Winner-takes-all Politics and Africa's Future


Andrews Atta-Asamoah, Senior Researcher, African Conflict Prevention Programme ISS Nairobi

Africa is one of the geographical spaces that exemplify Samuel Huntington’s ‘third wave of democratisation’ in the late Twentieth Century. In the 1990s, owing to the loss of legitimacy of authoritarian regimes, intense pressure from citizens, national reforms, pressure from civil society organisations and the international community, Africa experienced an immense move towards the adoption of democracy. There was also a visible move away from authoritarian rule and the autocratic tendencies that it had been so popularly noted for in its post-colonial history.

Africa saw important changes in its democratic credentials, with many countries, from West to East, through, to Southern Africa recording significant improvements in the move towards the practice of liberal democracy. Since then, even though many countries have yet to democratise, and many of those democratised are still grappling with a panoply of teething problems, there are indications across the continent that Africa has indeed positioned itself on the pathway of democracy. However, Africa’s experience in this regard thus far, has not been void of challenges and shortcomings.

In a recent interaction with members of civil society and the academic community in Freetown, Sierra Leone, about conflict prevention in the 21st century Africa, a number of thought-provoking issues emerged. Among the myriad of issues discussed, one that emerged strongly is the need for the Africa to rethink the practice of winner-takes-all in the continent’s political competitions. The need for a critical reconsideration of this phenomenon is principally because of the extent to which zero-sum practices negatively impact on national development goals and are capable of driving conflict and insecurity on the continent.

In the context of recent political competition in many African countries, the notion of winner-takes-all does not just imply a situation where the loser ends up in political opposition, as is characteristic of plurality winner-take-all electoral systems, but means more. In Africa, a number of issues emerge within which the losing party or former incumbent is forced to operate and which ultimately define the nature of winner-takes-all political systems on the continent.

First is the fact that usually the winner takes all the glory and gains, whilst the loser bears all the guilt and blame for all the country’s ills and challenges. Secondly, the winner sometimes does not consider using the institutional memory and expertise of the opposition. Instead, the opposition easily ends up becoming a target for the incumbent and an object against which all propaganda is directed and attempts made to discredit. In worst cases, programmes and projects started by opponents are abandoned so as not to allow them to share in the glory. In situations where not all projects are abandoned, the majority of them are discredited for purposes of political expediency and scoring of political points. Also, importantly, it is done to delegitimise the opposition groups in the eyes of the citizenry.

Such politics, if left unchecked in the context of the complex cocktail of development and security challenges in Africa, could derail the sustainability of democratic gains, development strides, and the maintenance of peace and security in many fragile states. For the most part, winner-takes-all politics has the tendency of increasing the cost of losing elections for political parties in any country or political system. Such a situation and the perceived impact thereof on the future of political parties also have implications for the nature of political participation and competition. Opposition parties may end up becoming desperate to win power by all means and at whatever cost; whilst the incumbents, mindful of the cost of losing elections, may also prepare to maintain power by all means and at anybody’s expense. Such entrenching tendencies have the possibility of motivating losers to reject results and contribute to election-related violence and conflict. Africa’s experiences of post-election violence in countries such as Kenya, Ethiopia, Togo and Zimbabwe have pointed to the volatility of electoral processes on the continent. If political parties are made to over-rate the cost of losing elections, the probability of countries moving close to the precipice of violence whenever elections are due is high and could introduce elections as a probable conflict triggering exercise.

Moreover, the politics of winner-takes-all has the tendency of heightening inter-ethnic tensions in countries where political competition and issues are already painted in ethnic colours. This is particularly because minority groups who have no chances of ever wining power through the majoritarian demands of existing electoral processes may never really get their issues and concerns represented at the national level. This has the tendency of setting various ethnic groups against each other and ultimately increasing the odds against the maintenance of peace and security across the continent.

Winner-takes-all is also capable of negatively impacting on national development through the introduction of political compartmentalisation of experience and development ideas of citizens as well as the progressive initiatives of different political groups. This is such that once an individual or group is not affiliated to a regime in power, the tendency of their expertise and ideas being utilised towards the achievement of national development goals become limited, if not absent.

The responsibility of confronting this issue lies in the hands of States, Regional Economic Communities (RECs) and the African Union (AU. At the national levels, it is important for African countries to begin discussions and considerations of modalities for the institutionalisation of the office of opposition as part of the ways of entrenching democratic practices. This will help establish the fact that opposition parties are necessarily part of the efforts to entrench democracy in Africa. Even though some leaders in Africa have argued that their roles as leaders do not include the creation of a viable and credible opposition, it is in the interest of the state to create an opposition to keep incumbents in check and to provide alternative views on national development policies and frameworks.

Given that viable oppositions are sometimes not in the political interest of incumbents but rather the State, it is important for RECs and the AU to give such considerations critical thought within the framework of existing arrangements for the promotion of good governance, transparency and entrenchment of democracy in Africa.


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