By By Charles Onyango-Obbo | The East African
In 2002, the deep divisions in Kenya’s ruling Kanu party, allowed the National Rainbow Coalition led by President Mwai Kibaki to score an unprecedented landslide for an opposition party in Africa.
In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni and his ruling National Resistance Movement had a stranglehold on power until a 2000 split in the party led to the most serious challenge he had ever faced.
A former ally, Col Kiiza Besigye, broke away and faced Museveni in the February 2001 polls. The NRM saved itself only through a massive election swindle.
Now it’s the turn of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. The Arena Party, formed as a breakaway by Meles’s former ally Gebru Asrat, is fielding a full contingent in the Tigray region, a traditional stronghold of the ruling Tigray People’s Liberation Front.
In Ethiopia’s highly tribal politics, Meles, himself a Tigrinya, used to win 100 per cent of the vote in the region of Tigray. His party is unlikely to lose, but it will probably not get 100 per cent again in the May 23 poll.
The post-Independence parties and those formed by victorious rebel groups as in Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Rwanda and Uganda are nearly impossible to defeat in elections, and have mostly been ousted by insurgent splinter groups.
But even more important for Africa’s future, is the difficulty these parties have had in carrying out so-called third generation reforms.
In common, they have been able to liberalise economies, write new constitutions that offer limited political competition and media freedom. But they have been unable to establish truly independent electoral commissions, fully independent courts, and unfettered press freedom.
Kenya is the only country that has moved close to third generation with its draft constitution. Its Bill of Rights, for example, goes much farther than any other country in the region has dared to go.
To understand why that is the case, one needs to consider that Kibaki is not a founding father president. Mozambique, for example, has made tremendous progress in the past 10 years.
That became possible only after former president Joachim Chissano took charge after the death of Samora Machel in a plane crash in 1986.
One reason founding fathers of independent African countries, and leaders of victorious rebel armies have not been famously democratic is that they come to power with too much authority and power.
They founded their parties and rebel groups, led them in difficult times, and were triumphant. It is very difficult for anyone in their party or government to suggest they knew better or could be more competent.
In other words, the greatest danger to the African political child is the father. Because of this it requires the founder to die in a plane crash, to be murdered in his sleep, or to expire from natural causes for a new leader to emerge and make changes.
Chissano could not be Machel, because he had many equals in Frelimo.
Kibaki didn’t defeat Kanu alone in 2002. He needed the help of nearly a dozen other opposition parties. Tanzania has a good chance of progressing, because it is now in its third presidency since the great man Julius Nyerere stepped down in 1985.
The Ugandas and Ethiopias of this world will have to wait a while longer before they can play in the first political freedom division.
(Charles Onyango-Obbo is Nation Media Group’s executive editor for Africa & Digital Media. E-mail: [email protected])