Post-Election Power-Sharing Governments and the Future of Democracy in Africa

14th April 2009 By: ISS, Institute for Security Studies

A new phenomenon appears to be emerging in Africa that sees rival political parties "uniting" after disputed elections to form an inclusive government in the interim and to implement structural political reforms. Kenya and Zimbabwe illustrate this "emerging trend", following arrangements they made in 2008. Almost all previous power-sharing agreements in Africa have followed armed conflicts - as was the case in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Sudan - and not elections.

Arguments for the post-electorial power-sharing have mainly focused on the importance of preserving "peace" for the greater good of the nation and the presumed contribution of this arrangement to the attainment of that objective. While there is no doubt that effective unity is desirable, especially in furtherance of democracy, it could be argued that the kind of "unity" that we are seeing emerging in Kenya and Zimbabwe may actually herald the corrosion of democracy as we have come to know it, where the elite unites to further their own interests and not those of the nation.

While it is too early to say that such arrangements are a negative trend in African politics, the developments that have ensued the Kenyan and Zimbabwean cases are a cause of concern. They seem fraught with contradictions inherent in the political agendas of the leaders. While the rhetoric appears to be that unity will benefit everyone, the reality on the ground shows that the arrangements are only benefitting those in power and their self-interests. At best it furthers disagreement and pushes the country on the verge of renewed tensions as leaders seek to outmanoeuvre or vilify each other.

In Zimbabwe, following the disputed March and the July 2008 run-off elections, a political impasse that gravely continued to affect the country's ailing economy left the protagonists in the country no choice but to embark on a process of establishing a unity government to revive the country. On 11 February 2009, the wheels of the new government were set in motion as opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai was inaugurated as the country's executive Prime Minister. However, two months down the line, the new arrangement is still faced with an avalanche of challenges. Some resistance to the Prime Minister continues to undermine the good functioning of the new administration while confidence among key political actors remains weak.

In Kenya, the country was embroiled in unprecedented post-election violence after the disputed December 2007 presidential elections, in which ethnic differences were used as fuel. Over 1000 people were killed and thousands more internally displaced. Faced with a humanitarian crisis and growing international condemnation, the two protagonists - the ruling Party of National Unity (PNU) and the opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) - were forced to make a political compromise negotiated by mediators. They entered into a transitional power-sharing arrangement that saw the key opposition leader Raila Odinga of ODM being inaugurated as the country's Prime Minister, while Mwai Kibaki remained at the helm.

In both countries, the aim of these arrangements has been to ensure sound constitutional reforms that will provide for institutional mechanisms aimed at avoiding the repeat of electoral violence. However, Kenya has seen an escalation in corruption and bad governance and the Zimbabwean situation remains work in progress. In Kenya, the power-sharing agreement has even led to a paralysis of the country as most political actors are more interested in preparing for the 2012 elections than in introducing the much-needed reforms envisaged in point 4 of the Kofi Annan-led mediation. What then can be done when the solution becomes the problem? Is there an alternative to the alternative?

Historically, numerous unity arrangements have predominantly been pre-electoral or post-war. In the former, rivals come together to form a unified front that runs for elections. The latter is illustrated by countries such as post-apartheid South Africa, Sudan and Somalia, which have embarked on this form of power-sharing. In Zimbabwe in 1980, the guerrilla movements of Robert Mugabe's ZANU party united with Joshua Nkomo's PF-ZAPU to form what is now known as "ZANU-PF". Mugabe's ZANU had a larger following and through compromises made by the merging of these two ethnically diverse groups a united front was formed that would govern Zimbabwe. Having assimilated PF-ZAPU into ZANU's ranks, Mugabe set out to win the 1985 elections and he became the country's first post-colonial democratically elected president. Almost 30 years later, the signing of the September 2008 global unity agreement is reminiscent of the coming together of ZANU and PF-ZAPU. The only difference is that the MDC is a relatively new political grouping with no "liberation credentials", making it seem like the "little brother" in this somewhat patrimonial arrangement.

While it is still in its early days, it would not be alarmist to say that the circumstances in which the Zimbabwean GNU was negotiated and the compromises that both parties have had to make is an indication that all is not settled. Indeed ideological differences between Mugabe and Tsvangirai have seen them and other senior government officials often contradicting each other publicly. There have also been accusations that elements within ZANU-PF are trying to sabotage the GNU. In Kenya, the case is no different. In a country where ethnicity and cultural heritage has played a pivotal role in politics, it is not surprising that any "unity" government that attempts to bring ideologically dissimilar factions together is faced with tremendous challenges. The resignation, on 6 April 2009 of the minister of Constitutional Affairs from the GNU may be a case in point.

It can thus be argued that post-electoral governments of national unity, as so far seen in Nairobi and Harare, are elite pacts that accord less consideration to the electorate. The aspirations of ordinary people who cast their ballot with the hope of establishing a new government or extending the term of the incumbent have largely remained unattended to. For these masses, democracy remains a pipe dream. The argument might still need more empirical evidence to generalise it, but the short experience of Kenya and Zimbabwe so far indicates that free and transparent elections after which the winner takes responsibility to rule democratically remain the only sustainable condition for structural stability.


By Ottilia Anna Maunganidze, Intern, African Security Analysis Programme, ISS Tshwane