A shambles it was called. Some claimed they were surprised. What is surprising is that the outcome of an African general election like the one just concluded in Zimbabwe still springs up surprises. This is because elections in Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Tanzania, Uganda, among others, all follow a similar script. The donors or development partners from the West fund them very heavily like their lives depend on the outcome. They then dispatch observer missions and the international media to report on every step. The latter, notably lends gravitas to the entire process as a serious competition where the incumbent is on his tenterhooks ‘this time round’, facing the race of his life. He is condemned for using state resources and security agencies to gain an advantage because of his waning popularity.
The observers voice ‘serious concerns’ about the lack of a level playing field because the opposition is being bullied and ill-treated due to the massive support they enjoy. Threatening statements are made about how the international community will not accept the outcome of a flawed process and warn the government to take note. Come polling day and the incumbent as usual is announced the winner (whether he has won or not.)
The donors will then by default, say although there were some imperfections here and there, the process was credible. They present reports, calling for reforms. Then the donors call on all sides to restrain their supporters and call for dialogue.
They send a high-powered delegation to the home or office of the main opposition leader and advise him to either accept the outcome for the sake of peace and stability or seek redress in a court of law. In case of recalcitrance, they cajole that he will be held responsible if the situation gets out of hand. If he goes to court, the court more often than not simply sanitises the process by claiming the rigging was not substantial enough to render the election null and void. Then life goes on, with the donors continuing with the usual hypocritical and hapless threats to cut aid if the government continues its autocratic and corrupt ways.
Meanwhile, they keep lending huge sums of dollars whose payment and annual interest cripples and subjugates the recipient country like the nice rope one is given to hang themselves. They care less if the regime in power steals the money and uses it to perpetuate itself in power. This continues to the next election and the same drama is played out.
The donors are not crazy or too rich to care for their money. Their main concern about elections in Africa is to protect their investment in the continent where they have a serious stake; one that has grown exponentially in the post-colonial era. To tap into the vast cheap natural resources of the African continent, the West needs to have a relatively serene environment with ‘strong’ leaders in control. The leaders do not necessarily have to be popular or democratic. They must have the capacity to accept the liability of aid, keep the borrowing country alive and stable enough to pay back their debt with high interest. They must give donors priority over the locals in the exploitation and enjoyment of the resources of a country, like land and lakes.
The example of mineral-rich Democratic Republic of Congo comes to mind. Right from the days of Mobutu Ssese Seko up to current president Joseph Kabila, the West has dealt with Congo, ignoring the bad governance. Kabila was supposed to leave power in 2016 but he is still holding on today. He is the sort of person with whom the West can do business despite reports of human rights violations and all manner of autocracy. During the cold war, the West fondly called such leaders ‘our sons of bitches’ because they did their bidding.
The Zimbabwe election excited many who wrongly thought that the incumbent, Emmerson Mnagagwa, and the unpopular Zanu-PF was on its way out. Mnangagwa has many advantages over the popular opposition leader, the youthful Nelson Chamisa of the MDC Alliance.
Mnangagwa may have been former president Robert Mugabe’s enforcer and a relic of the past, but he has support and control of the army. He is likely to become a great client for donor funding from the West to jump-start Zimbabwe’s economy thereby helping the West make a return to Zimbabwe in a big way, after the cold relationship they had with Mugabe. The younger men like Chamisa are usually idealistic and may prove to be revolutionary, unpredictable and difficult to deal with for they are not tried and tested in as far as real politic is concerned.
For the West, therefore, a leader like Mnangagwa works well because he will seek legitimacy by pleasing the donors and doing their bidding. The reason African leaders put their countries’ resources to the West with ease be it young men dying in lands far away while engaging in peace keeping, is that they know about the importance of keeping he who pays the piper, happy.
As long as the West has its money in Africa, it will continue to have a huge say about all matters, especially the ultimate one of who leads the country. The favour will go to one who serves their geopolitical and economic interests best.
Mr Sengoba is a commentator on political and social issues. [email protected] Twitter:@nsengoba