Elections should not be a matter of life and death

What you need to know:

  • The just concluded presidential election in Liberia excited many, and the outcome did not disappoint, as the incumbent was sent packing after a run-off.

In many countries across Africa, elections can be as exciting as they are frightening, deadly affairs. They are not quiet, boring affairs, barring some very few countries like Rwanda.

Understandably, the just concluded presidential election in Liberia excited many, and the outcome did not disappoint, as the incumbent was sent packing after a run-off. The country has been applauded for showing the way to the rest of the continent.

This is an unfortunate reality: countries on the continent are still viewed as headed in the same direction and therefore should follow the same path in their journeys to achieve democracy.

Liberians voted at a time when there have been several coups in West and Central Africa, coupled with some countries where incumbents sought to extend their time in office with varying degrees of success and failure.

Other countries have imploded from within, to the point that there is a real possibility for them to break up or end up being ruled by different groups.

There is also the fact that elections held or scheduled to be held in other countries in Africa either ended with incumbents retaining power or there is no chance of them being defeated at the polls, barring the upcoming elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the incumbent has had to contend with sneers and rumours questioning his legitimacy following his unexpected win in 2018.

There are many peculiar aspects of elections in African countries. One of the most striking is that it is generally viewed as relatively free and fair when an incumbent is defeated because the playing field is never even.

Incumbents have all sorts of advantages when it comes to elections.

Liberia, like Sierra Leone next door, has been through hell and back. It is not the first time a candidate from the ruling party has accepted electoral defeat there.

Given the bloody past, it is a remarkable turnaround in just two decades for power to be transferred peacefully through different hands from different political outfits.

The past has done much to reinforce this view of African countries and their struggles for democracy.

The ballot is still not the only acceptable means of gaining and keeping political power.

Minus Botswana and the majority of other countries on the continent still ruled by the parties or liberation movements that delivered political independence are seen to have never ‘graduated’ from the democracy class.

Though such countries have managed, with significant differences, to hand over power from one leader to another, which has not been enough because the same political outfits retain power.

Countries like Rwanda and Cameroon or Togo and Uganda are bundled up together by the simple fact that either there are no term limits for presidents or incumbents are assured of retaining power through the rituals of elections.

That these countries have arrived where they are after travelling different paths is immaterial to those who equal democracy with elections.

It is not the quality of leadership in African countries that is given the most attention, but the outcome of political rituals.

It is a fact that some countries on the continent were saved from the abyss by military rulers, while others ended up with terrible outcomes when the military was in charge.

There are countries where competitive elections are working for the better, and in others they have been a source of too much instability.

There are countries where ‘life-term presidents’ have delivered, and in other countries, they have sent their countries dangerously teetering on the edge of a cliff.

There are countries that have never held elections or partially held them because of instability and insecurity, while others have perfected the art of holding elections regardless of the quality of such exercises or the intended beneficiaries.

Other countries had military regimes, opted for civilian rule, and found themselves back with military rules.

There are countries that were lucky with their independence leaders; others were not so fortunate.

There are countries that have never known peace, while others have never plunged into civil war.

Others have been ruled by the same political parties or families since independence, while others have long lost count of the political parties that have come and gone.

There is not one solution for these countries, but at the very least each is trying to find its own path to a place where elections are not a matter of life and death.