Less than a year after coming to office in a military-engineered change that ousted the autocratic Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa won a disputed election last week.
Trouble immediately broke on August 1, after the announcement of the parliamentary election results which saw Mnangagwa's ZANU-PF winning a two-thirds majority. Opposition MDC Alliance supporters took to the streets, alleging the election had been stolen.
In a return to the bad past, the army met with them with live bullets. Nearly a dozen were killed.
When the presidential results were announced days later, Mnangagwa, nicknamed the crocodile, had won by a razor thin margin - 50.8 per cent.
Though the margin looked democratic, the MDC’s Nelson Chamisa, who placed second, rejected it as fraudulent.
The opposition has a case in alleging that the playing ground wasn’t level; opposition supporters were intimidated in some areas of the country, and ZANU-PF and Mnangagwa profited from state resources and control of state media.
However, the Zimbabwe economy is still a shambles, and plagued by shortages of most things including hard currency. So while the wanton repression and general madness of the Mugabe years are gone, this baggage was thought to be sufficient to drag Mnangagwa and his ZANU-PF down and cancel out the advantages of incumbency. It didn’t.
Even though no liberation party has yet been defeated in an African election, the youthful Chamisa didn’t help himself too much. For starters the opposition failed to form a broad united front, splitting their votes. Then Chamisa was derided as a fantasist and childish. Earlier in the year, he was mocked when he claimed credit for the achievements of Rwanda’s digital sector, alleging that he gave President Paul Kagame the blue print.
When Kagame said he didn’t know him, he posted a photo him greeting the Rwanda leader at a past public event. Presumably he passed his digital inspiration through a handshake.
During the campaign he promised bullet trains, and airports to very village he came upon. God knows Zimbabwe needs hope, but even to the optimists Chamisa was away with the fairies.
His faults notwithstanding, there was still something deeply troubling in Chamisa’s defeat. And it has been under our noses in many African elections.
Our politics, at least the rhetoric, give a very high premium to youth. Leaders like Chamisa, who is 40, are seen as the future. Though Mnangagwa is all of 19 years younger than Mugabe, he is still 75. But it didn’t place him as at disadvantage.
In Africa, except in rare cases like then-51-year-old Macky Sall defeating incumbent Abdoulaye Wade who was 86 in 2012, the youthful challenger more often than not loses. In Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf beat the much younger George Weah like a drum when they faced off.
The odds, tends to favour the more youthful candidate when he/she faces an older rival in an election where the incumbent has stepped down (Kenya in 2013, Angola in 2017).
It would seem that African voters are more conservative than they make out, trusting more the presumed wisdom of age, than the promise of youthful energy and innovation.
However, they also have a twisted sense of fairness, reasoning that the younger candidate still has many years ahead of him to be president, so he should let the old man enjoy his remaining few years.
Further, even in this age of ubiquitous FM radio, TV, and the mobile phone, we are likely still underestimating how hard it is a newbie like Chamisa to be known, and how slowly news travels in Africa.
Though things have changed a lot since, after the ouster of Ugandan military dictator Idi Amin in April 1979, an election was held in December 1980.
A popular politician went to campaign on the slopes of Mt Elgon, between Uganda and Kenya, an area with smuggling routes and therefore the people were likely to be worldly bootleggers.
The people assembled to hear to hear the man from the city, and his well-washed delegation. So he set forth, telling the people how he had played a heroic role in the defeat of Amin. How a new dawn had arrived, and he was going to restore the area to its past glory, and help propel Uganda back to greatness.
Then it was time for the masses to ask questions. The first man who put his hand up asked: “What happened to Amin?” They didn’t know he had been chased away 18 months ago.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africapedia.com and explainer Roguechiefs.com. Twitter: @cobbo3