Elections, Elections everywhere....not a hope in sight?

When a the publisher friend contacted me and asked me to produce a few words about elections in the light of the upcoming US election, I was very excited. I wanted to talk about Hillary, Obama, Sarah Palin etc bring in thoughts about the various elections that have taken place around the world. However, when it came to actually writing something, I found I had nothing to say that had not been said before and the passion and drive faded away. When I found it hard to simply articulate what I thought was happening around me, I realised that I was (a) trying too hard and (b) attempting to passionately express other people’s opinions. I find writing most difficult when I endeavour to direct it down a path that my mind is not interested in.

So where to begin? In the past few years, elections have been conducted across a multitude of countries all over the world with varying results. The result in Russia was predictable, that in Taiwan might bring an end to a divided China and in Pakistan elections have led to the ousting of the military leader, Pervez Musharraf. In Africa, elections in both Kenya and Zimbabwe led to wide scale violence, after accusations of rigging, eventually culminating in negotiations between the ruling parties and the main oppositions. In Kenya, credit to the politicians there and their chief mediator, former Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, there has been a power sharing agreement in place since early this year, which seems to be holding. In Zimbabwe, one of the great tragedies of the African continent, the bickering continues with no end in sight.

However, the election that has dominated media coverage, which appears to have captured the enthusiasm of people of all colours and creeds across the world, has been the election in the United States of America. There has been intense interest in what was going on in the Presidential Election in the USA from the Democratic Iowa Caucuses in January 2008 through to its conclusion on November 5th 2008.

There has been a great deal of talk about the historic nature of the US elections; these were the elections that would see either a black man, a woman or the oldest first termer walking into the White House. However, lets be clear and honest and not take away from the achievements of those that came before. The world has had women leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and Indira Ghandi, as it has had a multitude of Black presidents. We have even had a Black woman president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Head of State of Liberia.

The historic nature, I suppose, lies in the exceptionality of two of the potential candidates in a country that has been led been led from its inception by a variety of white men. In their eagerness to clarify the moment many Black people (and other non Caucasians) have made much of Mr Obama’s skin colour. On the other hand Caucasians have made much of his provenance. I will say my piece about this, as it appears I must, then I will move on to something I believe is more significant about Mr Obama.

Mr Obama is mixed race; there is no denying that he is the son of a white American mother and a Black African father. However, if he was walking down the street and you passed him, knowing nothing of his heritage, the majority of us would assume he would tick the box on the diversity form that says he is a black man. You can make what you will of these things but if perceiving him as one, the other or indeed neither, gives people in need of hope, of pride, the uplift in spirit they require then I see nothing wrong with that.

The man himself has attempted to avoid any sort of racial classification, or affiliation. He has attempted to preach the politics of unity rather than segregation. And this, I believe, is the most important thing about him.

He is an orator in the mould of Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King, who marches in the nation uniting footsteps of Nelson Mandela. It seems he has roused many Americans, many who lost hope in the Bush years, given them something to hold on to. Many have found something to relate to, something that has inspired them and motivated them into action. Many who had seen no point in voting in previous elections were moved to do so by his promise of change. It is this quality to bring people together, give them hope and make them act that gives me hope for the future of the role of the United States on the world stage. And yet it also brings me great sadness.

The contrast between Mr Obama’s stance and the various mediocre, factional or tribalist options that we are presented with in African elections shows how far our continent has got to go. African leaders seem to want power not to unite or to bring about positive change in their nations but simply for their own gain. For this reason they find it very difficult to let go of power, to the detriment of their people.

The prime example here is off course Zimbabwe’s despotic ruler, Robert Mugabe, who refuses to leave the helm despite the fact that his people are starving and his country’s economy is now a shadow of it’s former self with inflation rates in the hundreds of thousands. The regime is so blatant in its abuse of power and disregard for it’s people that recently it spent $1,300,000, money donated to fight tuberculosis, AIDS and malaria on some other purpose and has refused to give the money back or state what it has been used for.

In my own country, Zambia, there was a long running debate before the Presidential election in 2001 because the then President Fredrick Chiluba was seeking to have the constitution amended to allow him to pursue a third presidential term. He was unsuccessful but in a bid to ensure that he still had his finger on the pulse, he handpicked the next leader of the ruling party MMD, who was guaranteed victory in the Presidential elections. When his chosen successor began a campaign to bring him and several of those close to him to justice for the alleged abuse of state monies, it seemed to many that his endeavour to hold on to power was simply about attempting to continue to dip his hand deep into the public purse.

Zambia has recently had elections, as a result of the death of our president in July 2008. However, during the campaigning the rhetoric of most of the candidates was so filled with vitriol, so self-serving, that one can have very little hope for a united progressive future. The candidates themselves leave much to be desired. Of the four main parties, three are led by old men who have been in government before and the remaining one by a man who was chosen as party leader because he was the right tribe. The election was again won by the ruling party’s candidate, Mr Rupiah Banda, a former diplomat and minister in the one party government of Kenneth Kaunda, followed closely by the vocal Mr Michael Sata, who also held positions in the Kaunda governments as well as the governments of Mr Chiluba. He fell out with the MMD party after his bid to be named as Mr Chiluba’s successor failed. He has vowed to die in State House, the Zambian president’s official residence and has refused to accept the results of the presidential by election, calling on his supporters not to sponsor the policies of the new president. According to independent monitors there was no apparent evidence of rigging, but it appears standard in Zambia for the candidate that comes second to contest the results of the Presidential election. It appears they cannot believe that they are not the people’s choice.

In Nigeria, a troubled country renowned for the corruption of it’s politicians, the situation almost mirrors the events in Zambia. In 2006 Senate had to block an amendment that would have allowed former President Obasanjo to seek a third term. An election followed in 2007, whose results are disputed. To be fair it appears that the people who are calling for a recount or indeed a new election in Nigeria have a case. It seems that there were irregularities, with polling stations in some states remaining closed on election day and as a result several states’ results being omitted from the count. Nigeria is is a country that has seen much conflict, ususally along tribal lines. The contry has been unable to change president peacefully. The election of 1993 is a case in point. It was won by M.K.O Abiola then annulled by Ibrahim Babangida, the incumbent. Babginda was eventually ousted by General Sani Abacha who ignored Abiola’s claim to the presidency.

Even in South Africa, a nation that inspired many after the release of Nelson Mandela, things have began to fall apart, with the ANC splitting into two factions as politicians and citizens alike, put their feelings before the good of the nation. Supporters of the former president, Thabo Mbeki, have decided to split away from the ruling ANC party, as they are unhappy that Mr Mbeki was forced to resign. The nature of Mr Mbeki’s departure is typical of African politics. He was ousted after a judge accused him of attempting to influence the outcome of an investigation into the alleged corruption of his successor as party leader, Jacob Zuma. Mr Zuma, who is most likely to become president of South Africa next year, has been in court on charges of rape and corruption and appears to be a divisive, rather than uniting figure. Although he is popular with the party’s mainly black grass roots supporters, the country’s technocrats and business community are still distrustful of this grade nine dropout, whose rhetoric has brought fear to the hearts of the country’s minorities and caused foreign investors to think twice about putting their money in South Africa.

As South Africa, amongst other nations, goes to vote next year, my wish for the future is that Africans learn from America’s President elect and begin to look for ways to unite, rather than plunder, their nations.

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