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March's Last Word


By Steve McDonald
Director, the Africa Program and the Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity 

This month has seen some remarkable events on the continent, all with wide ranging implications.  They include the death of the "novelist laureate" of Africa, Chinua Achebe, the seizure of Bangui by rebels and flight of the president in the Central African Republic (CAR), the arrest of former Zambian President Rubiah Banda, the constitutional referendum in Zimbabwe, and the first round of the Kenyan elections.

The death of Achebe at 82, while still actively teaching at Brown University in Boston, where he had resided for years, has drawn universal praise and condolences for the African writer best known in the West. His novel Things Fall Apart is most often cited by the outside world, but Achebe had also authored Arrow of God, No Longer at Ease, Anthills of the Savannah,  A Man of the People, There Was a Country, and is reported to have an unpublished novel ready to go.  His subject matter ranged from the plight of a family adapting to modern, Western influences to reviewing the Biafran civil war.  Achebe was a critic of English literature about Africa, and even questioned the use of English as a medium for expression in his earlier years, although he continued to write in English. His discomfort with Western portrayals of Africa reached its apex in his famous critique, "An Image of Africa," which took on Joseph Conrad in his iconic Heart of Darkness.   He will always be remembered as a great author in his own right, but more importantly, he started the African Writers Series, and was "godfather" to any number of upcoming new writers from around the continent.

In the CAR, rebels have seized control of the capital, Bangui, forcing President Francois Bozizé to flee to Cameroon.   This comes after decades of tension and rebellion that have been punctuated by peace agreements, none of which address the core causes of the conflict in this poor, subsistence-based country.   In a privately-owned web site, centrafrique-press, the Séléka rebels who took Banqui, asked the population to remain calm and declared there would be no reprisals or revenge attacks.  Séléka promised peace and national unity; offered to launch a healthy development policy, based on the Libreville agreement signed in January between Bozizé supporters, the political opposition and the rebels; and, promised to hold free and fair elections within the next three years.  We will have to wait and see, remembering all the promises of democracy emanating from Idi Amin Dada, Robert Mugabe, and so many others.

Yesterday, Zambia's former president, Rupiah Banda, was arrested by police for alleged abuse of authority and corruption.  Banda was president from 2008 to 2011.  He was charged in court on Monday, March 25th, released on bail and ordered to turn in his passport.  Banda appeared in court on Tuesday where he is being accused of stealing $11 million, part of which he had used on his re-election campaign in 2011. Banda has denied all the charges and I have no authoritative way of knowing if these charges are based in fact.  The story is that the charges have been made, and impunity from corruption is being tolerated less and less in Africa.

In Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN), a network of 31 non-governmental organizations working on the promotion of democratic elections in Zimbabwe, observed the Constitutional Referendum on Saturday 16 March 2013 and declared it peaceful and smooth, although several violations were recorded.  All three major political parties campaigned for the "yes" vote and support for the "yes" vote was relatively uniform across the country, unlike in the 2000 referendum when opposition parties campaigned for a "no" vote.   The parties, Mugabe's ZANU-PF, and two branches of the MDC, will contest elections in July 2013.  This referendum did little to distinguish between the performances of different parties, so it will be hard to gauge which one might prevail in July. However, it augers well for the process, as the Zimbabwe Elections Commission did a credible job of setting up and conducting the referendum in a rather short amount of time.

In Kenya, the election is still in some flux as challenges to the results have been launched by a variety of parties.  CORD, the coalition that supported Raila Odinga, filed its petition with the Supreme Court on March 17 challenging the election results.  The Supreme Court has 14 days to review evidence, hear witnesses, and make a ruling. This takes us to March 29, but that is Good Friday, so the decision may come March 30 or the following week.  The Supreme Court has three options for its ruling, depending on how strong they think the evidence is:  1) confirm the official result announced on March 9; 2) order a re-count of the votes; 3) order a fresh presidential election. There is evidence that President elect Uhuru Kenyatta may not have gotten a majority. This evidence is based on several factors. First, there is concern over the 100,000 or so rejected ballots, which were removed from the count base and made the percentages higher. Furthermore, there is room for dispute in the Parallel Vote Count, conducted by an international/local partner group, which gave Kenyatta a victory at 49.07%, but had a margin of error of about 2.7%. Finally, there are challenges to the electronic transmission system for the vote count, which failed in many places and the fact that there were significant irregularities at some polling places.   So far, two other cases have been filed in the Supreme Court. First, A group of civil society groups under the banner, Center for Open Governance, filed a petition on March 14, claiming that the presidential tallying by IEBC was not properly done. They have included a statistical analysis of what went wrong with the tallying process and want the Supreme Court to nullify the results announced, since Kenyatta did not surpass the 50% + 1 mark. Secondly, three petitioners under the lobby group Team Uhuru filed a petition seeking the Supreme Court to state the legality of the inclusion of rejected votes in the final tally of the announced presidential results by IEBC. They want the Supreme Court to set precedence for rejected votes to be excluded in future elections.

Whatever happens with these challenges, the world is watching closely, not only to see the outcome, but to judge just how a new government will unfold.  The Jubilee Coalition of Kenyatta does not have majorities in the Senate or National Assembly, or among county governors or Ward representatives, without the partnership of Vice President William Ruto's URP party.  Kenyatta is rumored to be considering dropping Ruto, or sacrificing him to the ICC indictment in order to protect himself.  This could exacerbate tensions, and even spur violence, among Kikuyu and Kalenjin supporters of the two.  More important, it could leave his coalition in a minority in the legislative and county government ranks.

In the meantime, things are getting tense.  CORD supporters have demonstrated in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, and exchanges in social media between Kenyatta and Odinga supporters are becoming intense and nasty, with an added twist of threats against the civil society organizations and individuals who have questioned the election results.   There have also been increasing clashes in some of the more ethnic majority communities, rumors of Kikuyu landlords now raising rents and the price of food staples in Nairobi slums and in some other communities, and chasing out of Luo residents.   On the positive side, Odinga continues to call for peace, but that might not contain violence should things ratchet up.  In fact, his speech on March 16 asserted that "we are dealing with criminals" and with "fraud on a grand scale," after he had urged his followers to be non-violent.

So, Kenya is not in from the cold yet and bears close attention over the next few weeks.

On a more positive note, we have also had a lot going on here at Africa UP Close this month. After impressive increases in readership in 2013 and positive responses from both contributors and readers, Africa UP Close has made two substantial advancements this month; entering the world of Twitter and upgrading our platform to the new and improved site you see before you. We hope you share our enthusiasm in these exciting steps forward and let us know your thoughts by commenting here or following us @AfricaUPClose.

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Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more