• Irungu Houghton

East Africas' democratic deficit must worry us

Updated: Dec 6, 2020


Having worked closely with Hon. Otiende Amollo, I always take what he says and does very seriously. His advice to BBI oppositionists to drop their resistance lest Kenya go the way of Ethiopia and the rest of East Africa caused some controversy. Do the Building Bridges Initiatives' recommendations offer an insurance policy for Kenyans against electoral chaos?


Eastern Africa hasn’t looked this bad in two decades. With most of the region in political crisis, nearly 250 million of Kenyan’s neighbors are currently living the worst chapters of an autocratic and conflict playbook. Prior to the Tanzanian elections on 28 October, several opposition politicians and their supporters experienced forced disappearances, arrests and deaths. New laws were introduced to criminalise freedom of expression, assembly and association. There have been media and internet bans and individual journalists and civil society leaders have been intimidated either by law enforcement agencies or in executive controlled courts.


If the lead up to the Tanzanian elections on 28 October weren’t worrying enough, the aftermath of the elections must concern us all. Despite credible reports that conditions eroded to the point that the conditions for a democratic election were not possible, the Electoral Commission declared John Magafuli the winner and President for a second term with 84% of the votes cast. However, just under half of the 29 million who are registered to vote stayed away. His main challenger Tundu Lisse, Godbless Lema and several other CHADEMA and Act-Wazalendo leaders are in jail or on the run.


Further north-west, the count-down to Uganda’s Presidential Elections on 14 January 2021 doesn’t look any different. This week, armed military officers threw teargas and fired live bullets into crowds to prevent opposition presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu (Bobi Wine) from campaigning. At least 30 people have been killed and 65 injured in the skirmishes.


38-year-old Bobi Wine’s challenger is 72-year-old President Kaguti Museveni. Museveni has been in State House before laptops and smartphones became everyday gadgets. He has amended election laws twice to enable himself to govern for six terms. Unlike Wine and other opposition candidates who are restricted by COVID-19 regulations on the size of crowds, they do not apply to equally to NRM candidates.


Ethiopia was supposed to have elections in June, but this was postponed by Prime Minister and Nobel Laureate Abiy Ahmed. Conflict has broken out with the Tigrayan region who now claim that Ahmed has used COVID-19 to keep himself in power. The Federal Government claims that the Tigrayan regional administration attacked a federal military facility. Hundreds have been killed and 100,000s are taken flight. Sudan is now reporting that roughly 4,000 Ethiopians are crossing their border daily. The implications of this war may drag Somalia backwards.


That the level of democracy decay in the region must worry Kenyans leads me to agree with Amollo. Zero sum politricks, disrespect for basic freedoms of expression, assembly and association, manipulated electoral commissions and executive controlled courts are a poisonous chalice. Leaders who avoid term limits also short-circuit the maturing of democracies. In the long run, the jeopardise national security.


Former Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure (ATT) died this month. Then a military general, he took power in the 1991 coup to restore democratic freedoms, human rights and a liberal democracy. Twenty-two years of hard-line rule by the dictator Moussa Toure rendered a democratic succession of power impossible. Mali also offers a lesson to the rest of Africa. Hardline leadership inevitably loses its way and is also swept away by forces it cannot control forever


It is for this reason that citizens must closely scrutinise the BBI recommendations, actively engage legislative processes currently underway and should the referendum come before us, choose wisely. We must also demand patience from the BBI propositionists. It beats the point of the entire exercise of building national consensus if the proposal before us is not debated, internalised before they are adopted. Political intolerance and the culture of pende msi pende is what got us here in the first point.


Meanwhile, we can also remind politicians that the answer to “winner takes all” politics is not “losers don’t lose” elections. Politics is a sport. What kind of a sport would it be, if our Olympic runners, tennis and football players had a tantrum each time they lost, and we had to declare a tie and everyone won? The confidence to run presidential campaigns must come with the humility to accept defeat and wait for the next electoral cycle.


This opinion was also published in the Saturday Standard, 21 November 2020


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