And then... the hidden loss in the ‘momentous’ court verdict

Saturday September 9 2017

Kenya's Supreme Court judges. PHOTO | JEFF

Kenya's Supreme Court judges. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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The decision by the Supreme Court in Kenya last week to annul the presidential elections of August 8 came as a surprise.

I had tried my best to follow what was going on before and during the campaigns. Then came the result and protests by the losers that they had been robbed.

I moved on, believing that it would be just another election in Africa when winners are accused of rigging, the losers refuse to accept the result and issue threats here and there, possibly go to court and get no joy there either, and then do what opposition parties in Africa seem to do best after presidential polls: Go to sleep until next time, possibly waking up at some point to choose new leaders via equally controversial processes that leave them hopelessly divided, in turmoil, and unable to function as coherent entities.

I first got to know of the decision via WhatsApp, when a friend who delights in being a news junkie messaged me.

Soon enough, social media got over-heated with proclamations, arguments and debates about what the decision may mean for Kenya and possibly for the rest of us Africans.

I felt the question of what it could or would mean for Africa and Africans, which even international broadcasters and other media started throwing around, was a little over-the-top, but I’ll come to that in a moment.

Certainly for Kenya and Kenyans, it meant a great deal.

First, it meant they would have to pay for and hold another presidential election, and only the stars or the gods might know what it would cost and what impact that would have on their economy and God knows what else.

And then it meant that within a matter of weeks, they would lose more working time listening to politicians promising them this and that, saying nasty things about each other, and exchanging insults here and there.

And then the elections would come and those in hotly contested areas would lose more working time waiting at home while the votes were counted, tallied, and transmitted to the headquarters of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission.

And then the winner would be announced, and in places such as Nairobi and possibly several other towns, they would lose more time holed up in their houses waiting “to see what happens,” just in case violence breaks out. This, after all, is what happened in several places with the elections that were annulled. There was something else. We shall come to that shortly.

But some commentators and observers, drunk on hyperbole, courtesy of over-excitement at the slightest legal or other misfortune befalling African governments couldn’t restrain their imagination.

They took to proclaiming how the court’s “momentous” decision was not only an example for Africa, but “the whole world,” and how it sent “a strong message” that Africans were no longer willing to put up with rigged polls. Really?

Arab Spring

It certainly wasn’t the first time unpredicted political events were being touted as “sending a message to the rest of Africa.” There was the Arab Spring, for example.

We were “promised” that “Africa” was next. I thought the conclusion was rather precipitate and ignored completely the importance of context in these kinds of things.

Then the Burkinabe rose up against Blaise Compaore and threw him out. The hyperbole went up several notches. And then life in the rest of Africa simply carried on as usual, with commendably peaceful, transparent and fair elections taking place here and there; other not-so-fair, transparent or peaceful ones, also taking place elsewhere, and at least one president, Yahya Jammeh being thrown out in somewhat special circumstances.

In other words, we have continued to live our lives as if the Arab Spring never happened, as if the anti-Compaore “revolution” never took place. And so I have no doubt: What happened in Kenya will not necessarily change the way many of us do our business when it comes to conducting elections and handling petitions against electoral fraud.

Until something internal happens to trigger change in attitude and approach, and not only among politicians, but even among us ordinary people. Politicians who behave badly have many supporters, sometimes very large numbers of them, in their countries.

The bigger problem

The one thing that went unrecognised, however, was the contribution the Kenyan court made towards exposing a key problem with elections and electoral processes in Africa. And here is one other meaning of the decision for Kenya and Kenyans, and for Africans in countries where the management of elections is lamentably shoddy.

Electoral commissions in many countries never receive financial facilitation that is commensurate with the functions they are supposed to perform.

There are countries where they do not receive money to prepare the ground adequately until just before the campaigns begin, and even then, they receive less than they need. Nor are they staffed in ways that allow for presence on the ground that rules out shenanigans by politically partisan elements, including in the security forces in some countries.

Even worse, there are instances where commissions are so infiltrated by agents of rigging that there is nothing honest officials can do to prevent it from happening. And so the question is: What should we do to acquire capable, credible and trusted electoral commissions?

Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]