On December 01 the President of Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, lost an election and went on television and conceded defeat. He also called the victor, Adama Barrow, and congratulated him saying he has no ill will and will be pleased to help him in any way. Having taken power by a military coup and ruled that tiny West African nation for 22 years, no one expected Jammeh to concede gracefully.
However, the leader of the opposition coalition – who is not the president-elect, announced they were going to prosecute Jammeh for crimes he committed while in office. A week after conceding Jammeh reversed his position, said elections had been rigged called for a fresh vote. This turnaround has been widely condemned and may push that country into violent conflict.
We are likely not going to hear the inside story of what happened. Across the board, the argument will likely be personal to Jammeh: that he is a weird character and that he is a power hungry megalomaniac. But over the years I have learnt that these accusations that are entirely based on the personalities of our leaders often tend to obscure rather than illuminate our understanding of our politics.
With the sole exception of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, the Western media and its cheer leaders in Africa (including old ole me) have accused almost every president in Africa of being power hungry. But why is it the 54 nations of Africa that produce power hungry leaders? Why doesn’t Norway, or Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, Netherlands, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Austria, UK, France or Germany – also produce a power hungry leader once in a while who amends the constitution to remove term limits or stages a military coup?
There is something all the nations I have mentioned in Western Europe, North America and Australia share – they have all been industrialised and institutionalised over centuries, and are urbanised with a high per capita income and standards of living. There is also something the nations of Africa share. They are largely agrarian societies, with low levels of institutionalisation of power, limited urbanisation, low per capita income, and low standards of living.
Therefore, I suspect that our nations’ politics is not dysfunctional. It is a reflection of poverty and low levels of institutionalisation of power. Indeed, all too often power has changed hands by military coups, elections, armed struggle, popular insurrections, death or retirement of an incumbent president. Yet with the sole exception of post genocide Rwanda, there has not been any fundamental change in governance in spite of many changes in government.
Over the years, I have developed a suspicion that Africa is going through a phase of development and what we are seeing as governance dysfunctions are inevitable aspects of political development. It does make sense to blame a child for behaving like an infant. This argument does not sit well with missionary politics that hold that leaders should just behave themselves regardless of the circumstances.
We have witnessed how post genocide Rwanda, defying all the odds of a poor agrarian nation with very low per capita income, has structured power to serve broader social goals.
Then the question becomes: how do you structure power in poor agrarian societies to avoid some of the adverse effects of political participation and contestation? The current answer has been to model the structure of governance along what we see in the rich Western World – have a liberal, multi party political system, term limits, etc. with an accompanying regime of rights. I am suspicious of this recommendation in large part because what we see in the West today are consequences not causes of its development process.
There are some nations in Africa, which defying their condition of poverty, have made good progress at domesticating political power. In Zambia, Malawi, Ghana, Benin and Senegal, we have seen an opposition party candidate defeat a ruling party or an incumbent president at least twice and power changes hands peacefully. In Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia and Mozambique we have witnessed a regular smooth transfer or power from one president to another about three times. These are encouraging signs but we can never be sure how enduring they will be.
This brings me back to The Gambia. It is possible Jammeh conceded in a moment of excitement after which his colleagues; especially in the army came and told him to stay put. Someone whispered to me that the defeat of President John Mahama in Ghana altered the geostrategic calculations in Gambia. Apparently, the presidents of Nigeria and Senegal hate Jammeh. Mahama was the guarantor of his safe retirement. With Mahama defeated, Jammeh felt exposed and changed his mind on retirement.
Maybe Jammeh changed his mind because the leader of the opposition coalition threatened to prosecute him? Remember Barrow has not been in politics. He is a businessman. He did not have many quarrels with Jammeh who had not jailed and beaten him and his supporters. May be this is the reason Jammeh felt confident to concede to such a man as opposed to his perennial enemies who he had so terrorised that they are boiling with revenge.
There could be a lesson here for Uganda as well. That to create conditions for Museveni to feel confident to retire, the opposition may need leaders who have not been beaten and jailed the way Kizza Besigye has been. If you are Museveni and those closest to him, you are likely to fear Besigye because your conscience tells you he will seek revenge. So whenever Beigye runs, Museveni and his supporters cannot leave anything to chance. Presidents, we should remember, are human and have both public and private needs.
It is possible that a candidate like Mugisha Muntu may not stimulate the kind of cult-like following that Besigye ignites in those who want Museveni to go. But it is also possible that such lack of enthusiasm in opposition campaigns can lull Museveni’s system to relax their vigilance during the balloting process and calm their nerves in the event of defeat. If this reasoning holds water, then it means a cool candidate like Muntu could be savior the opposition needs.