Democracy in East Africa loses out as governments battle opposition

Saturday June 18 2016

A look at the region’s political scene reveals the grim struggle between those in power and those who oppose them, in a way that augurs ill for the political pluralism they have all subscribed to. TEA GRAPHIC | FILE PHOTOS |

A look at the region’s political scene reveals the grim struggle between those in power and those who oppose them, in a way that augurs ill for the political pluralism they have all subscribed to, at least on paper.

The gap between the written constitutional provisions, which set up multi-party dispensations, and what happens on the ground grows wider every year.

In Kenya, the opposition, led by lynchpin Raila Odinga of the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD), has locked horns with President Uhuru Kenyatta of the Jubilee coalition on the former’s insistence on the reform of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), which the opposition claims is biased in favour of the ruling coalition.

So far, some deaths have occurred from police shooting during demonstrations called by Mr Odinga and his supporters to force President Kenyatta to agree to a negotiated settlement of the matter.

Apart from the wrangle over the electoral body, Mr Odinga has appended other issues for discussion, including what he terms rampant corruption and ethnically biased appointments to government positions.

On its part, the presidential coalition, which includes Deputy President William Ruto, has vacillated between a hard stance and conciliation, stating that the opposition is free to continue with its demonstrations, but that police would take stern action against offenders, a grim warning when people have already been shot. 


READ: Kenyan opposition struggling to define itself

In Uganda, the epic struggle between President Yoweri Museveni and his erstwhile comrade Kizza Besigye of the opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) shows no sign of letting up.

President Museveni, who has ruled Uganda since 1986, has consistently roughed up any opposition to his tenacious hold on power. Dr Besigye, who was with President Museveni in the bush and served as his personal physician, has been the latter’s nemesis, refusing to buckle under incessant police beatings, incarceration and house arrest.

After the last election in February, which was officially won by President Museveni, Dr Besigye was once again subjected to harassment as he sought the nullification of the results. In a farcical gesture, the “Colonel Daktari” as he is nicknamed, Dr Besigye organised his own swearing-in ceremony proclaiming him “president” and is now facing treason charges.

READ: Will Museveni fulfil mission to ‘wipe out’ the opposition?

In Rwanda, President Paul Kagame remains the unchallenged chief of the political pecking order, and his Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) controls most of the power. 

The opposition has generally been pushed into exile, with some of the president’s closest former allies, who came into power with him after the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, in self-exile abroad from where they mount propaganda campaigns against him.

The opposition that remains in the country is weak and inconsequential; some of its leaders have been co-opted into government in accordance with a formula agreed in the Arusha Accord of 1993.

READ: With little opposition, Kagame to win in 2017

As for neighbouring Burundi, chaos has reigned since the decision by President Pierre Nkurunziza to seek a controversial third term. The country, no stranger to mayhem for long periods, has been plunged into free-for-all violence that has witnessed numerous and ubiquitous political assassinations in parts of Bujumbura.

READ: Burundi opposition is limited

And, always flying under the radar, Tanzania has often demonstrated a knack for undergoing worrisome developments without the outside world being any the wiser for it.

It may be that the Kiswahili language, in which most of the political discourse is carried out, insulates Tanzania from scrutiny abroad. Yet all is not well, and the trend has been for those in power, essentially the CCM party and the state machinery, to tighten their grip on power and to allow as little space as possible to the opposition.

Currently, there is a prohibition on political rallies, and recent attempts by the opposition party Chadema to hold public meetings have been thwarted with force: In some places, the leaders have not been allowed to access their own offices.

In parliament, there is a standoff between the opposition and deputy speaker Tulia Ackson, who is standing in for titular speaker Job Ndugai, who is undergoing medical treatment.

Under her watch, seven opposition members stand suspended for long periods of time, leading to the depletion of the numbers in their ranks and giving free rein to ruling party legislators for a good part of the remainder of this year.

Parliament has also adopted budgetary measures, which means that the municipal councils that are controlled by the opposition in most major towns are deprived of funding, with crucial tax collection functions transferred to the central government.

READ: Now Tanzania gagging the opposition both in and out of parliament

This East African tableau suggests that whatever gains made in the recent past in terms of democratisation via plural politics have proved to be reversible, and that the forces of reaction, firmly rooted in the old colonial order are still in control.

Calls for a new constitutional order, negotiated and enacted by popular will, have been rife in Tanzania, for instance, but it is instructive to note that even Kenya, which has a brand-new constitution, does not seem to be moving at the pace of the aspirations initially engendered by that document.

But, at least in Kenya, campaigners do have a standard they can carry and refer to in their struggle to translate the letter of the law into the spirit of their politics.

Former Tanzanian president Jakaya Kikwete went through the motions of writing a constitution, spent huge amounts of money on the project and then dumped it midstream, having squandered not only a fortune, but also the democratic aspirations of a whole nation.

Meanwhile, in Zanzibar, a mockery of the electoral process has ended in the installation of a government that seriously lacks legitimacy because the opposition boycotted the repeat election in March, after the October 2015 election was declared null and void. Still, Ali Mohammed Shein of CCM goes about as president of the Isles despite mumblings from foreign donors.

READ: US cancels $472m Tanzania aid deal over Zanzibar election

Across the African continent, the story is not very different. The multiparty dispensation wrought for African countries after the collapse of the Soviet empire and the end of the cold war in the early 1990s posited plural politics as the gold standard to be aimed for by countries that aspired to respectability in the eyes of the donor community and wanted to enhance their chances of qualifying for continued economic aid.

New players have entered the scramble for African resources, and in this new race, few questions are asked of our rulers. China, India, Turkey, Brazil, Iran, Israel, Japan, among others, are doing roaring business with Africa without too much sensitivity to issues of governance that informed an earlier generation of scramblers.

In a twisted logic, the playing field is being levelled in the new competition, and African rulers, ever weary of “meddling” foreigners, are none too sorry for it. That leaves the imperative to fight for better governance systems and processes firmly in the hand of Africans themselves, to fulfill or to betray.

Only the African patriots, committed to the betterment of their continent no matter what the cost may be, are left with the task of moving this agenda forward. And it will not be easy.