What you don’t want to know about African elections

Wednesday March 8 2017

Liberia's President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf at Laico Regency Hotel in Nairobi on December 14, 2015. PHOTO | ROBERT NGUGI | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Liberia's President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf at Laico Regency Hotel in Nairobi on December 14, 2015. PHOTO | ROBERT NGUGI | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Parts of this column aren’t meant to be taken too seriously, but it will still be written. Founded in 1822 by the US as a safe haven for emancipated slaves returning to Africa, Liberia became an independent state in 1847.

It is the oldest independent country in Africa, and some people, after knocking down too many beers, even claim it is Africa’s oldest democracy, just because it had elections.

If everything had been normal, as it celebrates its 170th anniversary this year, Liberia would be Africa’s richest and freest country. It is not, despite the best efforts of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of the last 10 years.

A narrow-minded coastal Creole elite, years of insane military rule, and then civil war, set it back terribly.

A recent report by the Pretoria-based Institute for Strategic Studies notes: “In October 2017, for the first time in over half-a-century, Liberians will participate in the peaceful transfer of power between a living president and an elected successor”.

It probably doesn’t fill many with hope about African democracy that a country that has been independent for 170 years could go for over 50 years without a political transition. But even that is too rosy. If you are a democracy purist, then Liberia has really never had a proper peaceful transfer between a living president and an elected successor. That said, that is still a fairly low standard, because power doesn’t have to leave the ruling power. It has happened four times in Tanzania since 1985, while power remained firmly with the ruling Cha Cha Mapinduzi (CCM).


Some countries in East Africa are still not that lucky. Uganda, for example, has never seen such a transfer even within ruling parties.

Taking it a notch higher, in the East African Community, Kenya became the first country where the opposition tasted victory after defeating the ruling party candidate, with former President Mwai Kibaki’s win against Kanu’s (now President) Uhuru Kenyatta in December 2002.

The real democracy star in East Africa, and, indeed, Africa, was Somalia, our long-term failed, but slowly recovering state. In 1967, Somalia’s independence leader Aden Abdulle Osman Daar, after only seven years in the presidential palace, was defeated in elections. Perhaps he was chewing some very strong stuff, because he became the first African head of state to peacefully hand over power to a democratically elected successor.

However, Aden was not high on something. Though many don’t realise, Somalia (if you include Puntland and Somaliland), accounts for nearly 50 per cent of incumbent defeats and political transitions to elected successors in Africa of the last 20 years! All this is part of a search for what might happen in Kenya’s and other elections in Africa in the year.

If we look at Somalia, there is hope for Kenya. It seems that a country needs just one incumbent party or leader defeat as baptism to begin transition to democracy.


There might be an interruption of 40 years of brutal military rule and civil war as in Somalia, but the democratic appetite doesn’t seem to die out. So even if the next elections don’t end well for Kenya, a future one will. That might not be much comfort, but it’s still hope.

One thing we are not sure of, is why wars seem to have very different impacts on democracy in West Africa, on the one hand, and East and southern Africa, on the other hand. Liberia and Sierra Leone moved toward truly competitive years after their wars. In East Africa, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, South Sudan, Burundi, and down south, Angola, Mozambique, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia became effectively one-party states, with several ruled by strongmen.

The problem, then, it seems is for those countries that have never got on the transition treadmill. When will countries like Ethiopia or Uganda win the freewheeling democracy lottery?

The example of Liberia is not encouraging. According to traditional political theory, long years of independence bring with them a maturity of the politics, and even an otherwise hopeless political class eventually reaches a consensus and a pact on sharing the spoils of power. Something along the lines of what has happened in India.

If you work with 160 years, it means for Uganda that will happen in 2122. And if Tanzania, because it has taken some transition baby steps, will need 80 years after independence to get there, then CCM will lose its first election in 2042.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher, Africa data visualiser Africapedia.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com.

Twitter: @cobbo3