Africa Runoffs Tell Us Little About 2013
One of the constant temptations in trying to understand political trends is to seek examples from other countries which are somewhat similar to ours. An example of this, comes from the recent visit to Kenya by the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. The concerns she expressed over the coming general election arise from our post-election violence of 2008. Her immediate predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, indicated in her memoirs, No Higher Honor, that the US perspective on Kenyan inter-tribal violence is very much influenced by the failure of the West to prevent the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
It is this perspective which led to the concerted international effort to ensure that the violence in Kenya was stopped before it descended into an authentic, machete-driven, African genocide. So, figuring out what is likely to happen in one African nation, will often start with recalling what happened in another African country, which faced a somewhat similar situation. But it is rarely that simple. As often as not, just when you have drawn a nice parallel between two African countries, there will be some other example, from a country very much like the one you have mentioned, which actually proves the precise opposite of your neat thesis.
Take for example, the general consensus, that there will be no clear winner in the first round of voting for the presidential candidates, and that there will be a runoff between the top two candidates. If you accept this generalisation, then the obvious question is, “who would stand to benefit from such a runoff; and who would lose by it?”
The temptation is to assume that the frontrunner will have a definite advantage. But that is not what we find when we consider recent runoffs in West Africa. For West Africa has very unpredictable election outcomes, unlike in neighbouring Uganda where President Yoweri Museveni continues to dominate politics; or Tanzania where the candidate nominated by the Chama Cha Mapinduzi party, which has ruled the country since its independence 50 years ago, is more or less unbeatable.
Consider what happened in Senegal, where early this year, then President Abdoulaye Wade came into the general election held in February, with a clear lead in the polls, and had a narrow victory in the first round of that election. This did not prevent his opponents from uniting behind the top challenger, Macky Sall, who gained a clear victory in the second round, and is now the president of Senegal.
In Ghana too, in 2008, the candidate for the New Patriotic Party, Nana Akuffo-Addo (who was the immediate former Vice President), won in the first round by a narrow margin; but he then lost by an even narrower margin to the eventual winner, John Atta Mills of the opposition party, the National Democratic Congress.
Liberia, on the other hand, provides us with the complete opposite of this: here, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was able to secure re-election when, after failing to win in the first round, she won in the second round after her leading opponent boycotted the runoff. The case of Cote d’Ivoire is even more dramatic: It took the cooperation of two previously sworn enemies, former President Henri Konan Bedie, and former Prime Minister Allassane Ouattara, to secure a second round victory for Ouattara, against the presidential incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo. This was a rare case in which two political rivals, having agreed to support whoever was the runner-up to the sitting president, actually went on to work together to see one of them win the presidency.
So, here we have, from West Africa, three cases in which the winner in the first round went on to lose (Ghana, Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire); and one case in which the frontrunner in the first round, subsequently won in the second round (Liberia). What can this possibly tell us about the chances of the frontrunner here in Kenya, PM Raila Odinga, making it all the way to State House? Or, alternatively, can we get from this, any idea of the likelihood of the ‘G7’ alliance somehow holding together, to deliver to the PM a memorable defeat that will see an end to his colourful political career?
Obviously, anyone who makes any categorical statement about likely outcomes at this point is only guessing. As the West African examples show, it can go either way. And so the weeks and months ahead are likely to be very satisfying for those who enjoy a high-voltage political contest: because anything can happen.
The writer comments on topical issues.