Mark Twain wrote that “if voting made any difference” the politicians “wouldn’t let us do it.”
Were this written today, it would be true of East Africa. Though elections have been regularly held since the early 1990s, incumbents don’t lose, elections are sometimes violent, and after an initial period in which freedom is expanded, it is soon under threat.
New constitutions have been fashioned or old ones amended, but there is little faith in constitutionalism. And although Tanzania has just come out of a reasonably competitive election, elsewhere things are discouraging.
Burundi held a fraudulent election in mid-2015, and is now an anarchic mélange of pogroms and disorder that seems set to deteriorate even further.
The 2013 election in Kenya may have been peaceful, but the controversies it generated have refused to die and shadow preparations are now on for the 2017 election.
In February, Uganda heads into what seems certain to be its most violent election yet.
Everywhere incumbents — both parties and presidents — have proved resilient. Only in Kenya have non-incumbent political parties won the presidency. Yet this seems trivial once we remember that the winning party at every election in Kenya since 2002 has been a electoral vehicle fabricated by some coalition of political entrepreneurs for that one election only.
The truth is that at best, electoral democracy has stagnated and, at worst, it is in retreat in East Africa. Cynical voters are staying away from the ballot. Courts have become ineffectual at stopping electoral fraud and unusually deferential to power. Kenya dreams and talks big, but invariably its leaders find new ways to be small-minded.
For all its flattering economic numbers, Rwanda risks stoking long-term discontent. At each election, Uganda seems to reach a turning point; invariably, it refuses to turn and seems to flirt with danger.
To use Thandika Mkandawire’s justly famous word, East African democracies have become increasingly “choiceless.” This is troubling: East Africa wants to be a political federation and proclaims, in Article 6 of the East African Community treaty, that it is committed to democracy, the rule of law and human rights.
What has gone wrong?
First, all EAC countries have been diligent in writing new constitutions or revising the old ones. But this rise in constitution-making has grown apace with a decline in constitutionalism.
In Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda, presidential term limits have been amended.
Over the past five years, Tanzania has made much of its desire to write a new constitution, but on the eve of the 2015 election the government stalled. The delay ensured that the country went to the polls under the old Constitution, of which neatly 100 provisions have been amended since the late 1980s.
In Kenya, the 2010 Constitution is already under pressure, five years in. Though important amendments are supposed to be backed by a referendum, the government has found ways to redefine or claw back some of the constitutional gains through statute.
International indices underline these trends: As Table 2 shows, only Tanzania has improved in the Freedom House rating on Political Freedom.
Freedom House rates countries from 1-7, 1 being most free and 7 least free. SEE TABLE 2
Tanzania scored a 3.5 in 2004, and improved by 0.5 in 2014 and 2015. All the other East African states have deteriorated.
In the World Bank’s Doing Business Survey, Rwanda at position 65, is best performer, 27 positions ahead of Uganda in second place. In the Mo Ibrahim Index of African Governance — which combines both political and economic measures — Rwanda is again the best performing at 11, four positions ahead of Tanzania that was in second place.
The best year for all countries was 2004. After that year, Burundi stagnated; Kenya deteriorated and then stagnated; Uganda and Rwanda got progressively worse on political freedom. Except in the case of Rwanda, the deterioration in political freedom has not come with better economic performance. SEE TABLE 1
Even though the performance on the Mo Ibrahim Index does not look too bad, the truth is that East Africa is the second worst performing region on the continent, hot on the heels of war-torn and conflict-ridden Central Africa, in first place as the worst performing region.
Second, it has become clear that East Africa’s leaders, especially its presidents, are ambivalent about democracy. This ambivalence is both historical and instrumental.
All were unwilling democrats: Kenya buckled under donor pressure and political protest, and its government now behaves like a school yard bully who has lost his menace. Rwanda and Burundi liberalised their politics to escape the blight of inter-ethnic conflict and cross-border rebellion.
Tanzania embraced pluralism to forestall future violent change because, as Mwalimu Nyerere said, “If you see your neighbour getting a haircut, it is wise to wet your hair lest you get a rough shave.”
Once adopted, democracy had it instrumental uses. Previous authoritarian regimes now repositioned themselves as democrats to their benefactors in the West: Leaders who won elections endorsed by external observers as minimally fair could now silence their domestic opponents.
A closer look also shows that incumbents in the EAC are playing the electoral game better: They have learnt that stuffing ballot boxes is foolhardy and often makes for violent elections.
The more savvy know that it is best to spread “little failures” across the electoral cycle so that the cumulative effect is significant enough to produce a favourable result even though, on scrutiny, none of the individual failures are large enough to make the election invalid.
Looking at Kenya’s 2013 election, for example, virtually every aspect of the election — from procurement to the voters register, the biometric system, and the electronic vote transmission of results to the dispute resolution by the courts — had some failure. Yet, as observers and the Supreme Court saw it, none of these individual failures were big enough to invalidate the election.
And therein lies the catch: A systematically flawed electoral system is more likely to produce the kind of results an incumbent needs. Hardly any surprise then that no eligible incumbent president has lost an election in the region over the past 20 years.
