In Kenya, the violent aftermath and the near collapse of the state galvanized local and international forces to look for a way to accommodate both sides in a national unity government, the so-called Grand Coalition. In Zimbabwe, after it became obvious that strongman Robert Mugabe was going nowhere irrespective of what voters had decided, former South African President Thabo Mbeki decided to brave the odds to try to get the two sides to co-exist in one power sharing government. A deal has been clinched, finally, even if Comrade Mugabe does not appear too happy about it.
To democratic purists, developments in Kenya and Zimbabwe are a huge setback to the continent’s democratic growth that had shown so much promise: especially after the second wind of change triggered by the end of the Cold War, and the evident triumph of liberal democracy elsewhere. Africa, many believed, had nowhere else to go but up along the path of democracy.
Indeed, it initially appeared that way. Like dominoes, autocratic and undemocratic regimes gave in under pressure from the forces of democracy. Elections in several countries saw the dislodgement of long-entrenched political elites that had governed single-handedly without serious regard to other interests in society. Many believed Africa’s governance conundrum had been solved at last. Peaceful change and transitions would henceforth become the hallmark of Africa’s political processes.
In fact, that has happened in a number of countries. Zambia, Malawi, and, to a degree, Tanzania, have gone through more than one iteration of change and transition. Kenya, which went through the first cycle peacefully, did not make it the second time around. The incumbent, President Mwai Kibaki, was determined to stay, and the opposition, led by Raila Odinga, was determined to see him go. A botched election process produced a “winner” that was unacceptable to the majority in the country that believed the opposition party had won. The rage over “victory” denied boiled over into violence along ethnic lines and the country began to splinter apart. Eventually, through a concerted international effort, the country was pulled back from the brink of destruction and the gridlock was resolved by forcing the two sides to come together in a Grand Coalition government, under an agreement in which power is shared between President Kibaki and Mr. Odinga, the current Prime Minister.
The surprise of surprises is, contrary to misgivings about whether the “marriage” could ever work, the arrangement seems to be working reasonably well. Why? The answer lies in the configuration of groups, particularly those organized along ethnic lines. Political settlement in Kenya brought these groups under a coalition government and parceled out power and responsibilities. This, more than anything else, helped to lessen the tension. The lesson that can be learned from this experience is that representation of nearly all groups at the governing table diffuses pressure and suggests inclusiveness.
Proponents of one-party authoritarian rule argued perversely that the one-party rule was ideal for ethnically diverse African societies because it includes every group in the society. However, the big difference between coalitions of almost equal partners and autocratic one-party governments that pretend to represent all groups but in reality pursue narrow interests, is that coalitions are governed by a genuine balance of power leading to effective checks and balances by parties in government. This occurs mainly because of mutual distrust among the different parties. That is the lesson to be drawn from the Kenya experiment and, maybe, the Zimbabwe one.
Does this mean that opposition groups outside of government have no role in Africa? Not necessarily. The answer will depend on the circumstances in each country. If the cleavages in society are such that political competition can accommodate them without the danger of total exclusion of some groups because of political affiliation, chances are the liberal democratic model will do just fine. However, if, on the other hand, political differences merge into other serious demarcations (ethnic, for example) it will make sense to fashion political systems that cannot totally marginalize losers, and bring them together under a coalition government. Marginalization is precisely what the so-called mature democracies try to avoid by dispersing power in the system around many focal points, thus making totalitarian control by one party or group impossible.
How long will it take countries that have sharp divisions to move to the next stage of more “normal” democratic practice where winners take the reins of power and losers wait their turn? That will depend on whether or not the coalition-forming elite recognize the importance of institutional development as a bulwark against arbitrary rule. Because coalition partners mistrust each other, they are more likely to push for “neutral” institutions that do not give advantage to the other side. With time, the institutions will develop constituencies of their own and could become the protectors of national interests. Then political competition will no longer be a life and death struggle.
It will be interesting to observe the evolution of the experiments in Kenya and Zimbabwe over time, particularly in relation to institution building. Efforts to build and strengthen institutions will be an indicator of maturing political systems. If nothing is achieved on that front, it will be a sign that nothing was learned or gained and we shall be back to square one.
Dr. John Mulaa is a policy analyst and development communication practitioner. Currently, he is a consultant at the World Bank and also a columnist for the Nairobi based regional newspaper, the East African Standard.