The Long Shadow of Colonialism Cast Over Elections

Posted: December 16, 2011 in Uncategorized

The simple fact that little violence was reported during this week’s legislative elections in Cote d’Ivoire can be considered a success even if turnout was low. This is especially true since last year’s standoff after the presidential elections, when sitting President Laurent Gbagbo refused to cede power to Alassane Ouattara, resulted in thousands of deaths and an eventual indictment for Gbagbo from the International Criminal Court.

Further south in the continent, a lesser success can be seen in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Though allegations of fraud are ample after the country’s presidential and legislative elections and incidents of violence and human rights violations plagued the run-up to the elections, UN officials have acknowledged that the situation could have been much worse.

Both of these countries as well as others on the continent have seen election related violence all too often on other occasions during the more than half century since Africa broke free from colonialism. About a year ago The Economist accurately referred to this problem as “the refusal of a defeated incumbent to accept defeat and bow out.” Recent examples include not only Cote d’Ivoire, but also Zimbabwe, when President Robert Mugabe refused to go after a clear result in an election in 2008 and Kenya, when President Mwai Kibaki refused to concede after elections in 2007.

Why this continental wide problem of power transition?

While multiple variables are certainly influential, somewhat of an explanation can be found by peering into recent history, especially the transition between colonialism and independence. A detailed account of this time period is described in Martin Meredith’s, The Fate of Africa where he claims, “ Africans had little experience of representative democracy – representative institutions were introduced by the British and the French too late to alter the established character of the colonial state. The more durable imprint they left behind was of authoritarian regimes in which governors and their officials wielded enormous personal power.”

The leaders of independent countries used their newness to justify strong, one-man or one party rule. Meredith cites one claim in particular from the first leader of independent Cote d’Ivoire, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, who claimed “Democracy is a system of government for virtuous people,” “in young countries such as our own, we need a chief who is all-powerful for a specified period of time.” A key problem is clearly the fact that no one seems to have specified that period of time.

Authoritarian rulers then used this logic to pillage national wealth and to rule by decree.

Fast forward a few decades to current time and elections are now more current and less tumultuous, but the possibility of violence – evidenced by the global breath holding that accompanied the recent elections in Cote d’Ivoire and the DRC – still simmers beneath the surface.

A basic boiled-down explanation could simply be the old adage that ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’ and historical tendencies towards absolute rule are difficult to breakdown peacefully. They simply linger for a while.

What then is to be done?

Most of this is definitely for countries themselves to decide, but other international actors can help to create an environment where limited power and therefore easier transitions of power between leaders are encouraged. This starts with the unbiased and objective implementation of international law.

Specifically in Cote d’Ivoire, this means bringing all perpetrators of last year’s election violence to justice. It is alleged that Gbagbo’s forces committed mass murder and rape after losing the election, but it is widely held that 3,000 people died in violence committed by both sides though no member of Ouattara’s side has been charged yet.

In November, Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Luis Moreno-Ocampo stated “Ivorian victims will see justice for massive crimes: Mr. Gbagbo is the first to be brought to account, there is more to come.” It is the international community’s responsibility to ensure that this promise is carried out.

With the thorough application of law, internally and internationally, there may be hope that on future occasions the changing of the guard will be less turbulent. The transition between personal rule and the rule of law has been long, but with everyone paying attention small steps could lead to eventual great successes.

  1. Liuba Grechen says:

    Perhaps it is not so much the remnants of colonialism, but tribalism. Democracy is not for every country, and for it to be successful it has to be developed internally. Also the US had many decades of violent elections. We used to have ethnic voting gangs. Most countries with many ethnicities actually do have violent elections. Perhaps these are growing pains, that will fade with time? Interesting article.

    • Democracy is a natural desire for people, regardless of culture or place. Western style democracy may not be for everyone and elections may be taking place at too early a stage. Absolutely, democracy needs to be developed internally with a focus on more than just elections. Other things to develop include a free press, a vibrant civil society, and a shared sense of national identity.

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