With one phone call, Nigeria's Jonathan may have sounded the death knell for Africa’s all-powerful parties

Kaunda became the first independence leader of that class to be voted out of office peacefully in Anglophone Africa.

AT exactly 1705 local time on Tuesday, the call came through. On the other end was president Goodluck Jonathan, conceding to great rival Muhammadu Buhari in what has been termed Africa’s most important election this decade.

Jonathan’s swift concession, when it became clear his ruling party could not make up the difference, initially served to dramatically lower tension in Africa’s most populous country following what had been a gripping contest.

It was a necessary move, as this was the first time an opposition party had won a presidential election in Nigeria - though it was at least the 19th time it had happened in Africa since 1967. It could also easily have gone wrong. The ruling PDP had been in power unbroken since 1999, and the vested interests in its holding on were huge. 

Jonathan’s white flag

But Jonathan’s white flag, while unexpected, played a bigger role that may only become more apparent in coming years—that of striking a definitive blow against the traditional neo-patrimonial ruling party in Africa.

In African countries where dominant ruling parties have gone on to concede crucial elections, history shows there has been a subsequent failure to effectively reproduce such juggernauts, as voters realise they can decisively renegotiate the social contract in their favour.

For decades many had argued that despite the exit of such all-powerful parties, or the “alternation of power” the clientelist system remained essentially intact. It was an argument that caught on during the so-called Third Wave, the democratisation trend late in the last century captured by the influential American political scientist Samuel Huntington.

Many reasons were offered for this, including the resilient centralisation of the presidency, the failure to renew the elite and weak external pressure for reforms.

While the Nigeria election may not have changed the system or even the elite, there  has been strong pressure for reforms, the significant difference being that the majority was internal.

Precedent however suggests recreating such strong parties is difficult.    

In 2002 in Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of a former president, conceded defeat to the opposition’s Mwai Kibaki, resulting in the ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU) first election loss in 39 years.

Since then the East African country has failed to produce a dominant ruling party, with fragile coalitions mainly holding sway. 

Another major ruling party loss in Zambia also saw Kenneth Kaunda picking up the phone to cede the election to union leader Frederick Chiluba in November 1991.

The Kaunda case

That loss meant that Kaunda, one of the last rulers of the generation that led the continent to independence, became the first leader of that class to be voted out peacefully in Anglophone Africa.

But neither his party nor the opposition have managed to craft dominance in subsequent elections.

His counterpart in Francophone Africa, Benin’s Mathieu Kerekou, the first incumbent in Africa to lose an election, also oversaw the fragmentation of the sole ruling party, such that by his last term, he was running on a different party. 

In Senegal, another president in 2000 picked up the handset to make the tough call, heralding the decline of Leopold Senghor’s once dominant ruling party. Abdou Diouf had lost in a landslide to Abdoulaye Wade, ousting the Socialist Party that had ruled for 40 years uninterrupted in the West African nation.

Wade’s winning party, the Senegalese Democratic Party, despite his best efforts to carve out a political hegemony, served two terms and he soon also had to make the call following defeat by incumbent, and a former party insider, Macky Sall.  

John Atta Mills also telephoned his opposition rival John Kufuor of the New Patriotic Party to “most warmly” concede the country’s 2000 presidential election, which had spilled into a run off.

Mill’s ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC), formed by Jerry Rawlings, had been in power for nearly two decades, marking the country’s first transfer of power through the ballot box in the country’s history. 

Since then the two parties have duelled in often close elections, as voters have enthusiastically exercised their power.

Message to Buhari

The message to Nigeria’s Buhari seems to be resounding—deliver, or we will act.  The former army ruler has been described as a reborn democrat—but even he would be the first to admit the pendulum has really swung in the opposite direction. 

Africa’s liberation movements, which have so far bucked the trend, will also be looking nervously around. A new generation of voters who have little recollection of the struggle years are coming through. 

South Africa’s ANC has seen its margin of victory whittled down at every election since 1994, while Mozambique’s Frelimo shed 47 parliamentary seats to the opposition in elections last year.

Angola has been most successful at control using the centre, but has like Ethiopia and Uganda, had to expend a lot of resources on this. In this regard only Namibia seems safe from aggressive votes demanding economic benefits —having attained independence only in 1990, memories of the struggle are still young and loyal.


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