The reality is that, sham as they are now, one day we’ll get this elections thing right

If you say something enough times, it begins to sound like the truth. Marketers and politicians have known this little trick for ages. Of late the sentiment that is starting to concern me is the various forms of the Africa-isn’t-ready-for-democracy mantra being repeated right and left.

There is nothing new about this trope — it has been used on various populations since the invention of elections. At some point, there is always a population that is deemed somehow unfit to participate in political life for whatever reason.

Africa got to jump ahead of all of that since when we achieved self-rule it was firmly established that everyone got to vote — women, minorities, et cetera — so there was no need for debate.

Sometimes I wonder if that is part of the problem. Are we having trouble valuing something that came perhaps a little too easily, a system that can be dismissed as an imposition? Still, in our fervour to become republics we really did intertwine notions of nationalism with the political action of voting — at least in those countries that wanted to imbue leadership with a sense of legitimacy.

And boy did the first generation of African leaders need that legitimacy. The competition was fierce! There were and in many places still are legitimate kings and chiefs providing an alternative to the nation-state.

Not to mention peoples who didn’t really do the whole centralised power thing, preferring to live relatively autonomous lives organised around other values such as family and clan. Faced with this and more, young nationalist whipper-snappers had to figure out how to forge modern countries.

So in its current iteration, much of Africa is only roughly 50 years old, which in country terms is frankly embryonic. It may be disappointing but it is hardly surprising that we’re having a bit of trouble working the old election thing.

Cranky old men

To be fair, I think that there is a point to the frustration: As was pointed out last week in Jenerali Ulimwengu’s column, elections are a terrible sham most of the time. That doesn’t mean we should give up on them. What would we do for fun?

More importantly, what would we do instead? The answer that seems to be bubbling up silently is to go back to an era of Big Men, to embrace that notion without complaint.

After all, it is sort of what we do now anyways. Be they magnificent, former liberators-turned-cranky old men, be they terrible despots, something always seems to happen once an African leader has been around long enough. They gain a level of authority and respect that’s dangerously close to that accorded kings.

As civilians we become quick to over-appreciate every good decision and worryingly quick to dismiss or excuse bad behaviour. We silence ourselves when we should be shouting, all too often for strange reasons such as perhaps the incumbent comes from one’s tribe.

We turn from citizens into vassals and begin to spare the criticism, spoiling the leadership class in the process. We are complicit in creating the leaders that we end up with 20 or 30 years after they should have retired with honour.

Elections have a more subtle function than the regular turnover of power between competing groups. It is the promise of dynamism, of the possibility of change, of not having to do things the way they have always been done.

My generation has been trying to break the glass ceiling of politics for the past five or so years — with little success, of course, on a continent absolutely addled by patriarchy. Still, there will come a time when my peers will be the ones charged with leading countries that have far more young people than old.

The world has moved on and people born into democracies, however broken, will not have the experience or inclination to submit to tyranny as easily as their elders did.

So let us run our “sham” elections until such a time comes when we can no longer lean on the liberators, when Africa is older than 50, when technology will have bounded ahead creating opportunities and problems we can’t even imagine yet, when urbanisation and globalisation are even more acute. We may start getting them right, then. Practice, practice makes perfect.

Elsie Eyakuze is an independent consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report, E-mail:

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