African politics

Coalition Governments in Africa– The New Normal?


In 2007, Kenya, which until then was seen as the “Oasis of Peace” in a sea of conflict, a perception forged on ignorance rather than any educated observations, went to the polls. In the 2002 elections the opposition formed a coalition comprising of the ODM, headed by Raila Odinga, and the PNU headed by Mwai Kibaki against the incumbent party KANU headed by Moi and won the first victory of an opposition party since the introduction of multi-party politics in Kenya in 1991. Immediately after the victory cracks emerged in the coalition government with the ODM wing of the coalition crying foul over the distribution of government jobs. The ODM quit the government in protest, setting the stage for a dramatic face off with their erstwhile coalition partner.

Using the organization network that won them the previous election, in 2007 the ODM canvassed for votes extensively across ethnic lines by creating a siege mentality, pitting the majority of Kenyans against the Kikuyu ethnic group. This resonated well with the voters who felt that the PNU, headed by the President, a Kikuyu, had disproportionately benefited from state resources. Most opinion polls before the elections indicated that the ODM was coasting to a comfortable victory.

ODM took this to heart and started preparing for their victory lap, while the PNU had other ideas up their sleeves. Election rigging usually takes place before, during, and after an election; however, because of the level scrutiny that this election attracted, the PNU was not able to rig it beforehand. That would have entailed stuffing the ballot boxes, adding ghost voters to the rolls, and altering of the electoral districts. Because this was infeasible, the PNU orchestrated their rigging at the vote counting centre at Kenyatta International Conference Centre where all the votes were aggregated. Sensing what PNU was up to, the ODM called a press conference announcing that they would not accept the elections results. To forestall any further ODM maneuvers, the electoral commission chairman Samuel Kivuitu immediately announced President Kibaki the winner in a live national broadcast, from a dimly lit, unknown location. In a closely fought election with palpable tension in the air, this inevitably led to an unprecedented chain of violence across major Kenyan cities resulting in the death of at least 1500 people and leaving 1.5 million displaced.

Weeks of fighting led to a flurry of diplomatic efforts which included the AU, the UN, and regional players as well as behind the scenes diplomatic arm twisting from the US and the EU. This resulted in the two warring sides agreeing to a mediation led by the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. After months of intense negotiations and bitter disagreements, the two parties finally agreed to form a government of national unity with Mwai Kibaki as President and Raila Odinga as Prime Minister. However, during the entire negotiation, the crucial question of who won the election was left unanswered with both the winner and the looser sharing in the spoils.

One year later, in a manner similar to the Kenya’s deadlock, Zimbabwe held its election with two candidates, incumbent Robert Mugabe and opposer Morgan Tsvangirai. Despite an election campaign accompanied by violence, threats, and voter intimidation against the opposition, on March 31, 2008, Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) claimed a substantial victory. However, a day later, Mugabe’s campaign team announced that, while Tsvangirai defeated Mugabe, he did not obtain the requisite number of votes for an all out victory. This made a runoff election the next logical step, adding fuel to an already precarious situation.

Prior to the runoffs, in a bid to shore up his sagging popularity, Mugabe initiated a series of arrests against opposition supporters. As a result of this, Tsvangirai withdrew from the runoff election and left the country. South Africa, as a major political player in the region, hoping to avoid a post-election conflict in Zimbabwe similar to Kenya’s, initiated mediation between the two parties through the regional organization, the South African Development Cooperation. South Africa felt duty bound to mediate between Mugabe and Tsvangirai for myriad reasons.

President Mugabe and Prime Minister Tsvangirai

In addition to a mass exodus of Zimbabwean’s into South Africa as a result of hyper-inflation, South Africa owed Zimbabwe and Mugabe, in particular, for the role played during South Africa’s struggle against Apartheid. Mugabe’s government hosted most of the ANC leaders during their struggle and lent other logistical support. As a result, when South Africa’s President Mbeki was selected as a mediator, he negotiated an outcome that favored Mugabe.

