FOLLOWING poor performances by their parties, or themselves, in Thursday’s election, three British politicians have resigned their leadership positions. It was strikingly different from what happens in African elections.
Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, won his parliamentary seat but his party was wiped out, losing 47 of the seats it held going into the election, and coming off with only a paltry eight.
Nigel Farage, the sharp-tongued leader of the anti-immigration and anti-European Union UK Independence Party, lost his bid for a parliamentary seat and fizzled out, managing only one seat. He too jumped.
Labour Party leader Ed Miliband and his party went into the election with all major opinion polls showing they were neck and neck with Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives, opening up even the possibility that Labour could form a coalition with the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP).
A train wreck
Instead the election was a train wreck. Pummeled out of nearly all its seats in Scotland, Labour came out woefully short with 232. When the counting was done, what seemed nearly impossible had happened – Cameron’s Conservatives had confounded everyone not just with a much better performance than had been projected, but unlike in 2010 when he had to govern in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the party had a majority, albeit small, to form a government on its own with 331 seats.
There was only thing left for Miliband to do; take responsibility for Labour’s debacle, walk out to the porch, and fall on his sword. Which he promptly did.
To an African watcher, there were many things that were starkly different between a UK and African election. There were the routine ones – there were no opposition candidates in prison or in hospital with bandaged heads, polling stations opened on time, there was no violence, no killings, no police arrests, no one snatched and fled with ballot boxes as frequently happens, and the candidates lined up as results are announced, and the losers congratulate the winners.
However, it is the immediate resignation of leaders whose parties performed badly that stands out. If the UK had been Nigeria, then president-elect Muhammadu Buhari wouldn’t have won the elections last month.
He had lost three previous elections, before defeating President Goodluck Jonathan.
To name just a few others, especially of those who tried many times before being victorious, in Kenya before Mwai Kibaki won with a landslide in the December 2002 elections, he had lost two previous bids for the presidency.
In 2007 Kibaki fought a close-run presidential contest with veteran politician Raila Odinga, which ended in dispute and violence. The crisis ended when a coalition government was formed with Odinga as prime minister. In 2013 Odinga again battled with now president Uhuru Kenyatta – and lost. It was Raila’s third attempt at the presidency.
Senegal’s Abdoulaye Wade, ran for president four times, beginning in 1978, before he was elected in 2000.
In Ghana, John Atta Mills eventually became president with a victory in 2009. He had stood and lost two times before, in the 2000 and then the 2004 presidential races. He died in office three years into his first term in 2012.
There are several explanations for these differences. In Africa, incumbents enjoy the kind of advantages they don’t in the UK or the West generally, going into elections.
And in the West, incumbents don’t control the election authorities or fiddle the vote as is often the case in nearly all of Africa.
The result is an election in the west usually clearly settles a political contest, with the loser not able to claim he or she was cheated, and the only possible victory being a moral one, which is achieved by gracefully accepting defeat and taking responsibility for defeat of your party – and resigning.
In Africa, an election only sets up a grudge match for the next poll, and while incumbents might many times be able to steal victory, the election often ends with moral victory for a robbed opposition. The opposition leader, almost inevitably, is forced to stand at the next election to prove he was defrauded at the last vote and to appease his aggrieved base.
Thus in the case of Uganda between 2001 and 2011, President Yoweri Museveni and his one-time ally and physician during the bush war, Dr Kizza Besigye, grappled in three very personal and acrimonious electoral face-offs.
Secondly, partly for the reason above, because democracy is still evolving on the continent, elections are seen not just a once-in-five-years race, but a continuous struggle to establish democracy itself.
The differences in outcomes can be stark. Thus the Kenya of Kibaki between 2003 and 2013, was as different as day and night, from that of his predecessor Daniel arap Moi, mostly for the better.
On the negative side, because politics is a still patronage-fuelled and pork-filled affair, the difference between being a winning candidate and becoming president or minister, and being out as a loser, can be the difference between being one of the richest men in the country, and one of the poorest.
Many times, therefore, candidates are not candidates. They are soldiers in a war. Resigning is not resigning. It is surrender on the battlefield.