Africa Watch

Yet another controversial election in Africa puts AU in negative light

Elections Africa.jpg

Yet another disputed election has not only dumped another African country into uncertainty and despair, but also reflects negatively on the African Union’s ability to promote democracy on the continent.

Notwithstanding shortcomings and mistakes such as the Tlokwe mishap, South Africans can be satisfied, even proud, of the way the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) has managed elections.

Never has the outcome of any election overseen by the IEC ever been in doubt, which is in contrast to far too many election results elsewhere in Africa. Controversy and anger followed immediately after the announcement of the results of the continent’s two most recent presidential elections.

In Zambia and particularly Gabon, where violence erupted and people were killed as protesters took to the streets, opposition parties claimed large-scale voting irregularities took place. To date this has never happened in South Africa.  

In Zambia the country’s electoral commission faltered badly. It took the Zambian election commission several days to release the election result, and the slow counting and delay not only increased tension in what was Zambia’s most violent election to date, but also fuelled speculation of vote tampering, which the opposition seized upon after the final announcement was made. The incumbent, president Lungu, scored a slim victory of only 100 000 votes.

Hakainde Hichilema, the main opposition candidate, immediately cried foul, claiming the result was rigged, and launched a legal challenge.

Zambia’s constitutional court rejected Hichilema’s appeal, but with the impartiality of the court under suspicion, doubt will persist.  

In a further blow to democracy and free speech, Neves Mumba, leader of the opposition Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) and a former vice president of Zambia, was arrested for allegedly trying to prevent the inauguration of President Lungu. In opposing his bail application, the state advocate described Mumba as “a threat to national security”.

Gabon’s rigged election

Things were much worse in Gabon’s presidential election – rigging was blatant and shameless.

Gabon is a small oil-rich, but dirt-poor, country in central Africa, with one-third of its 1,8 million citizens living in poverty, despite the country boasting one of Africa’s highest per capita incomes at US$8,300 annually.

Gabon, a former French colony, is also in all but name the fiefdom of the ruling Bongo family. Omar Bongo ruled Gabon with an iron fist for 42 years until his death, and was then replaced by his son, Ali Bongo, in 2009, in an election considered fixed with French assistance.

Gabon seldom makes headlines, but that changed on 27 August 2016 when unrest broke out after the country’s electoral commission declared president Ali Bongo the winner by a meagre 5 000 votes. Most of these votes came from Bongo’s home province of Haut-Ogooue, where, according to official figures, voter turnout exceeded 99% with 95 % voting for Bongo, implying that only 47 people in the province did not vote.

International criticism of the election result was sharp, with calls by the European Union (EU), France and the United States (US) for a recount and the publication of the results of individual polling stations.

The United Nations (UN) also expressed concern and called for restraint by all.  

These calls have all gone unheeded and president Bongo reiterated that only the constitutional court in Gabon could overturn the election result.

Africa’s silence

In contrast, official reaction on the election from African institutions or leaders has been strikingly absent. The AU and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) have maintained their customary, inglorious silence. Thus far the AU has only announced plans to send a mediation team led by the AU’s current chairman, President Idriss Deby of Chad.

The plan was, however, delayed “until further notice” because Deby is “too tired” after returning from the G20 summit meeting in China.

The AU faces another dilemma. President Deby, another of Africa’s long-serving heads of state, was recently re-elected in an equally questionable election, and any criticism of President Bongo’s re-election would smack of double standards.

As one commentator remarked: “A cynical observer might suggest that if Ali Bongo possess the necessary cunning, he will take a leaf out of the book of Deby. Simply sit tight until the difficulties disappear. Sooner or later the international community will focus upon another trouble spot and Gabon will be forgotten.”

Opposition cries wolf

As in Zambia, the opposition candidate, Jean Ping, immediately called the election a sham, but in contrast to his counterpart in Zambia, Ping has not taken the matter to the constitutional court because he does not trust its independence.

With little options available and Ali Bongo not bowing under international pressure for a recount, Ping had no alternative but to eventually approach the constitutional court.

The court is yet to deliver its finding.

There is sympathy for the people of Gabon, who were most likely robbed of their wish for a new government, but there is significantly less sympathy for Jean Ping, at least from many commentators and analysts, stemming from the role Ping played when he was the most senior official in the AU.

He was chairman of the AU Commission from 2008 to 2012. When trying to win a second term, he was defeated by the current chairperson, South Africa’s Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, in a bitter and hotly contested campaign that divided the AU once again along language lines with French speaking Africa opting for Ping and English speaking Africa for Dlamini-Zuma.

During PING’S term at the helm, the AU turned a blind eye to many manipulated elections in member states, even validating dishonesty by Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Omar al-Bashir in Sudan.

As Simon Allison wrote: “In this position, he (Ping) oversaw and monitored elections all over Africa: polls both free and flawed, and everything in between. But instead of raising the alarm when something was wrong – instead of crying wolf – Ping legitimised dodgy polls and obscured accountability. The very same tactics that Bongo is now using against him, Ping previously would rubber-stamp”.

In similar trend, another commentator reflects on Ping: “He has wined and dined on the altar of continental privilege for decades, where he witnessed unpardonable injustices but just decided to go with the flow. He carefully mastered the art of ‘see-no-evil-hear-no-evil’ without realising that one day, the shoe would move to the other foot.”

Now, on the receiving end, Ping is incensed, but is paying the price.           

Ping is, however, not the only one to blame and Allison is also correct in his view that, “a general reticence to criticise is a characteristics of the AU, and Ping’s successor Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is also rarely outspoken”.

Particularly when it comes to flawed and manipulated elections by AU member states.

Ironic twist

Ironically, in demanding a recount of votes, Ping wants the international community, including the UN and the EU, to oversee the recount, but not the AU.

Not only is his attitude a sign of no confidence in the AU by a man who was in charge of the organisation, but he also acknowledges, based on own experience, that the AU is not to be trusted.

Ping, now on the receiving end, has discredited the AU as the vehicle for deepening democracy in Africa and the guardian for free and fair elections on the continent.

by Garth Cilliers

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