After weeks of negotiation both sides agreed to the formation of a coalition government with Mugabe retaining his Presidency and Tsvangirai assuming a role as Prime Minister. Cabinet ministers were drawn from both parties. While the spirit of the coalition government intended mutual consultation, in this case, Mugabe called all the shots. Shortly after the swearing in, opposition members began voicing their discontent that Mugabe was running the government without consulting them. This hardening Mugabe’s approach. He announced that if MDC members were dissatisfied, they were free to leave their position in the government. Despite half-hearted, feeble threats, to date, the MDC remains part of the coalition government in Zimbabwe.

Two years after Zimbabwe’s crisis, a similar situation was brewing in the West African country, Ivory Coast. Two party leaders, the incumbent, President Laurent Gbagbo, a history professor, ran against Alassane Ouattara a former Chief Economist and ex-African Director of the International Monetary Fund. This election was seen as a new beginning for a country and people, who had, since the early 1990s, experienced more than their share of political conflict.

Before its political crisis, Ivory Coast was a stable and a prosperous country. However, after the death of its founding President Felix Houphouet-Boigny in 1993, Henri Bedie was installed as the President. Houphouet-Boigny was undoubtedly an iron-fist ruler; however, he was acutely aware of the fragility of the state and, as such, was keen to keep the ethnic arithmetic in order to maintain unity. On his death, his successor, Bedie, disregarded the ethnic and religious differences between North and South, and in doing so, inflamed it. His insistence on the policy of Ivorite, Ivory Coast for Ivorian sealed the fate of his presidency. He was subsequently disposed in a military coup in 1999 where General Robert Guei was installed as President. One year later, in a hotly contested election, Guei lost to Gbagbo, who is in office today.

President Laurent-Gbagbo (Left), Alassane-Ouattara (Right) opposition leader

The 2010 election was a product of a series of negotiations and mediations involving the United Nations, the African Union, and regional organizations. It was deemed as a key step in unlocking the decades long political crisis. Initially scheduled for early in the year, it postponed on multiple occasions and finally occurred in December 2010. As in any contentious election, the public was on the edge of their seats in anticipation of the results. Amidst this tense background, opposition leader, Outtara was initially announced the winner. However, President Gbagbo refused to concede defeat and the results were quickly reversed with President Gbago declared the winner, setting the scene for another African election ending in mediation. Fresh from his experience in Zimbabwe, having recently launched his own foundation, and no longer President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, appeared the easiest choice in mediating the Ivorian political deadlock. Although South Africa owes Gbagbo no favors, it is likely that the mediation will follow the same pattern it did in Zimbabwe.

After Mbeki hit a deadlock in his mediation efforts, the AU has appointed Kenya’s Prime Minster Raila Odinga as a mediator. It will be interesting to watch how Raila will proceed with his mediation after being critical of Gbagbo. Having been in a similar situation himself during the Kenya’s post election violence, he might bring some experience to the table, but that depends on if the Gbagbo camp will trust him as a neutral arbiter.

Former South African President Thabo Mbeki


In Africa, political dinosaurs are very much respected whether or not they deserve it. In both Kenya and Zimbabwe, amidst questionable election results, incumbents managed to retain their positions and Ivory Coast may prove to be no different. If history is any indication, mediation in Ivory Coast will lead to a coalition government. While some may see this as a satisfactory solution, letting incumbents retain control regardless of election outcomes has a perverse incentive on incumbents and the entire political process. African incumbents can rest assured of their power, knowing, in the next election, regardless of the outcome, they can claim victory and wait for the African Union and regional organizations to send in a retired president to mediate. Ultimately the incumbent will shake hands with the opposition candidate and the two will share power as President and Prime Minister. The only casualties will be the country, its people, the political process, and perhaps the continent. While these political arrangements are heralded as African solutions to African problems, there is nothing African about distorting the will of electorate for short-term political expediency.

While some critics hold the belief that these recent election crises should only be resolved through power-sharing agreements, they forget these are countries that have previously survived the changing of the guard. They ignore the reality that, if the incumbent actually won these elections, instead of merely declaring themselves the victor, they would never agree to power-sharing. Propping up false leaders cannot be the only way to Africa’s political deadlocks. Instead we need strong and independent electoral commissions that can stand up to the incumbency so that elections can provide a way forward for Africa.

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