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One of the greatest ‘Eureka moments’ in Africa was and remains the ratification of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, AfCFTA. It does not require extraordinary cognitive depth to appreciate the importance of intra and inter Africa trade. Implication on economic growth, prosperity, employment creation and outright improvement in the quality of life of Africans is far reaching. Our continent teems with millions of young people eager to produce, spend and consume. There is no better way of guaranteeing the future of our children than a radical move towards first world status leveraged with AfCFTA.
However, a political landmine lies in wait.
Economists the world over concur how economic growth has very little to do with classical democracy. Of course as a liberal, I convince myself that democracy makes it easier to savour economic prosperity because it comes with freedom. Yet considering China’s economic poster boy status, the democracy-equals-development prognosis is inaccurate. The Chinese Communist Party is at the centre of that country’s record-breaking economic universe. But that is an exception. Besides, I would rather be poor and free than enslaved in ‘prosperous communism’, where some central authority controls my life. I insist Africa’s distorted brand of democracy is anathema to development because it comes with exponential and cumulative political instability. Political instability is poisonous to intercountry trade and the most prominent cause of this instability is state-sponsored electoral fraud.
Most, if not all electoral outcomes in Africa are a subject of dispute. Incumbent African presidents will rush to ratify the AfCFTA, but as long as their domestic elections are disputed, their countries will struggle to remain peaceful – a critical factor in the algorithm of cross-border trade. In Zimbabwe, the last national election was in 2018 yet up to today, 2021, the country is yet to experience fiscal and monetary stability. Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government is insecure and militarised. Thus, it is impossible to attract international finance that leverages AfCFTA with post-election disputes busy repelling domestic and foreign direct investment. There is very little or no confidence in institutions of democracy, and just like in Uganda, elections cause unnecessary internal conflict that heightens country risk. In Africa, political opponents are routinely harassed, arrested and not permitted to compete against the ruling party. If Africans are confident of continental transformation into one gigantic trading block, then it must be easy to transform it into one gigantic electoral block.
My suggestion for an All Africa Electoral Commission inspired by the pressing desire for continental peace and stability as a pre requisite for sustainable trade. If Yoweri Museveni, Edgar Lungu and Emmerson Mnangagwa or even John Magufuli have nothing to hide, they should allow an independent African body to run their countries’ elections. Ironically, we already have regional bodies that purport to outline electoral protocols but so far, ‘observation status’ fails to incite any credibility in local elections. If the African Union passes the test of a custodian of Africa’s shared vision, so should be an All Africa Electoral Commission as a driver of genuine African elections. If sovereignty does not count in the AfCFTA, it should not count in management of local elections. There is no way Uganda election results will be accepted other than by those who are manipulating them. If the African Union sets electoral standards by universal consensus, the standards should apply in South Africa as much as they do in Morocco, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Namibia or Mozambique. And it is only an All Africa Electoral Commission that can enforce, supervise, monitor and apply these standards without conflicted interests.
One may then ask how Africa budgets for this. That is exactly the same question I can ask of AfCFTA – who budgets for it? The All Africa Electoral Commission is not an observer status body but an electoral management institution that ‘exploits’ the local domestic budget. In any case, I would be surprised if the United Nations were not excited about bankrolling such an idea. There is no need to change national constitutions to accommodate the All Africa Electoral Commission. Simply domesticate its intervention like all other regional or continental protocols. For instance, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission ZEC is a statutory body mandated to ‘run’ elections. My point is that in its current state, no opposition party worth the paper it is written on considers ZEC a credible institution. In other words, it lacks integrity because the ruling party captures its systems. ZEC does not need to cede its authority to the All Africa Electoral Commission; it simply co-opts the continental body in its administrative systems.
There are those who will argue that statutory and non-governmental local, regional and continental institutions are already ‘observing and monitoring’ elections. It is true. The Electoral Institute of Sothern Africa; Zimbabwe Elections Support Network are two of Southern Africa’s leading electoral observers. However, they do not manage elections thus have no impact on electoral outcomes. The point is it does not matter how much Ugandan elections are monitored and observed. The manner in which Uganda treats opposition parties does not augur well with electoral integrity. Of course, just like Emmerson Mnangagwa and John Magufuli, Yoweri Museveni will insist his electoral body has declared him a legitimate victor.
But at what cost to political, social and economic stability? The simmering and underlying dissent caused by disputed electoral results is bad for continental trade. Whilst we can celebrate the benefits of African trade, such benefits will remain meaningless in environments of political instability and disputed electoral outcomes. It is only an All Africa Electoral Commission that can put this political demon to rest.
Written by: Rejoice Ngwenya, Ruwa