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Elections in Africa: A terrifying prospect

THERE is no political event more dangerous than a general election. Even in what are called the “mature democracies”, elections bring out hidden weaknesses in a nation’s structure that can be stretched to breaking point, and if wise counsel does not prevail, no one can predict what might happen.

The best example of this sort of situation is the US presidential election of November 2000. The result was extremely close –– George W Bush, the Republican candidate, beat his Democratic opponent, Al Gore, by only 0,5% of the votes –– 48,4 against 47,9%. Such a close vote always brings allegations of hanky-panky.
Speculation became rife over what might have been, had it not been for… What follows the “for” is anybody’s game. In the US election under question, there were reports about votes disallowed because of “hanging chads” and “pregnant chads” caused by faulty voting machines. There were also allegations of fraudulent counting, and many other misdeeds amounting to electoral fraud.
So emotionally charged became the atmosphere that even when the matter reached the US Supreme Court, not everyone was prepared to accept the Court’s judgement –– predictably given in favour of George W Bush –– as a genuine judgment based on legal argument, rather than as a partisan judgement rendered by the court in line with the known political leanings of Supreme Court members.
The US is one of the few democracies in which judges are openly branded as “conservative” or “liberal”, and where these judges almost invariably satisfy the cynics by voting in precisely the fashion that it has been predicted they will vote!
Fortunately for the US (and this is why it is called a “mature democracy’) at the point where the very existence of the Supreme Court became threatened because of the tension created by what many considered to be the usurpation of the American people’s democratically-delivered verdict by the court –– or more exactly, the conservative members of the court who voted in favour of a Bush victory –– the person who stood most to gain from an opposite decision by the Court, Al Gore, called off further challenges of the alleged electoral verdict.
What could have happened if Gore had gone on with more legal and political challenges?
In an “immature democracy”, Kenya, on the other hand, a “minor” civil war did occur, when, in December 2007, election results were declared in a manner that the populace clearly thought was manipulated to favour the tribe of the incumbent president, [the Kikuyu] Mwai Kibaki, who was seeking re-election.
Several thousand people were killed in inter-ethnic fighting that arose out of the dissatisfaction with the election’s results as declared.
Thousands more were chased out of their homes, and for a while, it looked as if Kenya would be permanently divided along ethnic lines –– just because of dissatisfaction with the way a single election had been conducted. Certain areas became de facto no-go areas to certain ethnic groups.
The bitterness caused by the few months following the election, will remain a psychological scar on the entire populace for at least a generation, as ethnic oral history is recounted ad nauseam by those who lost relatives, or were themselves injured, during the post-election maelstrom.
The Kenya situation was repeated in Zimbabwe in March and June 2008, and nearly replayed in Ghana in December 2008. Zimbabwe emerged from the near-civil-war of the election’s aftermath with an uneasy coalition that looks as if it may not take the country into the next election.
And in Ghana, what saved the situation, after an extremely close runoff between two candidates, Professor John Evans Mills and Nana Addo Danquah Akufo-Addo was that the outgoing president, John Kufuor, had the prescience to conclude from what he was hearing on the ground that any prolongation of the tension created by the electoral result pull-and-stretch, might toss the nation/baby out with the presidential seat/bath altogether –– so to speak.
What would the anxious crowds all over Ghana who were cursing the Electoral Commission for delaying the results have done, if it had known then, what had happened in South Africa’s election of 1994, when a computer hacker managed to alter the results of the election and add millions of votes to the numbers cast for three parties of the hacker’s choice?
The near-disaster that would have blown up in South Africa had the hacking not been detected and corrected has just been revealed in a report published in the Johannesburg Sunday Times of October 24 2010.
The report tells the world for the first time that the much-hailed general election in South Africa in May 1994 –– in which the African majority formed beautiful, peaceful queues to joyfully cast their votes for the very first time ever –– was nearly ruined when a racist computer hacker was able to change the results of three of the minority parties that contested the election against the African National Congress (ANC)!
If the hacked results had stood, the power of the ANC in parliament would have been considerably reduced, and the ANC would have found it extremely difficult to rule the country, if not impossible altogether.
Aptly headed “Plot to steal freedom”, the Sunday Times account says: “In this edited extract from his ground-breaking book, Birth: The Conspiracy to Stop the ’94 Election, Peter Harris recalls the tension that followed the discovery of … an elaborate attempt to inflate the votes of the National Party, the Freedom Front and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), [in order] to steal the country’s first democratic elections through computer hacking.”
Computer hacking in South Africa, the most technologically-advanced nation on the African continent? If election results could be hacked in a South Africa on which the eyes of the entire world were riveted at that particular time, then what chance does the rest of Africa have, with its cheap systems (sometimes donated from discarded stock by foreign governments and therefore relatively primitive)?
It turns out that the changes upward are between 2,5% and 4% for the Freedom Front, approximately 3% for the National Party and between 4 and 5% for the Inkatha Freedom Party.
Where have we heard that before? It is up to African electoral commissions to get in touch with their South African counterparts and attach their own IT staff to the improved system in South Africa, so that they can be certain that in their next elections, everything will go well.
For we have seen through blood on the streets that African elections are too important to be left to chance. If African governments do nothing and we continue to see bloodshed at election times –– when the technology exists to put an end to speculation about declared or undeclared results –– they will be cursed by generations unborn.
l Duodu is a journalist, writer and commentator. — Pambazuka News.

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