are comprised by a powerful executive branch, a weak parliament, and a non-independent judiciary.  Added to this is the absence of sound and balanced government of structures like the provision social services to citizens, education opportunities, and rampant corruption.  On the international scene, failed democratic processes in Africa continue to expose its nations to neocolonialism. 

 

Africa Faith and Justice Network’s Perspective

“Africans need to define for themselves the meaning of democracy in their own historical and cultural contexts, drawing on their participatory traditions and the experience of democratic societies elsewhere.”  “Listening to and giving voice to African peoples in our common struggle for democracy; supporting networks between Africans and with North Americans in their struggle for justice in Africa; working with others to influence U.S. legislative initiatives supportive of African-defined democratic structures; fostering reflection on and articulation of a theory of democracy within the context of African countries.”  (selected quotes from the Africa Faith and Justice Network 2003 Member Meeting Statement) Now, five years later, AFJN is aware that African authoritarianism has not gone away; leaders have continuously failed to manage the great African continent, rich in wealth and people, but an active civil society is yet to happen.  Politicizing tribes along with the use of violence continues to prevail as a path to fulfill some people’s political ambitions.  Elections have lost their meaning and goal, which is to legitimize the government by the voice of the majority through the power of the ballots.   Instead, after elections, the rule of the game is “who wins takes it all.”   

AFJN, in its mission to advocate for just US policies toward Africa, continues to face the challenge of growing authoritarianism in Africa.  As much as AFJN is committed to improving U.S. policies toward Africa, the fact remains that African progress will happen by and with Africans.  We can point to a dangerous trend, but we are not the ones who can change the course of leadership in Africa. Peaceful elections in Sierra Leone and Tanzania should serve as examples to African leaders as we move away from violence and toward successful democracies.

 

By Bahati Ntama Jacques

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