Citizens have voted out well-entrenched leaders in a democratic surge in part of the continent, writes Tony Leon
To update Pliny the Elder’s well-worn phrase in my imperfect schoolboy Latin, perhaps it is now apt to write Ex Africa Occidens aliquid novi — Out of West Africa always something new. This modernisation is due to two remarkable election results recently in Gambia and Ghana.
The small West African state of Gambia ousted its dictatorial president, Yahya Jammeh, who made other African strongmen seem unimaginative in their posturing and excesses. He locked up one opposition leader earlier in 2016, withdrew his country from the Commonwealth and International Criminal Court, and, amid practising witchcraft, claimed to have invented a herbal cure for AIDS.
And while President Jacob Zuma has claimed that his party will govern “until Jesus comes”, his Gambian counterpart provided a quantification with a different deity. Jammeh vowed to “rule for a billion years if Allah wills it”. Whether or not he did, the people of hard-pressed Gambia had other ideas and elected by a wide margin unfavoured opposition candidate Adama Barrow.
Jammeh, at first and against character, accepted his defeat but at the weekend recanted, offering a Trump-style excuse that the polls were “rigged”. Since the outgoing president pretty much controlled everything in his country, the excuse was thin, though whether he will relinquish power is an open question. Losing power, which he seized in 1994 and maintained with lashings of repression ever since, is a novel experience for Jammeh.
In nearby Ghana, an equally remarkable result happened late last week when another, though far more democratic, president was ousted. In a year of electoral and referendum surprises in long-settled democracies such as Britain, the US and Italy, Africa’s first independent state delivered its own shock result.
Few pundits and Ghana watchers thought the centrist Nana Akufo-Addo of the New Patriotic Party would oust incumbent president John Mahama, whose leftist National Democratic Party had held the ring these past eight years. But the faltering Ghanaian economy and embedded corruption saw the challenger win more than 54% of the vote.
This democratic surge and anti-incumbency wave to the west of us — following the even more consequential ousting of Goodluck Jonathan in Nigeria by Muhammadu Buhari in May 2015 — is both encouraging and salutary. On the encouragement front, one of the poll watchers at the recent Ghanaian election, Nigerian state governor Nasir Ahmad el-Rufai, exulted to the Financial Times: “If you are an incumbent in Africa, beware.”
In our immediate neighbourhood, poll pushbacks for governing parties have been rare events. The ANC has held continuous power in SA for the past 22 years, and its predecessor, the National Party, (with limited franchise) held office for 46 years before it.
Next door, in Botswana, the Botswana Democratic Party has had uninterrupted rule since independence in 1966, and Namibia’s Swapo has been in office since SA withdrew 26 years ago. Mozambique offers the same outcome — and its ruling party has been in office since 1975.
Of the countries in Southern Africa that can be stamped broadly “democratic” only Zambia and Malawi have seen incumbent governments replaced by opposition parties at the polls. Angola, Swaziland and Zimbabwe do not even allow the semblance of free and fair elections. This provides a more sobering explanation for the lengthy continuance in office of the same heads of state in each of them for three or four decades or even longer.
And Lesotho’s fitful attempts at democratisation trigger ongoing problems.
Of course, elections are the necessary but insufficient condition for full-blown democracy to take root and flourish.
But without a regular change of government, many of the other checks and balances embedded in even the most progressive constitutions tend to wither on the vine.
On the subject of saplings and oaks, I participated last week in a panel discussion convened by veterans of the Constitutional Assembly, which helped ink this country’s Constitution — signed into law at a dusty stadium in Sharpeville 20 years ago, on December 10 1996. Listening to the gains and losses since attending the celebrations two decades back, I couldn’t help but reflect that instead of seeing a mighty tree planted on our conflicted soil, in many ways its growth has been stunted, akin perhaps to a bonsai tree. To be sure, as former Constitutional Court judge Albie Sachs noted, the courts of law, an engaged civil society and even, more recently, Parliament had provided some fightback against a runaway executive.
Then there is the bruising encounter that reports suggest was Zuma’s reception at his party’s recent national executive meeting — although not so wounding as to knock him out of power, apparently.
A vivid memory of what now appears to be a golden moment of our democratic era — the first year of this country’s freedom in 1994 — also came to mind. Of the three presidents elected then and afterwards, and excluding the accidental and brief Kgalema Motlanthe interval, no doubt Nelson Mandela was the incumbent with the strongest democratic impulses.
He also practised what Tony Blair would later characterise as “sofa diplomacy”, which in Mandela’s case would usually be accompanied by breakfast or lunch. In the first month of his presidency, in May 1994, he invited me to breakfast at his presidential compound in Newlands, Cape Town. On the discussion menu was the role of the opposition and government in the new democracy.
Doubtless with the utmost sincerity, Mandela invited the fraction of the opposition that I then led to “hold up a mirror to the government and point out where we fall short”.
But then he added an interesting rider: the newly elected ANC had within it what he termed “huge areas of disagreement on major issues”, with pivots of division vested in a triptych of former Robben Island prisoners, the formerly exiled leadership and internal activists drawn from both the United Democratic Front and trade union federation Cosatu. These elements, he assured me, provided the new government’s own (self-sealed) “opposition”.
In myriad events and challenges since that early morning encounter, now 22 years past, two obvious ones stand out in contradiction of Mandela’s view of the governing party’s ability to self-correct.
First, the habits and arrogance of power now mean that such groups as the ANC “veterans” battle for a seat at the table of power or influence.
Second, party insiders, such as ministers from the South African Communist Party, daring to state the obvious — that the emperor’s clothes are threadbare and he stands naked before an increasing number of his supporters and opponents — is regarded as semi-treasonous. In the words of party secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, there was “hatred” in the air.
All this suggests what the Constitution makes plain: the only way to counter the unbridled wielding and misuse of power is through counterweight power. Since the counterpower in the governing party is no longer effective, if it ever was — think of Thabo Mbeki’s long AIDS death march or the “forgiveness” offered for Zuma’s constitutional violations — it is past time to look west.
Not perhaps to Britain or the US or even Italy. But the fresh light from Ghana and even the uncertain glow from Gambia offer fresh hope of democratic renewal. Worthy, perhaps, of local application.
Happy festive season and a joyous new year to all readers.
• Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London. @TonyLeonSA