GWYNNE DYERThere are a number of ways to win an African election. The simplest, obviously, is to win the most votes, but this is sometimes hard to achieve, especially if you have been the president for a long time and people are getting fed up with your rule.
You might just stuff the ballot boxes and have the army shoot anybody who objects, but this approach has high potential costs. Killing protesters will damage your international reputation, and may even lead to sanctions and freezes on your secret assets abroad. The African Union or the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) may also take you to task, or even send troops if you kill too many people.
It’s better to make it look like you really won the election. Fiddling with voter registration can exclude lots of opposition voters, and turning off the internet on election day makes it hard for the opposition’s election monitors to keep track of the count.
But if the votes are being counted in public and the numbers are going against you, then you have to stop the count until you can fix it. Standard practice in this case is to claim technical difficulties until you have time to massage the vote.
This was President Ali Bongo’s solution in Gabon’s election last August. He was clearly losing the count, but the results from the distant province of Haut-Ogooue (Bongo’s home province) were mysteriously delayed.
The opposition leaders weren’t worried, because to change the outcome almost every living person in Haut-Ogooue (and a few of the recently dead) would have had to vote for Bongo. But then the results arrived: 99.93 percent of the province’s population had allegedly turned out to vote, and 95 percent of them had allegedly voted for Bongo. So he “won” another term as president by 5,594 votes.
It was a transparent and shameless fraud, but fewer than a dozen people were killed in the subsequent protests, so Ali Bongo is starting another seven-year term as president. Not bad for a kid who started out as the humble son of Omar Bongo, president of Gabon from 1967 until his death in 2009.
President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo should have used the same tactics to get re-elected. DR Congo’s constitution imposes a two-term limit, and he had already served two seven-year terms since his father, President Laurent Kabila, was assassinated in 2001, but for whatever reason, he didn’t change the constitution in time.
Instead, Kabila ended up facing an election in November 2016 in which he was not legally allowed to run. To win more time, he announced that the election could not be held on time for “logistical and financial reasons,” and that he would therefore stay on as “transitional president” until 2018.
It’s ridiculous. In the seven years since the last election, Kabila couldn’t find the time and money to organize the next one? The only possible conclusion is that he is either completely incompetent or a bare-faced liar. (In fact, he’s both.)
And since DR Congo is big enough (70 million people compared to Gabon’s 1.6 million) to contain lots of tough, clever politicians with their own strong regional bases, Kabila is not getting away with it.
The powerful Catholic church has stepped in to act as mediator, and Archbishop Marcel Utembi has just persuaded government ministers and opposition leaders to sign a document promising to hold the election this year. In the meantime, an opposition politician will serve as Kabila’s prime minister.
Kabila has not yet signed the document himself, but the agreement also says that he must not try to end term limits. It looks like he will have to retire – in which case DR Congo will see its first peaceful transfer of power since independence in 1960.
It’s easy to be cynical about democracy in Africa, but there is as much good news as bad. Last month Ghana’s sitting president lost an election and tamely handed power over to the winner. In 2015 the same thing happened in Nigeria, Africa’s biggest country. The glass is not empty. It is half-full.