Can You Have Democracy Without Democrats?
Democracy is not a concept that is too difficult to understand. It allows for what can be put in the Ghanaian language, Twi, as ‘ka-bi-ma-me-nka bi’: (literally, “You say your piece — and let me too say mine”.)
But “saying one’s piece” throws up several problems. What should be the content of my piece? Should it be allowed to contain insults to your person? Should it be allowed to include words that could incite hatred against you and which could therefore cause physical harm to be inflicted upon your person or your property?
It is in order to ensure that the exercise of one person’s democratic rights should not end in the abuse of another person’s own that society has invented “referees” who can listen to both sides, when a dispute arises, and come to a fair and unbiased determination of the rights and wrongs of particular cases presented to them for adjudication. These impartial referees can be either judges appointed to the judicial “bench”, or institutions, members of whose boards are selected by a laid-down procedure. In all these processes, the assumption is that those who are selected or appointed would, as soon as they become designated as official “referees”, jettison their personal predilections and act as unbiased assessors of facts, and thus arrive at conclusions that can be acceptable as fair to both sides in a dispute.
But what happens if the people who are put on such independent institutions are self-seekers who do not, in fact, believe in the impartial processes they are supposed to observe in their task of adjudicating issues? What if they urn out to be what, in the parlance of Ghanaian village football spectators, are known as a “referee konkonsa” (a referee with a pre-determined agenda)? At a village football match, what usually happens is that there is a pitch invasion, during which not only the referee but members of the team who have benefited from his biased rulings may be beaten to within an inch of their lives.
This creates an unhealthy situation whereby referees refuse to officiate at village football matches. (That partly explains why village football is dying out in rural Ghana and why everyone these days tries to find a TV set with a satellite dish, on which Real Madrid and Barcelona, Arsenal and Spurs, Manchester United and Manchester City, can strut their stuff.)
In many ways, modern African society is organised like a village football match: independent referees (judges) are needed to serve on the courts; on the boards of institutions such as the Universities, the publicly-owned media, and above all, the Electoral Commission. The Ghana Constitution, for instance, tries, as far as possible, to devise ways in which such bodies can operate in a manner that can make them independent of the Government of the day. But a lot depends on the individuals appointed to these institutions. Some people are “afraid of democracy”– even the mere “spirit” of it — and no matter what the ideals the Constitution espouses, they would much rather act either on the express instructions of a cheque-wielding executive, or in a voluntarily sycophantic manner, if they have secret affinities to the executive.
People appointed to the Electoral Commission are particularly vital in ensuring that democracy thrives in a country. As I write, Election Commissions in two African countries — Gabon and the Seychelles Islands — have taken actions that have produced diametrically opposite election results. In Gabon, the Electoral Commission has made a present of the presidential election held on 27 August 2016 to the incumbent President, Ali Bongo, by giving him victory — with only about 6,000 votes, it’s true — but victory all the same!
Now, in a “first-past-the-post” election, the number of votes by which Bongo won doesn’t matter – even a majority of one is still a majority! But in Gabon’s case, the process by which even the slim majority of 6,000 was gifted to Ali Bongo beggars belief: in one province, Upper Ogooué (the “stronghold” of President Ali Bongo) the results declared by the Gabonese Electoral Commission indicated that 99.83% of the electorate turned out to vote, and that95.46% of them voted for Ali Bongo!
“The adjustment has been brutal!” wrote a Correspondent of the French daily, Le Monde., “ For this means that only 50 voters of the 71,786 registered on the electoral list of Upper Ogooué, as published in April 2016, did not go to vote!”
The Correspondent quoted one European diplomat as describing the result as “whimsical”. But even with 95.46% of votes allocated to him in that home province of his, Ali Bongo “raided” the voting system to obtain “what had been lacking” – enough votes “to finally overtake Jean Ping with a majority of some 6,000 votes at the national level. Miracle!” the Correspondent added.
No wonder Mr Jean Ping announced on 8 September 2016 that he had appealed to the Constitutional Court of Gabon to contest the results. He is asking the Constitutional Court to order a recount at Upper Ogooué. Jean Ping charged that participation in the election in the province, which would have had to be 100% and which gave more than 95% of the vote to Al Bongo, had “been inflated to give the victory to Ali Bongo.”
Actually, past presidents of Gabon are said to have “mastered the art of rigging elections”. (Indeed, it was distrust the Constitutional Court – dubbed by the opposition as “the Leaning Tower” because it always “leans” toward the incumbent — that made Jean Ping hesitate before filing his challenge.) “In the time of Ali’s father [Omar Bongo who ruled the country from 1967 until his death in 2009], the “family fiefdom” of Upper Ogooué always served as a means of ”adjusting” the results in such as a way as would ensure their victory.
“But they have miscalculated, this time” says the Le Monde Correspondent. He adds that they did not expect Jean Ping to secure such a high percentage of the votes. Pig’s share was boosted by the unity within the opposition movements and the erosion of popular support for the Bongo family, whose suspected corruption is put at a level that defies credibility.
Meanwhile, in the Seychelles Islands, on the other hand, a fair-minded and impartial Electoral Commission has just handed the opposition Seychelles National Party (SNP) and its partners (four smaller opposition parties) together known as The Seychellois Alliance, victory in Parliamentary elections, against the incumbent government. Before the result was announced, the President, Mr James Michel (who evidently respects the “spirit of democracy”) had declared that he would work with the newly elected legislature, no matter what the result. “My hope is that the spirit of consultation continues in the new National Assembly, where we shall all work together for the common good of our nation.,” President Michel said.
The question is: how can we ensure that election results in Africa are not dependent on Electoral Commissions and Constitutional Courts whose decisions are so biased that they cannot be accepted by the whole populace as impartial? This is what I wrote about this subject nearly seven years ago: (in October 2010, to be exact):
QUOTE: “We have seen, through blood on the streets, that African elections are too important to be left to chance. No political event is more dangerous than an African general election. In Kenya, a ‘minor’ civil war did occur in December 2007, when election results were declared in a manner that the populace clearly thought was manipulated… Several thousand people were killed in inter-ethnic fighting that arose out of the dissatisfaction with the election’s results as declared, and many more were rendered homeless and became internal refugees.. The unrest continued far into 2008.” UNQUOTE
But the preservation of life during elections has not become a priority that pre-occupies the councils of Africa’s political bodies. For instance, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is trying seriously to provide citizens of the region with a common passport. Now, that’s all well and good. But who will use the passports if, in the mean time, the citizens have slaughtered one another in the wake of disputed election results?
I pray ECOWAS to take the lead in Africa and set up a Regional Electoral Commissionthat can supervise elections in all the countries in West Africa. Such a step, if successful, would undoubtedly persuade the African Union too to set up other Regional Electoral Commissions all over the continent.It’s no use merely sending “observers” who cannot influence the actual results, and whose “post-mortem” barbs can be — and usually are — dismissed with contempt as “imperialist-style interference” by the government that benefits from the rigging of the votes. Indeed, second only to the election itself, an Electoral Commission in cahoots with an incumbent government is the greatest threat to the lives of the people of every country in Africa.
ENDPIECE: Would it not be an ironical twist of fate if Mr Jean Ping of Gabon, former Chair of the AU, were to be invited to provide first-hand evidence to support the idea of Continental or Regional Electoral Commissions? Jean Ping didn’t react in the immediate past when I wrote in several publications, advocating the idea of non-local Electoral Commissions, when he was still AU Chair. I bet that with benefit of hindsight — obtained from the “eventful” electioneering experience he’s just been through in Gabon — he now wishes he’d paid attention at the time!