Governments have also learnt that one can increase electoral transparency, which foreign observers like to see, without increasing electoral accountability that guarantees accurate results. They have thus implemented reforms to strengthen electoral management bodies to make voting easy and have opened aspects of the election to a higher degree of scrutiny.
Yet this increased transparency has not made it harder to manipulate results.
Third, incumbents from Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda have convinced voters that peace is more valuable than electoral justice.
Both President Yoweri Museveni and Paul Kagame were instrumental in stabilising their countries after state breakdown and protracted civil wars.
By reminding citizens of the horrors of what their countries once went through, they have shifted the debate from what those countries could be under different leaders. In both countries, some people have come to believe that the political choice is between stability or a wager on some new hothead who could return them to the past.
Variants of this view have been embraced by CCM in Tanzania, leaders in Kenya, and Western observer groups.
This mindset is inherently pro-incumbency. Paradoxically, this trend was given credence in Cote d’Ivoire in 2010, in Kenya in 2008, and in Zimbabwe in 2008 where violence broke out after incumbents claimed victory in hotly contested elections with widespread evidence of malpractice.
Fourth, the faith in electoral technology especially biometric systems has inadvertently undermined the integrity of elections, which, in turn, may have dampened voters’ enthusiasm.
In 2013, Kenya spent $293 million, three times what it had spent in the violent 2007 elections, on technology. Yet, as we saw, technology may have created more opaque elections.
In theory, technology ensures honesty by removing discretion and human agency from the voting and transmission of results. What is often overlooked is the fact that when technology fails, the country is worse-off because no investments in secure manual systems were made.
Technology had a 20 per cent failure rate in Ghana. In Kenya, the BVR kit and the results transmission system failed completely. The result in both cases was that the voters were left in a worse situation than they would have been in if they had a secure manual system.
Fifth, even though voter turnout seems decent, a closer look reveals growing voter apathy. Table 1 shows voter turnout numbers for the last elections for the five EAC countries.
The table shows two important numbers — the third column shows the people who actually voted as a percentage of registered voters and column 5 and column 6 shows voter turnout as a percentage of the voting age population. The voting age population (VAP) is the number of people who are eligible to register as voters. SEE TABLE 1
What does the data mean? It is clear that voter turnout is fluid across the region. In 2010, only about 43 per cent of the registered voters in Tanzania turned out to vote. In Uganda in 2011, 59.3 per cent voted.
Rwanda had a high voter turnout in 2010, at 97.5 per cent.
In 2013, the voter turnout for Kenya was nearly 86 per cent, high enough to raise suspicions given the figures in previous elections. In Burundi, where President Pierre Nkurunziza’s third term bid has spawned violence, the turnout was 73.4 per cent.
Though these numbers seem impressive, closer scrutiny shows something different. Set voter turnout against the total number of eligible voters who were never registered. If you express the number who voted as a percentage of the number of eligible voters, this is called the VAP turnout. Expressed thus, the VAP turnout for Burundi’s impressive 73.4 per cent in 2015 falls to 55 per cent.
The VAP turnout has been in decline through most of the region. In Tanzania, the VAP turnout in 2000 was 53 per cent; 68 per cent in 2005 and 40.7 per cent in 2010. In 2003 in Kenya it was 33.7 per cent, 38.5 per cent in 2007 and 55.6 per cent in 2013, the highest it has been since 2000.
In Uganda, VAP turnout was 74.3 per cent in in 2001, 61.2 per cent in 2006, and 55.3 per cent in 2011. In Burundi, it was 80.1 per cent in 1993; 58.7 per cent in 2010 and 55 per cent in 2015.
Only in Rwanda has the VAP turnout been consistently above 85 per cent.
Thus, in the past three elections in East Africa, 45 per cent of eligible voters — sometimes more — are not registering. And since no incumbent is winning an overwhelming majority, except in Rwanda, the other presidents are in effect minority leaders.
Compare this with the parliamentary democracies of Northern Europe and Africa such as Seychelles and Mauritius. Over the past four elections, voter turnout in Denmark averages about 86 per cent with an impressive VAP average of 81 per cent. Sweden and Norway record similar numbers.
In Africa, the turnout figures for the past four elections for Ghana and Mauritius are comparable with those of Norway. In the past five elections, Seychelles has outperformed both Sweden and Denmark, averaging 94 per cent voter turnout with a VAP turnout of 87 per cent.
Democracy is neither safe nor secure in the region. The greatest threat to its survival is a cynical and power-hungry elite. The risk is that their wayward and self-serving policies will test the patience of the region’s growing youth.
The EAC is one of fastest urbanising regions in Africa, and its youth population is growing fast. Projecting from the current population figures, over the next eight years 1.1 million Tanzanian youth will become eligible to vote every year. In Rwanda, 350,000 and in Uganda, 750,000 youth will attain voting age.
The trends are similar in Kenya and Burundi.
By 2020, Tanzania will have an additional 5.5 million new voters and Rwanda just under 2 million, of whom nearly 1 million will have been born after the genocide.
Given that basic education is free throughout the region, this will be a voting block better educated than their parents. They will have higher expectations and, given how few jobs are being created, these voters are also likely to be unemployed.
Please fasten your seatbelts: Head-winds and turbulence ahead.
Wachira Maina is a constitutional lawyer based in Nairobi