Elections bring out the best of East African’s voters quest for democracy — early and high turnout, mostly peaceful and, yes, aspirations for a better future through self-determination.
Yet elections, the only legal route to power in a democracy, also bring out the worst of politicians — greed, disregard of the law and elevation of personal interests over those of nation.
Recent events across East Africa portray this discord where the electorate place immense trust in democratic institutions like the Executive, Legislative and the Judiciary, only for the political class to undermine that confidence one misdeed at a time.
A brawl in the Uganda parliament as tempers flared over moves to remove the presidential age limit and infringement on the sanctity of parliament by strangers are the last thing voters had in mind when they elected the leaders in February.
In Kenya, the bitter falling out from the Supreme Court annulling the incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta’s re-election played out in the chambers with opposition legislators walking out in the face of frustration that they could not block amendments to electoral laws. The changes will make it near impossible for a presidential election to be overturned in future.
Over in Tanzania, murmurs are increasing of official intolerance since the 2015 election, while unexplained arrest of opposition figures in Rwanda and disappearance of government critics in Burundi round up evidence that all is not well with governance in the region.
All this after the end of a two-year cycle of election that saw three incumbents return, a peaceful handover in one country and a surprise successful election in another.
In all cases, however, a couple of themes emerge. First, incumbents tighten their control with every new mandate leading to excesses and reprisals against political rivals and watchdog institutions like the media and civil society.
Second, the arms of government are set up against each other in turf wars mostly engineered by political players. Once the institutions are discredited, their standing in the public eye is undermined leaving the governing class to continue with its designs.
As opposition ranks whittle in number amid sustained material and legal onslaught from government ranks, the executive increasingly becomes a law unto itself. With their control of the legislature, ruling parties have reduced the opposition to walkouts as controversial laws are passed resulting to mass protests and a clamp down by law-enforcement agencies.
Third, eventually this suppression leads to civil unrest. Ordinarily, strong ruling parties should not be anathema to democracy; it’s their leaders with a single minded pursuit of power that are.
Defenders of the machinations for political dominance in the region argue that they are perfectly being done within the law. In short they are legal. In politics and governance, however, legitimacy is more important than legality.
That is why winning an election boycotted by the opposition is a loss for democracy just like unilaterally pushing through legal changes undermines their enforcement.
In the end, East African leaders should seek to enhance the legitimacy of their actions guided by what legacies they want to bequeath future generations.