22 October 2002

Africa: Dancing With Dictators


Accra — The crowd, gathered in front of a hotel next to the National Assembly, cheered when the General raised his arms. Music blared over loudspeakers. People danced. Others handed out T-shirts and posters emblazoned with the General's initials, ATT. There were drinks. In French, the General declared that he would win the presidency in the coming election.

Not in Togo, of course. Togo's elections are rigged, and Gnassingbe Eyadama always wins. Eyadama has been in power since LBJ was in the White House. So no, Amadou Toumani Toure would not dare run for the presidency of Togo. Toure wants to be president of Mali, a country whose capital is a thousand miles away. So why is he campaigning in Togo? Because Eyadama wants to show foreigners how open his country is to political debate.

This is how it is in electoral politics in Africa.

To be sure, African politics "are freer and fairer than they were 10 years ago," says Walter Kansteiner, undersecretary of state for African affairs. Gone are the days of dictators and military coups. Civilian governments reign in Nigeria, Ghana - and Mali, where only two weeks ago, Toure, who helped end a dictatorship in 1991 and later led a transitional government, was elected by a landslide to lead again.

By African standards, Mali's election was a success. No violence, lost of candidates and a former president, Alpha Oumar Konare, handed over power after two terms. Konare spent months weighing whether to alter the constitution by extra-legal means in order to stay in power, and his decision not to is cited as the latest sign of a new maturity among African leaders.

"Slowly, the bar is being raised on what counts as constitutional change and for Africans to shun leaders who stay in power by unconstitutional means," says Alex de Waal, director of Justice Africa, a human-rights group based in London.

Still, Toure's election highlights an uncomfortable fact about electoral politics in the world's poorest regions: African nations are staging more elections than a decade ago, but the winners are the same old power brokers.

In Zambia early this year, the outgoing president rigged the election so that his handpicked successor would win.

Earlier this month in Sierra Leone, a West African country so ravaged by civil war that rebels became notorious for chopping off the arms of victims, an election was held under the protection of 17,000 U.N. troops and essentially administered by foreign donors. In such a seemingly bereft country, voters might wish for a sweeping change, yet they overwhelmingly re-elected the incumbent president, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, despite heaps of criticism from locals and a sorry record of tolerating human-rights abuses and the devastation of his country.

Elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, democratic forms are being embraced, but not the substance.

Robert Mugabe's election "victory" in Zimbabwe in March underscores the extent to which African leaders see the importance of a democratic imprimatur. Mugabe, who could simply declare himself dictator, held an election then went on to harass, beat and kill supporters of his main opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai. Vote counters predictably declared Mugabe the winner. Tsvangirai's followers continue to protest the vote, but they are getting nowhere.

A similar sham was staged last year in Uganda, where the country's president, Yoweri Museveni, agreed after pressure from foreign donors (who supply half of the Ugandan government's budget) to hold a contested presidential vote.

Museveni is a national hero who liberated the country in 1985 from the ravages of a succession of bloody dictators, including the notorious Idi Amin. After seizing power by force, Museveni insisted that a one-party state best served his country's needs, but he ran in an uncontested election for president in 1997. Last year's election proved tougher, however, when his personal physician campaigned against him, joined by many young politicians once loyal to him.

Museveni replied with force. When one of his former military commanders, Okwir Rabwoni, joined the opposition, Museveni arrested him. When Rabwoni wouldn't desist, he was expelled from the country.

The case gained notoriety because Rabwoni was a sitting member of parliament, and his brother was Museveni's chief of internal security. Rabwoni, who now lives in London, claimed Museveni ordered his brother to torture him. "Museveni should never have stood for re-election," he says. "He has been in power long enough." He blames Museveni for diverting foreign aid to fund military incursions into Congo, which he and officials at the United Nations believe was a cover for the looting of Congo's resources.

In holding onto power, Museveni is not alone. "This is a problem across Africa," says Caroline Lamwaka, a Ugandan journalist. "Presidents hold on so long that even the good they've done gets tainted."

As a result, the main goal of reformers is not to create a grassroots democracy in Africa, where leaders come form all segment of society, but to at least encourage the circulation of power among the privileged.

"Even the transfer of power from one individual to another within a single-party-dominated system allows for the circulation of individuals in and out of government, and the reshuffling of the coalitions on which power is based," says de Waal, an expert on African politics and author of a landmark study, "Famine Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa."

"Given the entrenched patterns, this is about as much as we can expect for now," de Waal says. "The key thing is to prevent governance systems becoming so paralytic and entrenched that they can only be overthrown by violence."

Thus, a central challenge for African's fledgling democracies is what to do with a former president or dictator when constitutional rule and the electoral process turns him out. Consider the case of Ghana, believed to be the most successful example of the newfound African enthusiasm for elections.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in a February visit to Ghana, cited the country as a model for democratic transition. In January 2001, Jerry Rawlings relinquished power in Ghana after 20 years, leaving after the electoral defeat of his handpicked successor.

What happens to Rawlings is a big question lurking beneath the surface of Ghana's politics. The new government, led by veteran opposition leader John Kufuor, is prosecuting many Rawlings associates for stealing government funds, and a truth commission has been created to examine government misdeeds over the life of Ghana's 45-year history. Many people think it is inevitable that Rawlings, who initially took power in a violent coup, will come under scrutiny.

Many fear he might strike again if charged with a crime. "We are not in the clear yet, but the likelihood of the military pre-empting the will of the voters is growing less," says Harruna Attah, (Editor of the Accra Daily Mail) in Ghana.

Rawlings first accepted a temporary assignment at the United Nations, but he seems intent on living in Accra, Ghana's capital. One recent evening, he sat at the best table of one of the city's coolest nightclubs, sipping the local Star beer and dancing with his wife. Well-wishers greeted him, he stayed past midnight, and his bodyguards were out of sight. After dancing only a few feet from the former president, one patron gushed, "Where else in Africa can you get this close to a man who was once a dictator?" Yet Rawlings is no ordinary citizen. He periodically blasts the government. In April, when violence between members of a northern tribe led Kufuor to declare a national emergency, many worried that Rawlings would use the instability as a pretext for a coup. About the same time, Rawlings' official spokesman was charged with threatening to murder journalists who have criticized the ex-president.

Observers, however, think Ghana has gone too far down the road of multiparty democracy for Rawlings to make a comeback. And they believe that Ghana's situation - of having an ex-president walk the streets - will increasingly become the norm throughout Africa. "Ghana is the wave of the future," says de Waal.

Another sign is this: Even after his handpicked candidate lost the election last year, Rawlings tried to hold his political party together, hoping that one of his allies might win the presidency three years from now. But last month his former party, the National Democratic Congress, narrowly installed a Rawlings critic as its chief. Without a chance to run for president again, Rawlings' political career is effectively over. Even a sham election can't change that simple fact.

G. Pascal Zachary is a former Wall Street Journal reporter who teaches at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. This article first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday, May 26, 2002.

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