THE ‘NATION’ RECENTLY AND single-handedly condemned the sham that passed for a general election in Ethiopia. The editor might as well not have bothered: Ethiopia’s ‘election’ was worth little comment, other than for the dry observation by Westerners that, since Meles Zenawi is back in power, it was business as usual. Hence, some food aid for next year is in order — better to begin preparations early.
Elections in Africa are wearisome affairs. Why we bother to go through all the tedium is unclear. It is obvious that, save for Kenneth Kaunda and Kamuzu Banda back in the early days of multi-party democracy, sitting rulers — Africans rule, they don’t lead — are never defeated at the polls. But the toll that our ritualised, so-called elections take on the populace is such that we might as well not bother.
WHAT, FOR EXAMPLE, WAS THE POINT of Sudan’s recent elections? Everyone knew President Omar al-Bashir would win. And so with Ethiopia — there was to be no coalition hither-and-thither, as was the case in Britain a few weeks ago. There was to be no hung Parliament. Mr Zenawi, you see, is a typical African dictator. He doesn’t do hung parliaments.
Decrying the fraud in the Ethiopian poll, the Nation diplomatically deplored what it called “high-handedness” in the polls. This is code-speak for election theft and outright thuggery. In the process of ensuring he would win the elections, Mr Zenawi followed a well-worn path that sticks to a tried-and-tested script whose end results are never in doubt: the incumbent stays put, no matter what.
The ritual dance — for that is what elections in Africa inevitably are — begins with ensuring that the sitting head of government is the only authority who knows the election date in advance, until he announces it at his pleasure.
Before the date is publicised, though, it is a state secret. This secrecy is used to allow the ruling party to click into gear while the opposition sleeps. Provincial party branches are showered with cash and leaflets in preparation for the upcoming campaigns. The local mint is instructed to print billions in extra bank notes, and to the hills with the resultant inflation, however ruinous it might be.
A few shysters make a quick buck in the process, sucking off the big man and his acolytes in the fevered frenzy of election preparations. They can, you see, always become religious and born-again once they get wealthy. Repentance never turned anyone away.
With the party machinery thus oiled, the sitting head of government then turns his attention to his putative opponents. Frightful repression then follows. The commonest method is to simply throw such uppity opponents into jail on one excuse or the other.
Excuses abound. In Rwanda, an opposition leader dared come back to the country to run against President Paul Kagame in the elections set for August this year. Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza was thrown into jail immediately she landed in Kigali for stating the obvious: that Rwanda’s officially-sanctioned version of the 1994 genocide is not necessarily all that it is.
She even dared to mention that there are Hutus and Tutsis in the tiny country — an abomination that Mr Kagame will not tolerate. The ascetic leader maintains there is only one tribe in Rwanda: the Rwandese.
SUDAN’S AL-BASHIR ALSO THREW his opponents in jail shortly before the election. It is a given that a sitting president will be re-elected, but African leaders love high percentages. A mere win just doesn’t do. One needs the blood-stained legitimacy of a landslide.
When Robert Mugabe’s voters looked likely to dither in favour of Morgan Tsvangirai, he had them bludgeoned and starved to death. But they still had the temerity to hand the election to Mr Tsvangirai, so Mr Mugabe ignored the results and had himself sworn in as president.
Uganda acted out a similar charade a few years ago — President Yoweri Museveni even forced Mr Kizza Besigye, his opponent, to flee the country for his life.
And so it was with Ethiopia. Mr Zenawi wanted to remain in power, so Mr Zenawi remained in power.