How stolen African elections prevent violence, undermine Big Men and promote democracy

WARNING: The views expressed here are likely to be offensive but they will not harm your unborn child

I have been harbouring unholy thoughts about election rigging in Africa and, indeed, other parts of the world.

What if, despite my abhorrence for vote fiddling, it actually serves a "useful" purpose?

Evolution is smart. It doesn’t allow stuff that is totally useless to continue in existence. Things like ballot stuffing and double voting by incumbent parties are bad for democracy, because in the long run they risk driving people to violence as the only means to change their lives. 

However, many African countries, from Uganda to Zimbabwe and Nigeria have generally survived election cheating. Could it be because there are some hidden benefits to it? 

I can think of two. Election violence, like in Kenya early 2008 and Zimbabwe later the same year, is more likely to happen in Africa today when the margin between the presumed winner and loser is razor thin. 

Perhaps nothing demonstrates this point better than Jarreth Merz’s documentary, "An African Election", about the 2008 presidential election in Ghana. Ghana cheated political death by the skin of its teeth with that cliffhanger poll. There are some harrowing moments in there. 

A party that steals the election for the sake of a healthy margin, and thus puts the results beyond dispute, could in that sense be forgiven by the gods for reducing the possibility of violence. 

The other thing is that in Africa, most incumbents win the election even before it is held. In the past 50 years, hundreds of elections of all types have been held in Africa. The opposition has won fewer than 15 of them. If the opposition cannot defeat the government of the day, how can it function as a check on its powers? 

That is where election fraud helps. The fact that governments steal elections, undermines the morality of their victories and dilutes their mandates. Opposition parties can, rightly, attack such governments as illegitimate. 

By stealing elections, governments shoot themselves in the foot, allowing the opposition to claim the role of "conscience of the nation", the good guys. They would not get that if the ruling parties won honestly. 

It can, therefore, be argued that oppositions need election fraud to keep them morally relevant, as much the incumbents need it to assure them of another round at the trough. 

Because election rigging undermines the standing of Big Men, one could say it is one way democracy makes its haphazard march on the continent. 

Of course, it is easy to say that if you are not the runner-up who has been robbed of victory.

*The author is Editor of Mail & Guardian Africa. Twitter:cobbo3


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