Democracy in Africa: For all its flaws, an example to others
Posted 20th December 2007
From The Economist print edition
Democracy in Africa
The example Kenya can set for South Africa and the rest of the continent
IN AFRICA, a hard-fought but fair election in a pivotal country is an example-setting event. No, this is not South Africa, where the election of Jacob Zuma as president of the ruling African National Congress on December 18th dealt a shattering blow to his rival, Thabo Mbeki. Although this puts Mr Zuma in a strong position to lead South Africa when Mr Mbeki’s second term as president ends in April 2009, his succession is far from certain (see article). In Kenya on December 27th, however, power may very well change hands after the tightest electoral contest in the country’s history.
Kenya may not be as sexy as South Africa, but as a haven of stability and prosperity in eastern Africa the quality of its democracy matters. Its northern and western neighbours—Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda and Somalia—suffer in various degrees from war, tribal conflict, government repression, separatism and all that follows. From the countries of the war-ravaged Great Lakes region, such as Congo and Rwanda, Nairobi appears an oasis of calm. But this success is relative. Kenya itself has long been beset by bad governance, corruption and tribalism. Despite receiving billions of dollars of aid, most of its 35m people remain poor. True, few countries have had to contend with the ethnic complexity of Kenya, which has more than 40 recognised tribes. Nor does erratic weather help a largely rural economy. But the main culprit is a system of politics in which a ruling class has hogged most of the cake for itself.
That is why the unusual sharpness of this election campaign is so encouraging (see article). Mwai Kibaki, the 76-year-old president seeking a second term, has presided over economic growth of about 6% this year. Having tolerated greater political and press freedom than his kleptocratic predecessor, Daniel arap Moi, he promises to extend free schooling and fix a decrepit infrastructure. But he has failed to attack corruption in high places with any vigour; indeed, he has let some of the worst crooks stay in government.
His leading opponent, Raila Odinga, who is 14 years younger, is a more energetic figure who now disavows his past socialism and East German education while still appealing to the poor and to some of the marginal tribes, particularly his own Luo in the west and the country’s Muslims in the east. Mr Kibaki, by contrast, has long been at the heart of the Kenyan business establishment which his own Kikuyu tribe, the country’s largest and richest, dominates. Although polls give Mr Odinga the edge, the president’s media machine may help him catch up by the vote on December 27th. Both candidates have flaws: Mr Kibaki’s departure is overdue, but the more energetic Mr Odinga’s campaign carries a divisive flavour.
In place of strife
Whoever wins, what matters next is that the result should be accepted by the loser and Kenyans should be seen to endorse the principle of peaceful competition. Most of Africa has left behind the era of the one-party state, but its people have yet to be fully persuaded that multi-party politics need not be chaotic. South Africa’s ruling party seems unhappy to have submitted itself to an internal contest that has humiliated President Mbeki, who himself seems loth to badger neighbouring Zimbabwe’s dictatorial Robert Mugabe into holding fair elections. But if a country as complex and poor as Kenya can hold genuine elections without civil strife, then any country in Africa can. This is its chance to set an example.
Source: The Economist
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