Ritual killings or ritual elections, here we continue to privilege form over substance

Friday October 12 2018

African presidents casting their vote. AFP

African presidents casting their vote: (from left) Cameroon's Paul Biya, Ugandan Yoweri Museveni, and Congo-Brazzaville's Denis Sassou Nguesso. PHOTOS | AFP 

By TEE NGUGI
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Muhammadu Buhari, President of Nigeria, will contest in next year’s elections despite not being in the best of health. His performance has been mediocre at best and a failure at worst.

The economy has stalled. The Nigerian army continues to struggle to contain Boko Haram. Many Chibok girls remain in the hands of the terrorist group. Corruption continues apace. National cohesion is regularly undermined by inter-ethnic violence.

His foreign policy lacks a long-term strategy and an ideological basis; it is a continuation of the age-old diplomacy of begging from the East or West.

Nigeria, a country that should command a powerful diplomatic voice, if only because of its intellectual heritage (the country of Achebe, Soyinka, Ben Okri, Abiola Irele, etc) is missing in action on the global stage. At the African Union, Nigeria’s influence is overtaken by small countries such as Rwanda.

Nigerians also continue to make up a high percentage of the Africans dying in the Mediterranean Sea trying to escape poverty. The country continues to be defined by haphazard planning, chaos and political uncertainty. For instance, drivers to the port of Lagos spend days in traffic jams because authorities have failed to use some of the huge revenue they get from the port to modernise the infrastructure in and around it.

Biya

In Cameroon, Paul Biya, the ageing tyrant, declared his candidature and run the Octiber election despite having misruled the country for over 30 years.

Cameroon is in the grip of a separatist rebellion by the English-speaking half of the country, who feel marginalised. The real reasons, though, are poverty and underdevelopment, despite the country having rich agricultural land and oil reserves.

In the fight against Islamic terrorists in the country, the Cameroonian army has committed horrifying atrocities. In one incident exposed by a foreign broadcaster, the Cameroonian army rounded up women and small children and executed them, claiming they were sympathisers of the terrorists. The images are sickening in the extreme. They remind us of the killings during the civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Museveni

Museveni in Uganda removed the age-limit legislation through intimidation and violence and looks set to rule far into the future.

While it is true that in the first five years of his rule, Museveni brought order and improved the economy, it has been downhill ever since. His recent crackdown on opposition members has irreparably damaged his legacy and instead of being remembered as a liberator, he will go down in history as one of Africa’s worst dictators.

More rulers

In Zimbabwe, veteran despot Robert Mugabe had to be eased out of power by his own army. Had that not happened, Mugabe, now in his 90s, would have been on the ballot in the elections that were held this year.

In Congo-Brazzaville, long-time strongman Sassou Nguesso still lords it over his impoverished land.

Then, of course, there is Teodoro Obiang who, together with members of his family, runs a wildly “successful” kleptocracy.

These leaders, and others not mentioned, have ruined or are ruining their countries.

But here is what is bewildering. Buhari will still attract millions of votes at the election next year, whether he eventually wins or not. So too will Biya and Museveni. Teodoro Obiang would probably lose a fair election, but he would still rack up millions of votes. Mugabe, according to credible sources, lost to Morgan Tsvangirai in 2003, but only just.

The question then is: What do elections mean to Africans? Do we see any relationship between elections and our immediate wellbeing?

After independence, we perfected rituals of a democratic state while destroying the substance they should symbolise. We stage grandiose state openings of parliament but we don’t have real parliamentary democracy. We have Members of Parliament who represent no ideology or values. We have gazette notices, maces, standing orders, etc, for the sake of it.

We use terms like “Your Excellency,” or “Your Worship” or “Honourable” as if, in and of themselves, they signify modernity and advancement. To attend an official African function is to be immersed in the absurd: Your Excellency this and that ad nauseam.

We are democracies, we boast, even as this lie is laid bare every week by images of thousands risking death on the high seas to escape poverty, ethnic killings, outdated cultural practices, and a future stifled by corruption. That is the reality the rituals camouflage.

Tee Ngugi is a social and political commentator based in Nairobi