Weah’s Loss: A Win for Political Accountability

Published on 28th November 2023

President George Weah recently lost the presidential election run-off to opposition candidate and former Vice President Joseph Boakai. Both the first and second rounds were closely contested. Weah won in the first round. Weah was gracious in his defeat; he called for the prioritisation of national interests above personal and party interests. This is perhaps uncommon in African politics, where incumbents could rig votes or attempt to use any means possible to subvert the wishes of the majority. Besides. Weah’s defeat is a key lesson in political accountability in Africa; political leaders who perform poorly do not deserve second chances.

Weah’s loss is not the first election in Africa where a sitting president or ruling party has been voted out. In Zambia in 1991, the country’s founding father, Kenneth Kaunda, lost in the first-ever multiparty elections to Fred Chiluba. Kaunda had served 27 years as president. Still in Zambia, President Edward Lungu lost to Hakainde Hichilema in 2021. Lungu’s administration became unpopular due to poor economic management, corruption, and oppressing political opponents. In Ghana in 2016, then-President John Mahama lost to current President Nana Akufo-Addo, chiefly due to poor economic management. In Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan lost to Muhammadu Buhari in 2015 on issues related to the threat of terrorism posed by Boko Haram.

In the Ivory Coast in 2010, Laurent Gbagbo lost to Alassane Ouattara due to poor governance. In Senegal, the once-popular Abdoulaye Wade lost to Macky Sall in the presidential election in 2012. This was after Wade ran for an unconstitutional third term. Also, his administration had performed poorly on economic management. In Malawi, Joyce Banda lost to Peter Mutharika in 2014. In 2020, Mutharika in turn lost to current President Lazarus Chakwera. Poor governance was the major cause of the losses of the incumbents. Back home, the independence party - the Kenya African National Union (KANU) - lost the presidential election to the opposition National Alliance Rainbow Coalition (NARC) in 2002. There is no doubt that former President Mwai Kibaki lost the 2007 election but remained in power due to rigging. KANU had ruined the economy and fashioned political oppression. Kibaki was not saintly. Reneging on the coalition power-sharing agreement was the primary factor that bred resentment against his presidency.

Democracy, Accountability & Stability

The outcome of Liberia’s presidential election and the aforementioned defeat of incumbents and ruling parties demonstrate that Africa is not a graveyard of democracy. Anyway, democracy is relative and its definition and practice are fundamentally contextual. Nonetheless, free and fair elections can fast-track political accountability in Africa. Such elections are avenues for the citizenry to vet the performance of political leaders and parties. Political accountability via free and fair elections is critical for long-term political stability. But of course, political stability is not only determined by credible elections as it is also a function of other factors; cross-border regional and global terrorism, coups sponsored by foreign powers, and unrest triggered by economically unwise and oppressive policies by the Bretton Woods institutions.

Political instability in Burkina Faso and Mali is proof that the threat of terrorism and armed rebellion affect a country’s stability. Both countries have had several coups in the last eleven or so years due to the inability of governments to combat insurgency and armed rebellion. France has a history of orchestrating coups in some Francophone African countries.

Lessons for Incumbents & Countries Set to Hold Elections

Incumbents in African countries accustomed to unfair electoral processes may find it difficult to learn from Weah’s loss. Leaders and political parties in countries that attempt to hold regular and open elections might draw lessons from Liberia’s presidential election results. It will be interesting to watch how the current presidents and ruling parties fair on in Ghana, Malawi, and Kenya in elections scheduled for 2024, 2025, and 2027 respectively.

In Ghana, the ruling New Patriotic Party (NPP) is racing against time to convince the electorate that it is capable of addressing the effects of a huge public debt after eight years in power. Interestingly, the NPP has picked Vice President Mahamudu Bawumia as its candidate. Bawumia, an economist and former central banker, harshly criticised former President Mahama’s administration for economic mismanagement in the lead-up to the 2016 elections. The NPP goes into the 2024 elections having not bettered the lives of ordinary Ghanaians.

Malawi’s President Chakwera is battling mounting opposition due to corruption and nepotism. Chakwera’s pre-election promises to reform Malawi’s governance system are seemingly fizzling out. He is now disposed to piecemeal, knee-jerk policy decisions to win popular support such as his recent ban on foreign travel for his ministers and himself. Kenya’s William Ruto - a much acclaimed political genius but who is currently overestimating his popularity - could as well face an uphill task in his reelection bid. Ruto is bullish in his dismissal of the hostility that is gradually building up against his administration due to tax hikes and the cost of living that is on an upward spiral. He recently disparaged legislators allied with his United Democratic Alliance party when they raised concerns about his administration’s rising unpopularity. Credible elections can improve the performance culture of Africa’s political leadership.

By Sitati Wasilwa

Political Economist.

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