The ongoing post-election political mess in the Ivory Coast is the latest example of a growing problem in electoral politics on the continent.
Elections in Africa are now so common and regular that one might expect that they may not cause so much excitement and raise the political temperature. They have not. They still excite the most extreme passions.
Their regularity and the proliferation of political parties would seem to suggest that African electorates have such a wide selection of political programmes that they are spoilt for choice.
They are not. In terms of programmes or ideology, the parties are indistinguishable from each other. The frequency is a periodic ritual that allows national elites to take turns at ruling the country and enjoy all the perks that goes with it.
More recently, they have begun to attract more involvement from external actors. Elections have increasingly become an important part of the foreign policy tools of some of the more powerful countries.
They deliberately seek to influence the choice of which group comes to power. And for this, a new phrase was coined and entered the political lexicon a few years ago. It is called “regime change”.
Regime change can be effected in one of three ways. It can be done through the violent overthrow of a government. Or it can be achieved through “democratic” means via elections. Where either of these is not possible, it can be effected through a combination of both.
Sometimes the interests of the political class and foreign interest converge. Thus you will get political parties which are born with the only intention of removing the president from power.
This has happened in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Uganda and many other places. Foreign ambassadors actively encouraged the formation of parties and alliances for the removal of President Daniel arap Moi in Kenya in the 1990s and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe up to this day.
And because they are not bound together by ideological concerns or an agreed platform, the alliances are inherently unstable and undergo continuous permutations as a result.
They break up, realign, and change names, but remain separate within the alliance. Very often they fail in their purpose because their principal aim is removing the incumbent, not providing an alternative vision of governance.
This also makes the entire political system unstable.
This failure and the desire for regime change have led to another arrangement that has instability built into it.
Coalitions, also known as power-sharing, have increasingly become the preferred choice where elections have been stolen, or where the results are not disputed.
This often accompanies a spate of violence. The pattern is that anyone unhappy with election results cries foul, gets the mob out on the streets where they murder and loot and then he calls for power-sharing arrangements with the supposed winner.
Some in the international community, sometimes genuinely concerned about the effects of violence on national and regional stability, at other times worried about their economic interests, or as is increasingly becoming clear, taking sides in the election dispute, put all their diplomatic weight behind such calls.
Negotiations are then held and coalitions formed, often with a big stick from “facilitators” of the talks hanging over the heads of the negotiating parties.
And so Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF and Morgan Tsivangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) are beaten into working together even when it is clear one of the parties does not want it to work.
Does it come as a surprise then that President Mugabe has now said that the coalition is dead? It never had a chance
That has been the story in Kenya.
Political realignments so many and frequent that it is difficult to see when they will stabilise. They were first made in attempts to unseat Daniel arap Moi.
When that objective had been achieved they quickly broke into their original forms. New alliances were then made to oust Mwai Kibaki. Elections that should have seen Kibaki out of power ended in dispute and violence.
As has become the easy way out, power-sharing arrangements were quickly hammered out and a Grand Coalition was formed. That, too, has been strained and cracks have been growing wider.
Uganda is headed in the same direction. The Inter-Party Cooperation (IPC) is really an alliance of convenience with the only aim the removal of President Yoweri Museveni from power.
It is easy to predict the outcome of the IPC arrangements and the upcoming elections. The IPC will break up regardless of the results.
They are already quarrelling about the spoils even before they have victory. They have threatened violence if they lose.
That is a likely to be the first step in positioning themselves for calls for power-sharing.
Some of the protagonists in the current stand-off between Laurent Gbagbo and Allassane Ouattara in Ivory Coast hope that they can work out a power-sharing deal.
Even in our own country, fugitives from justice are beginning to form political parties and even alliances whose only aim is to topple President Paul Kagame.
Even at this stage they cannot agree whether what they have formed are political parties or some other undefined form of organisation, or whether they have agreed to work together.
They are probably waiting for some external powers to knock their heads together into some form of alliance.
That is where the problem with externally influenced coalitions lies.
They encourage the clamour for power-sharing between groups that have no political programme in common. Deals worked out this way have little chance of success because they have not been allowed to coalesce from within.
That is a source of instability. But that perhaps suits the interests of their sponsors.