Universal Suffrage: The Curse of Africa

Far too often Africa’s parliaments are occupied by venal, wool-gathering representatives engrossed in self-aggrandisement but who put them and keeps them there?

Much has been written about post-independence Africa, a continent that shook off the shackles of colonial serfdom and oppression to attain majority rule through negotiation and in many cases, armed struggle.
African nationalists inherited foreign systems of governance which were largely contradictory to traditional modes founded in blood-line chieftaincies with little democracy. Africans were really not prepared; millions attained the right to vote with little understanding of what it all entailed other than the removal of oppression and the popular installation of “our own”. Essentially universal suffrage delivered the richest continent on the planet into the hands of its indigenous peoples who for so long had languished under systems that barely recognised their existence and perpetuated their poverty. The 21st Century is upon us and still millions of Africans grapple with poverty, malnutrition and dysfunctional economic policies under leaderships they installed but with riches found nowhere else in the world.
As inflammatory as the suggestion appears perhaps history has taught Africa that it may be necessary to evaluate and abandon universal suffrage altogether. It is hardly surprising that first-generation political parties find their greatest support in semi-literate rural voters who hardly understand or have an appreciation for key issues that impinge national development. Their lack of knowledge ironically is not self-inflicted, the very politicians they vote for systematically keep them ignorant by predominantly limiting their information almost exclusively to state owned propaganda machinery. Ridiculous as it may seem, it is not uncommon for African presidents and their ministers to announce new intricate government trade policies or labour laws to peasant populations for whom the laws and policies hardly apply, matter and therefore are inconsequential. However their vote matters but should they really be allowed to exercise it, what criteria do they use to endorse one politician over another? Could it be food, gifts and the promise of continued hand-outs at political rallies? A contributory factor to civil-war in Africa is the inability of the opposition to remove corrupt and failed regimes via the ballot box.
An undeniable correlation exists between the quality of elected officials and the electorate. In as much as we want qualified, competent leaders the electorate needs to be equally qualified and competent. Critics of this opinion will highlight the superficial contra-egalitarianism espoused here and ignore that critically it advocates for a government that develops and empowers its people. We must accept we are not equal although lofty idealism tells us we should be. This is best illustrated by taxation; some pay tax and others do not but yet non-payers collectively have a greater say in electing officials that preside over the lives of those who economically contribute the most. We have all seen video footage of poor unemployed Africans toy-toying in the streets or chanting slogans in defiant support of first generation political parties, the ANC of South Africa, MPLA of Angola and of course ZANU PF of Zimbabwe come to mind. Acclaimed political commentator Robert Rotberg made the following poignant observation;
“The elected autocrats, sometimes termed illiberal or quasi-democrats, have built-in advantages that are hard for even popular opposition movements to overcome: incumbency; state financing for official political parties; state control of television, radio, and newspapers; friendly security forces; crackdowns on opposition rallies; control over the voter rolls; and such tricks as gerrymandering, stuffing ballot boxes, and fiddling with the election count itself. Most of all, ruling parties know how to intimidate voters, particularly semiliterate rural voters acquainted with only one ruling party since independence”
Universal suffrage has in effect polarised Africa in general, where growing numbers simply want better and to know better is possible but with others resigned to abject poverty and despair settling for “this is as good as it gets”. The East Asian Tigers, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong are an economic miracle, included here is former British colony Malaysia, countries which were included in the third world but transformed into economic powerhouses. However, as asked by Bruno Marshall Shirley in his work entitled, Development, Legitimacy, and the Role of the State: The Asian Tigers from Independence to Industrialisation, “Are there lessons to be learnt from the rapid economic growth of the Tigers, from the 1960s through to the 1990s, and do these have a practical application in contemporary development?” The answer is resoundingly in the affirmative but Africa currently does not seem to have visionary leadership with the political will to follow the model of the Tigers’ whose natural resource wealth pales into insignificance when compared to Africa. Consider these findings in Godfery Mwakigale’s book titled, Africa is in a mess: Should it be Recolonised: “In 1965, Nigeria was richer than Indonesia, and Ghana richer than Thailand. Today Indonesia is three times richer than Nigeria, and Thailand five times richer than Ghana. In 1965, Uganda was richer than South Korea. And in 1967, Zambia also was richer than South Korea. And all African countries combined have a smaller gross domestic product than that of Belgium”
This begs the following question, is the African electorate aware of what it should expect from its elected officials? If not, why? By one not knowing what an elected government ought to do and in whose employ it operates one should be excluded from a voters roll. This is by no mean an attempt to subvert due process in favour of some elitist agenda, but rather advocacy to compel the citizens of this continent to demand accountability in leadership and to embrace it as a fundamental national duty. But to demand accountability the modern citizen must have an understanding of what is at stake and be knowledgeable enough to treat petty politicking and hollow electioneering with the disdain it deserves. To put this in perspective any election campaign by Jacob Zuma in which he purports to champion the fight against corruption would lose all credibility and validation. Voters should understand that by casting their votes they are effectively extending to fellow-citizens the privilege to either build or destroy. Far too often Africa’s parliaments are occupied by venal, wool-gathering representatives engrossed in self-aggrandisement but who put them and keeps them there?