Africa stays in character on Zim

FORMER President of Nigeria Olusegun Obasanjo has never seen a perfect election. At this rate, he’s not going to come close.

Daily Maverick

The African Union’s brazen rubber-stamping of the Zimbabwean elections (also endorsed by Sadc leaders at their summit in Malawi last weekend) is incompatible with the lofty ideals it espouses, but makes perfect sense when you realise that it really is a representative body (it just doesn’t represent the likes of us).

“I have never seen an election that is perfect,” said Obasanjo recently. Coming from a former Nigerian president, that’s not hard to believe. Obasanjo was explaining how the African Union election observer mission to Zimbabwe could conclude that there was nothing substantively wrong with the result.

“The point has always been and will always be how much have the infractions, imperfections, affected the result of the election being a reflection of the will of the people?”

In Zimbabwe, none of the serious infractions and imperfections identified by the opposition, independent media, civil society groups and local election observers were enough for the AU to dismiss, or even question, the result of the election which was, according to Obasanjo and his team, peaceful, credible, and “fairly fair”, whatever that means.

It’s easy to see why the AU would be so keen to embrace these decidedly flawed results; to give them the all-important continental seal of security.

The last time President Robert Mugabe lost an election the consequences were disastrous, not just for Zimbabwe, but for the region and for the continent as a whole.

Zimbabwe’s economic collapse and post-election violence was incredibly destabilising for Africa, and if there’s one thing that the AU prizes above all else — yes, far above democracy — it’s stability.

Maybe stability is the wrong word; it’s more a kind of inertia in which maintaining the status quo trumps the will of the people. If you’re in power the AU is generally happier to see you stay there, regardless of your governance record, approach to human rights or the quality of the elections that put you there.

In this, it has an excellent track record. One of the AU’s few firm foreign policies is that no coup, no matter the circumstances, should be condoned.

It’s a principle that is pretty firmly applied. The 2009 coup in Madagascar was followed by Madagascar’s suspension from the AU. The same goes for the 2012 coup in Mali and the 2013 coup in the Central African Republic.

The principle was even enforced on last month’s was-it-a-coup-was-it-not-it-a-coup in Egypt, and this couldn’t have been easy — Egypt used to be one of the AU’s biggest funders and many diplomats in Addis Ababa would have been happy to see the fall of Mohamed Morsi’s Islamist government. Still, Egypt got a firm rap on the knuckles and a suspension.

And when it comes to elections, incumbency is a major advantage. Zimbabwe is not the only instance of an obviously rigged vote that was quick to receive AU blessing.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2011, President Joseph Kabila got himself re-elected despite blatantly fiddling the results, yet the AU did not hesitate to extend its seal of approval.

The message here was loud and clear: in Africa, the bar for free and fair elections is so low that all a corrupt leader needs to get himself “re-elected” with AU blessings is a few strongly-worded denials coupled with the implicit threat of regional chaos.

All this goes to show that for the AU, stability trumps democracy every time. And it is absolutely no coincidence that this policy works in favour of one-party states, presidents-for-life and autocratic regimes. For all its lofty pretensions, too many AU member states still fall into these categories.

So, regardless of what actually happens, we can expect more “credible” general elections in Ethiopia and Guinea-Bissau later this year; and in Algeria, Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa next year.

This is good news for the incumbent leaders of all these countries, should they choose to abuse the system; and the ones that don’t should be wary that the AU’s low standards don’t tar them all with the same brush.

What’s to distinguish a genuinely fair election from one that’s not? Is there a difference, in the AU’s eyes, between a representative government and a dictatorship?

As for Africa’s long-suffering opposition movements, the Zimbabwean election is yet another indication that they won’t get any help from the continental body.

At minimum, the AU’s electoral standards should be about ensuring a level playing field where a viable opposition can exist. This ideal seems a long way off, and it means, in effect, that opposition movements cannot rely on any kind of external assistance. If they’re to fight off autocracy, corruption, and bad governance, they’ll have to do it by themselves.

It’s a sad state of affairs, and a damning indictment of an organisation that has yet to deliver on its promises. But what else did we expect? It might seem bitterly ironic, but the AU is nothing if not a representative body and if we want to reform the AU, we’re going to first have to reform the member states of which it is comprised.