There are fewer and fewer outright dictatorships in Africa, but even as elections are held across the continent, still the same faces have occupied the same elected presidential offices year after year.
All over Africa, leaders are using elections to legitimise themselves and shore up international support – or at least to make sure the rest of the world tolerates them.
An uneasy but still secure tolerance is extended to Paul Kagame of Rwanda, who has extended his tenure via a democratic referendum – and the president of neighbouring Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza, has followed suit.
Elsewhere, parties with historically massive majorities, including the ANC in South Africa, know that they still have electoral breathing space – even after their leaders are exposed as failures and even fraudsters.
Party loyalties take a long time to fade. Promises for a better future are easily made by incumbents and oppositions alike – except that whereas incumbents can point to their record in office, most oppositions can’t.
Most oppositions haven’t been given the chance to become governments, despite election after election.
There are conspicuous exceptions, such as Ghana and Zambia, though the latter is showing signs of a new authoritarianism. And some strong ruling parties – in Ethiopia, for instance – are yielding to huge public protest and starting to incorporate opposition personnel and policies.
Provided a ruling party is strong enough not to lose office, it can afford to do this in the name of sustaining itself. Even Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, after some protracted interventionist diplomacy from South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki, gave in and formed a coalition government with the opposition in 2008. Then again, he went on to defeat that opposition once more in 2013.
Until he was ousted at the end of 2017, Mugabe was the ultimate presidential limpet. He subjected himself to regular elections, but somehow, for nearly a quarter of a century, his popularity and that of his party proved remarkably enduring.
In his latter years that changed dramatically – and Mugabe is now gone. But today, his successor and party comrade Emerson Mnangagwa hopes to secure an electoral victory of his own in July – promising, as Mugabe did, to win it freely and fairly.
That Mnangagwa and his ZANU-PF party will win is highly likely. The opposition, having lost its charismatic leader Morgan Tsvangirai to cancer, has a new young and untested leader – but not everyone in the opposition wants to follow him.
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