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It’s East Africa’s election season, but little change expected

Reading the East African press (old East Africa), you would think the region is in the thick of election campaigns. Electoral politics dominates the news even in this time of the covid-19 pandemic.

But such is East Africans’ genius in turning everything to political advantage that they have co-opted covid-19 into partisan politics.


All the drama of elections is present: intrigue and back-stabbing, purges and conversions, calculations and counter measures, smart moves and checkmates. Only the violence has not started.


In a sense the impression the press gives is true. Most countries in this region, especially Kenya and Uganda, tend to be in permanent electioneering mode.


This may be true of most places but when it comes to the actual time of choosing or dismissing their leaders, Africa’s regions play their politics differently.

In most of East Africa, for instance, political parties are very fluid affairs. The region probably has the most cross-party movements among those vying for leadership.

It gets the record for the frequency of formation and break-up of alliances and coalitions, and the birth and death of political groupings.

West Africa generally has more stable political parties. Party-hopping does happen, but to a much lesser extent than in East Africa. Generally political contest is not for the faint-hearted. It can be a very loud, boisterous and bruising affair.

North African politics are dominated by protests and the military. More than anywhere else on the continent, protests have led to changes in government. That has been the case in Tunisia and to a lesser degree in Algeria and Sudan.

The establishment in Algeria allowed the protests some gains but kept the architecture of power intact. The military always retains control.

In Sudan, the military allied with the protesters and in a sense limited their success and maintained its grip on national politics.

Protests were successful in Egypt but only for a short time. Then the military reasserted its influence as the most important political force in the country.

Even the monarchy in Morocco is sensitive to any suggestion of a protest and usually acts to pre-empt their demands.

In Southern Africa, political parties have become longstanding institutions. The old liberation parties maintain a stranglehold on power.  Still, there are some very plucky and colourful politicians like Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters party in South Africa that lend some drama to politics there.

But back to East Africa, it is indeed election season and the drama that really never stops is again back.

Burundi has just had its election and the new president already inaugurated and we wish him Godspeed. The results were predictable and so there was no real excitement. We can only humbly remind that once elected, leaders cease to be partisan and govern in the interest of all citizens, and should not withdraw from the world but engage with it.

Tanzania is following in October. The CCM candidate always wins, but in the past there have been very lively campaign. The opposition usually stands no chance of unseating CCM because it is often cobbled together just before the election and even then relies only on the charisma of the leader, invariably a high profile defector from CCM. The names of Augustine Mrema and Edward Lowassa in the last few elections quickly come to mind.

In the upcoming election, no doubt other prominent names will emerge but probably will not significantly affect the outcome.

In February 2021, it will be Uganda’s turn. President Yoweri Museveni will seek to extend his rule to forty years. A motley collection of politicians will try to unseat him. Some, like him, have been a permanent fixture of the opposition. Others, like Robert Kyagulanyi, better known as Bobi Wine, are fairly new on the scene.

How much challenge can they offer? They will do the usual - debate the formation of alliances and a single opposition candidate for president. But going by past experience and President Museveni’s skill in dividing the opposition or buying them off, such talks may not yield much.

This time they are further disadvantaged by the digital mode of campaigning.

Kenyans do not go o the polls until August 2022, but going by the media reports, you would think elections will be next month.

Skirmishes have been going on since the last election. Realignments continue to take place. The two big political coalitions will certainly look different in the next two years.

The National Super Alliance (NASA) is already breaking up. Its biggest component, the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) of Raila Odinga moved out a long time ago. Kalonzo Musyoka’s Wiper Democratic Movement has done the same.

The remaining Amani National Congress (ANC) and Ford-Kenya are in turmoil, their leaders barely holding on.

But so, too, is the Jubilee Party of President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto. Formerly a coalition, then a single party, Jubilee will soon break up into its original constituent parts. Stories in the Kenyan press show Kenyatta and Ruto drifting apart.

The process of coalition building will start all over again. A new coalition will likely be built around the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) that resulted from the famous handshake between Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga. It is not surprising that Raila Odinga is at the centre of this process. He has made a name for creating alliances but also ironically for wrecking them.

Cross-party movement will follow. In the Kenyan context, it is not a bad thing. It seems alliances and party-hopping is Kenya’s way of dealing creatively with tribal politics and somehow maintaining national unity.

These are going to be exciting times in East Africa, but will probably bring little change.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.

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