Africa Democracy Cheat Sheet: Nigeria emerged with its nose clean, but dirty tricks are alive and well

There was a time when it seemed elections were held only so that they might be stolen, or the results cancelled.

MUHAMMADU Buhari’s win this week against incumbent Goodluck Jonathan is being celebrated as a win for Nigeria, but even if it isn’t the first time  an incumbent is being sent home by the ballot  box in Africa, it’s still remarkable considering Nigeria’s – and Africa’s – chequered history with democracy.

Many times in the past, when a “favourite” seemed to be losing, authorities could simply annul the results, and that would be the end of that. 

And other times, a president would give with the right hand and take with the left – for example, when pressured into making some democratic concessions such as allowing multiparty democracy, he would agree to the reforms but argue that term limits do not apply retrospectively, or even go on to abolish term limits all together.

We look at a few of the most infamous “Democracy Cheat Sheets” in Africa:

Annulment of elections

Benin, 1968 and 1970

Benin, formerly known as Dahomey, gained independence from France in 1960, but suffered a coup in 1963, and counter-coup in 1967. The military government led by Lt Col Alphonse Alley organised polls in 1968, in which Basile Adjou was elected president. However, the military regime annulled the election, citing the fact that voter turnout was only 26%. 

Two years later, a second attempt at a presidential election saw a better turnout of 56.7%, in which Justin Ahomadegbé- Tometîn garnered the most votes. But again the election outcome was put aside, with the authorities citing political violence and widespread irregularities. Power was ceded to a presidential council, but in 1972 Matheiu Kérékou seized power and remained president until 1991.

Uganda, 1980

Idi Amin’s eight-year reign of terror in Uganda came to an end in 1979 when he was chased out of town by a combined force Tanzanian troops and Ugandan rebel forces. In the months ensuing, various anti-Amin groups jostled to “own” the victory. 

After at least three interim regimes in less than two years, elections were organised in 1980. When the authorities saw that their “favourite” former president Milton Obote was losing ground to his closest challenger Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere, they stopped the announcement of results, and electoral commission officials fled.

Obote ended up being declared winner, but Yoweri Museveni – who was third placed in the poll – would then take up arms against the Obote government in what came to be known as the Ugandan Bush War. The war ended in 1986 with a victory to Museveni.

Algeria, 1992

Algeria had been led by the liberation movement party National Liberation Front (FLN) since independence in 1962, and the military were firmly entrenched in the political landscape. In 1989, a ban on political parties was lifted, and that year, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was formed and garnered a 55% majority in local government elections. 

In the 1991 election, FIS won 188 Parliamentary seats in the first round of general elections, and seemed virtually certain to obtain an absolute majority in the second round. 

But the military followed the predictable script – parliament was dissolved in 1992; a state of emergency declared, FIS was ordered to disband and its leaders were arrested and jailed. It ended up sparking a decades-long civil war, in which an estimated 150,000 people were killed.

Nigeria, 1993

Nigeria is perhaps the most infamous example. Ibrahim Babangida seized power in a military coup in 1983, deposing (now president) Muhammadu Buhari. Babangida makes a move to return the country to civilian rule by slating presidential elections for 1993, but the military tightly controlled the whole process – they named the parties, wrote the party manifestos, provided campaign funds and even built party offices around the country.

In that vote, Moshood Abiola garnered 58.3% of the vote in what is considered one of Nigeria’s freest and fairest elections. But the military regime annulled the election, saying it was to avert a ‘judicial crisis’. When Abiola declared himself president twelve months later, he was arrested and thrown in jail; he ended up dying in detention in 1998.

The sole candidate

Nigeria, 1998

In the turmoil following the 1993 election debacle, Gen Sani Abacha seized power. Abacha made a show of moving towards democracy, but it was a farce. All five political parties in the country – which were only in operation after being thoroughly vetted by the military authorities – declared him their sole presidential candidate for an election scheduled for August 1, 1998.

“It doesn’t count”

Most African presidents folded to the internal and external pressure and moved their countries towards multiparty politics in the early 1990s, in which presidential terms were typically limited to two terms. 

But sitting presidents found a way around it – in Ghana, Jerry John Rawlings had come to power by a military coup in 1979. With the new limits enacted in 1991, he argued that they did not apply retrospectively, and so the 12 years he had served as head of state did not count. He thus stood for re-election in 1992, which he won, and again in 1996.

The same happened in Kenya – Daniel Arap Moi had been president since 1978, but when term limits came into the picture in 1992, he argued the years prior should not be subject to the term limit, and so was re-elected in 1992 and 1997.

It’s the same cheat sheet that Burundi’s president Pierre Nkurunziza is now reading from. He was elected by Parliament as president in 2005, and five years later, he was voted in by popular vote. He now says that the first term did not count, as he was elected by Parliament and not directly by the people. Nkurunziza has indicated that he will stand for re-election in the upcoming June election.

Fiddling with term limits

In 2005, after nearly 20 years of being president,  Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni succumbed to pressure and allowed the formation of political parties, in what was previously a “no-party” system. But that same year, Museveni presided over the repeal of term limits, and went on to win a third term in 2006, and a fourth one in 2011 – or fifth and sixth, if you include the two terms he served before Uganda’s 1995 constitution was enacted.

He was in good company – by the early 1990s, barring Eritrea and Libya, there was hardly any country left in Africa that was an old school single-party state, and no less than 34 constitutions had instituted term limits. 

But at least nine countries would see them off in the next few years – along with Uganda, there was Namibia in 1999 (it was a one-off and they were returned after Sam Nujoma ruled for three terms), Togo and Tunisia in 2002, Gabon and Guinea in 2003, Chad in 2005, and Cameroon and Algeria in 2008 which all repealed presidential term limits (though Tunisia has brought them back).

In Nigeria, Zambia and Malawi, presidents who came in riding on a wave of popular democratic support would see them try to discard term limits, in what would end up being a stain on their democratic credentials – Olusegun Obasanjo in Nigeria, Frederick Chiluba in Zambia and Bakili Muluzi in Malawi. 

It was particularly disappointing because these were presidents who had removed long-serving incumbents (in Chiluba and Muluzi’s case) or led the country to a return to democracy after decades of military rule (in Obasanjo’s case). But their attempts to hang on were thwarted by their respective Parliaments.


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