US DECIDES

Many African states do elections much better than US does

It may perhaps be more accurate to say that it is about to do an election in blackface

In Summary

• Used to seeing itself as the “shining city on a hill”, a model for the rest of humanity, the US has become a victim of its own hubris.

• In the eyes of much of the rest of the world, its penchant for drinking wine while it preached water has come back with a bite.

Caricatures of Tanzanian President John Magufuli and US President Donald Trump.
Caricatures of Tanzanian President John Magufuli and US President Donald Trump.
Image: PATRICK GATHARA

Ten days to the US election, I was invited to be on a panel to discuss the mounting threats to US democracy and lessons it can learn from African countries on conducting peaceful, free and fair polls.

It was a surreal discussion. After all, we in Africa are used to being on the other side of the desk — taking lectures on rights and governance from the so-called “developed world” rather than offering them.

“It is stunning for me, as an African, reporting on it, that the same things that America has been lecturing Africa on appear to be happening right here,” remarks Larry Madowo, a Kenyan journalist working for the BBC, in the short documentary “The America Bureau” where foreign correspondents based in the US speak about their experiences covering the election.

It is not just the election that Africans have found disconcertingly familiar. For the last six decades, the West has used “Africa” as shorthand for shitholery – that is, kleptocracy, incompetence, as well as incomprehensible tribal conflicts; plagued by poverty, suffering, disease, crumbling infrastructure and a chronic inability to conduct credible elections. And months before Donald Trump’s 2016 election as President, South African comedian Trevor Noah had famously spotted that Trump could be “America’s first African president”. The conduct of the US government over the last four years, particularly its callous disregard for the welfare of its citizens best exemplified by its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, has largely borne him out.

Of course, the Africa of the Western imagination has always been little more than caricature, an exaggeration of what fails and a downplaying of what works. In fact, many African countries have become increasingly proficient at elections and peaceful handovers of power. They have made important investments in systems and technology to improve voter registration, combat fraud and secure the vote.

Courts are also asserting their independence and are increasingly being seen as viable arbiters of contested elections – two presidential elections on the continent, in Malawi and Kenya, have been annulled in the last three years. It is not perfect, the progress hasn’t been uniform as well but it is not a complete dog’s breakfast either.

Ironically, much of this has been achieved with the help of the US. Ironic because as South African academic Dr Sithembile Mbete notes, the US itself lacks similar and “uniform standards and regulations for managing elections” to protect its own vote. And even by African standards, US elections are routinely stolen through voter suppression schemes and gerrymandering of constituencies. As Dr Mbete notes “the vote rigging … play[s] out in the US every election”.

Used to seeing itself as the “shining city on a hill”, a model for the rest of humanity, the US has become a victim of its own hubris.

In the eyes of much of the rest of the world, its penchant for drinking wine while it preached water has come back with a bite. As it helped Africans tame rogue presidents and executives, it was growing its own unaccountable overlord at home. As it insisted on the conduct of open and transparent elections abroad, at home its own elections were becoming increasingly opaque.

Even as it stood up for the rights of oppressed minorities on other continents, it had no qualms about oppressing its own minorities. As it claimed to export democracy on the back of wars and economic sanctions, its own wells were allowed to run dry.

Of course, this too is exaggeration. Everybody loves to see a puffed up bully cut down to size and the humbling of the country that loves to routinely declare itself the greatest in the world will inevitably invite caricature. Like all good caricature, it is based on an element of truth.

The US is not about to have an “African” election – as we have seen, many African countries do elections much better than it does. It may perhaps be more accurate to say that it is about to do an election in blackface (racist pun fully intended).