Are African Elections Only Free, Fair When Opposition Wins?

This is a question I found myself asking after Zimbabwe’s opposition — MDC Alliance — vowed to challenge the results of the July 30 elections in court after the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) declared that Emmerson Mnangagwa was duly elected President, having won more that 50% of the total votes cast.

The opposition camp had claimed victory and later argued that the polls had been rigged in favour of the incumbent.

Guest Column: Daniel Okoth
Just a day after the elections, MDC Alliance leader and presidential candidate Nelson Chamisa had declared that he had won the popular vote, even though Zec was yet to declare the results.

Various commentators across Africa’s social media landscape are claiming that Mnangagwa rigged the elections to have him declared winner.

These sentiments and order of events are not anything new in African elections.

In August 2017, Kenya’s opposition candidate Raila Odinga declared that he had won the presidential election several hours before the country’s electoral agency declared the official results, which eventually came in favour of President Uhuru Kenyatta.
Are African Elections Only Free, Fair When Opposition Wins?
Odinga challenged the results in court and succeeded in having the results overturned and a fresh election, which he boycotted, declared.

Odinga would later heighten the stalemate when he had himself sworn in as President in Nairobi — albeit illegally.

During the confusion that lasted several months before a surprise handshake between Kenyatta and Odinga, tens of lives were lost.

In Uganda, opposition candidate Kizza Besigye claims he won the 2016 elections with 52% of the votes cast.

Besigye also proceeded to swear himself in as President, an action that would then trigger violent confrontations with the police, leading to several deaths, injuries and destruction of property.

In the same year and miles across to the west of the continent, an African electoral commission was being hailed for conducting free and fair elections.

The opposition candidate, Nana Akufo-Adde, was declared Ghanaian President, having won 53,8% of the vote.

This declaration saw the beginning of a continental shower of praises for the electoral commission, with its commissioners being invited to give talks and share strategies with their peers across the continent.

In Kenya, some 14 years earlier, another opposition candidate was declared president, trouncing the ruling party’s candidate (who interestingly is president today).

The then electoral body, under the leadership of the late Sammuel Kivuitu, received tonnes of praise and accolades from home and abroad.

Kivuitu would again be called to action, three years later, in a referendum that pitted the new government against some of its supporters who were now turned foes and teaming up with the opposition.

In this instance, the result was again in favour of the opposition and the commission’s chairperson was again a hero.

As Kenya headed to yet another presidential election in 2007, opposition supporters even composed songs in favour of the electoral commission boss.

That election result was in favour of the incumbent, President Mwai Kibaki, and would turn out to be the most contested election result in Kenyan history.

More than 1 000 lives were lost and 300 000 people displaced when violence erupted following the declaration of the results.

So, are elections only fair when the opposition candidate wins?

This article does not, by any means, claim that there have been no incidents where the incumbents have used instruments of power at their disposal to determine the outcome of electoral processes.

There has been evidence of the same in certain instances where violence has been used to silence or threaten candidates and their supporters and as the Supreme Court of Kenya said in their ruling that nullified Kenyatta’s initial win, “election is a process, not an event”.

This means that anything that interferes with the administration of a fair exercise, especially when it’s in favour of a single candidate, can be considered as rigging, we have seen enough of that across the continent.

My argument, though, is that there are instances where the opposition has lost fairly.

As much as we are currently claiming that Mnangagwa had the elections rigged in his favour, the truth could be that he actually won the popular vote.

What many people making this argument ignore is the importance of the rural voter in countries like Zimbabwe.

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