Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Butterfly effect: Kenya, ethnicity and politics in Africa

Regardless of what our masthead says, we’ve come to focus most of our attention on West Africa. Africa, it seems, is the dream for the Attention Deficit Disorder-addled journalist. The continent is far too large, too diverse to attempt to skillfully cover the whole thing. And, let’s be honest: If all of Africa gets pretty short shrift in the English-speaking international press, West Africa proudly languishes on the bottom rung. It’s generally poorer than other regions; French-ier, too. What’s more: few game parks call the region home, and high-quality diving spots have never been its specialty.

So, it may be a bit out of our purview to speak about Kenya’s shameful elections and their violent aftermath. What interested me about the press coverage is that it has been the Americans – mostly the New York Times – that picked up on the ethnic card right away and ran with it. It’s not that the British or French have ignored the issue – ethnic fighting made headlines in Le Monde – but the European stories seem to concentrate primarily on political realities of the two parties and place ethnic tensions secondary. I am not saying either method is better than the other. It may just make light of the difference on how Americans (or U.S. newspapers) view Africa compared to Europeans.

I ♥ term limits
One discussion missing from the coverage – which has been very good, all things considered – is not about local ethnic and political issues, but grander themes affecting the whole continent. As more African countries tilt towards what most people abstractly call “democratic norms,” elections seem much more contested (and fairer) than a decade before. This may because of rising education levels or the growing influence on civil society (another buzz word). But no reform is most likely more important than the presidential term limits. First, term limits provide an easy litmus test on a president’s dedication to constitutionalism: any attempt to change the number of terms and you look like a villain (even if you succeed).

Second, term limits will eventually force presidents out of office, which relegates heads of state to a position at least somewhat subordinate to the needs of their political party. During the age of Africa’s Dinosaurs, it was the need (and power) of the President who trumped all party needs. That’s because the president most likely created the party to fulfill said needs. But even in nominally democratic Burkina Faso where Blaise Compaore has run his party, the CDP, like a personal fiefdom, younger members see the light at the end of the tunnel of his reign and are beginning to yearn to taste a little of the that wine themselves.

What term limits have helped usher in, then, feels like the beginning of a larger seismic shift to more (in general terms) of a Western Hemisphere version of politics. In the New World, by and large, the party machines triumph over personalities. Think of Mexico and the near seventy-year run of the PRI. Think of elections in places like El Salvador which were just smoke-and-mirror affairs where members of the oligarchy merely switched chairs. Think the generation-long Republican stranglehold on the Executive Branch in the United States and the corresponding Democratic iron grip on the Legislative Branch.

As democracies mature and civil institutions strengthen, it becomes imperative for parties who have enjoyed long periods in power to continue their grip on supremacy. Look at Kenya. If the opposition Orange Democratic Movement would come to power, not only would NARC lose the power of the purse, but investigations – studies into scandals and past sins – would spread like a khat bush after a nice long rain.

Those dastardly opposition leaders
There’s a sub-section to this argument. The long-suffering former opposition party leaders who finally reach the throne. Think Cote d’Ivoire and Senegal, where long-term whipping boys were either exiled or forced to show up at the airport come rain or shine and shake hands with every C-list dignitary bent on flying to Africa. Oh, these opposition leaders were given cursory powers, but they mostly were democratic window-dressing.

After humbly spending decades in shame as the ruling party dreamed up new ways to appropriate their reforms, steal their best politicians and beat them come election day, once these former minions got their chance at the throne, they weren’t going to let go. Think the rumors that Abdoulaye Wade grooming his son for power. Think of the (xenophobic?) shenanigans Laurent Gbagbo has stirred up to continue power in Cote d’Ivoire.

Part of the problem is age. Just because opposition leaders fought Africa’s dinosaurs tooth and nail doesn’t mean they were any more committed to democracy than the presidents-for-life. It’s an argument that says a new Africa would benefit from a whole a new generation of politicians, especially in politically ill countries like Zimbabwe. (On a random note, age is one factor why some people support Barack Obama in the United States.)

In a continent full of political realists, the average African doesn’t have to look far to find fault with Kenya’s election. How can voters oust half the ruling party’s cabinet and still bring back the president to power? (One Kenyan opposition leader told the New York Times: “We live in Kenya. We are Kenyans. We know what is happening.”)

Fool us once – shame on you
One of the underlying factors of the opposition’s fury may stem from what they saw on television – in Nigeria. It was during 2007’s other major election in Anglophone Africa where a ruling party acknowledged it helped swing the vote for its candidate in a tainted election. While opposition parties cried foul, a few days of protests – some of them quite violent – eventually fizzled out and the president remains sitting, although with circumscribed powers.

Word travels fast in these parts. Kenyans most likely learned a lot from the precedent of still-born democracy in Nigeria. Kenyans came to understand how far a ruling party can bend the law, install their choice in the Presidential Palace and then make nice and promise never to do it again – all in the name of Democracy. Once that lesson was understood – and most likely a few others – the anger Kenyans possessed towards their own sham election spread like fire. Of course history and local realities play a big role. But this is also a larger African issue. Presidents and heads of state often get together to talk over issues of the day – and most likely trade notes. We can’t underestimate the fact that African citizens fully understand that criminal politics that go down in one country could easily produce a butterfly effect elsewhere.

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