Africa Votes

Belief in the nation state has always seemed to require the abandonment of rationality and to fly in the face of geographic facts. National boundaries whether in Africa, or in the Balkans or in the Middle East, are the consequence of conquest and a division of the spoils rather than of any ethnic or topographical reality. And yet, particularly in Africa, we have the paradox of the post-independence countries fiercely defending their colonial boundaries whilst attacking the colonial powers that foisted those selfsame boundaries on them. Now, we appear to have a deliberate policy of playing the colonial card to try and cover up flawed elections.

The two adjacent countries of Zambia and Zimbabwe recently had elections within a few months of each other. Both were highly flawed and both had a number of similar dubious tactics, but in each case the government and the electoral commission, in the face of observer reports to the contrary, proclaimed the election as free and fair. Even though the consensus of observer reports - including local teams - was highly critical, and often drew attention to the same flaws, the European based team was singled out and attacked for being "neo-colonialist" and its report therefore unacceptable. This was done in the knowledge that the announced result would stand and that development aid would recommence within a short time.

How did they know? Well, look at the Zambian election of 1996 when, through a clever change in the constitution requiring presidential candidates' parents to have been born in Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda was prevented from contesting the election. This in itself was regarded as rendering the process so illegitimate that international observers did not monitor the election. And yet President Chiluba remained in power for a further full five year term and international aid flowed in. The lesson was well learnt.

All the published statements, and much other material, on the Zambian elections of 27 December 2001 are available on the EUEU website ( The details of what went on in Zambia and in Zimbabwe are by now less important than what can and should be done to assist democracy in such countries in the future. The international concentration has been too much on the few months before polling day and not enough on the years afterwards. Indeed, without long term involvement in enhancing democracy, elections may well make the situation worse. If, as is often the case, political parties are based on tribes, then an election may simply legitimise tribal domination. As the late Professor Claude Ake of Port Harcourt University, Nigeria, said, "Elections, specifically free and fair elections, are the effect rather than the cause of democracy."

The Organisation of African Unity has now changed its name to the African Union in the hope that this will give a powerful indication that it wishes to go down the European supranational path of building an effective and incremental union across country boundaries. This should be encouraged as a means of diminishing the emphasis on sovereignty and the nation state.

There needs to be assistance to the development of civil society and to the encouragement of voluntary organisations in every sphere. Democracy is enhanced with every NGO, large or small, that gets involved in the provision of services, in lobbying for government action, or in working together to strengthen community ties. Crucially, when such organisations have elected management committees, they help to build a democratic culture. In Western Europe we probably vote most weeks - for the trade union, the housing association, the PTA Committee, or whatever - so that public elections are not a strange and occasional event. In new democracies the presidential or parliamentary election may be the only election, meaning that citizens only vote every five years or so.

Political party development is also vital. The lack of an ideological basis to parties leaves the party structure vulnerable to being based on tribes, or areas, or religion, or party leaders - all of which are dangerous and unhealthy. In addition a liberation movement is not a political party as such and, when liberation is achieved, the wide coalition that such a movement required for success makes alternance difficult to achieve and makes the task of consistent and coherent government impossible in the long term. The main international political groupings, such as Liberal International, have a key role to play in building contacts with parties and individuals with whom they are in principle in sympathy.

These are big tasks which can be underpinned by practical help such as assistance to the newly elected legislature, by working with local government to provide a devolved focus on politics and a training ground for future national politicians, by aid to women's organisations, and by working alongside the civil service, the security forces and the media to build neutral public authorities.

In all of this work it is crucial to avoid giving any impression that one believes that Western European democracies - let alone the USA - are inherently healthier or more stable. Democracy is a tender plant that needs constant nurturing everywhere. Our own problems of increasing superficiality and declining participation need to be acknowledged and discussed with those facing democratic problems in Africa and in new democracies worldwide.