“African Opposition Parties: Achieving their potential in emerging democracies and the African Union

t-family: TimesNewRomanPS-BoldMT; mso-bidi-font-family: ‘Times New Roman’; mso-ansi-language: EN-US”>”EXTRACT FROM A SPEECH BY TONY LEON MP





In the last decade, there has been a notable strengthening of democracy in Africa.

Up until the mid-1990s, one-party states were the norm. The operating space for opposition was marginal at best; non-existent, often punishable by law, at worst.

In the last ten years, there has been a surge in multiparty democracy. As many as 42 sub-Saharan countries have introduced multiparty democracy;[1] since 2000, a heartening 51 parliamentary elections have been held across the continent.[2]

However, elections, even if free, fair and peaceful, are a necessary but not sufficient condition for true democracy to prevail. For this we need accountable government, a free media, the rule of law and an informed and empowered citizenry – informed of its rights and empowered to use them.

To improve governance, therefore, we need to focus not just on government, but on institutions that exist beyond the reach of state control.

We need to build societies which are truly free, along the lines suggested by former Soviet prisoner of conscience, Natan Sharansky. In The Case for Democracy, he distinguishes between “fear societies” and “free societies”, being the ability of an individual to “walk into the town square and say what they want without fear of being punished for his or her views”.

Accordingly, too many African states are fear societies, which have failed to keep to the principles of human rights, democracy, transparency and good governance they committed to in Nepad.

It is a sad irony that in the Nepad founding documents no reference is made, or provision created, for the presence of opposition parties – or indeed for any political formations other than ruling parties or governments.

Nepad, it seems, creates the apparatus of democracy without providing for its animating spirit.

In this inhospitable context, it is vital for opposition parties in Africa to assert themselves, and to demonstrate that they have a critical role to play as part and parcel of the democratic process.

South Africa offers an instructive example of what happens when opposition is tolerated rather than prized.

The governing ANC likes to trumpet its democratic credentials abroad, while too often in practice undermining that selfsame democracy at home.

A recent example was in Cape Town, where the ANC have tried five times by means fair and foul to unseat the city’s democratically-elected coalition, climaxing in a brazen attempt last month to seize power through the back door.

Following a vociferous outcry from civil society and the media, the ANC last week backed off, and officially endorsed the DA-led coalition. This is an important victory for democracy, and demonstrates the vitality of civil society in our country.

However, an old, timely adage – the price of freedom is eternal vigilance – is our watchword in South Africa.

The true sign of a healthy democracy is whether a governing party will accept defeat at the polls. In Cape Town, the ANC at first failed the test which history reserves for genuine democracies. The second time round – belatedly and haltingly – they appear to have passed the examination.

The question for democrats in South Africa is this: what will happen when the ANC is challenged for power throughout the country? The governing party’s real respect – or otherwise – for democracy will only then be revealed.

Turning to Africa at large, we note that opposition is too often hamstrung by government abuse.

In Zimbabwe parties are under direct threat of state interference, with elections rigged, free media constrained and the coercive power of the police and military a constant threat.[3]

In Uganda, the state abuses extra-Parliamentary institutions against the opposition. On the eve of multi-party elections in February, the government arrested the chief opposing leader, before winning at a poll the Supreme Court conceded had been badly flawed.[4]

The lesson these countries teach is this: in order to offer our citizens viable alternatives, opposition parties must put their differences aside.

By linking hands across our borders, we can learn from each other, to the greater good of all our citizens across the continent. For while countless institutions serve to link governments, hardly any bring together those in opposition.

Moreover, we must rebut the notion that opposing the government of the day is to oppose nation-building. Such thinking leads directly to the one-party state, which belongs to the history of our continent and not its present or its future.

Opposition politics are as true an expression of African patriotism as any other politics – truer, in some circumstances.

We must lobby the international community, and partnerships such as the Commission for Africa, to treat opposition parties as a critical pillar of democracy, and so commit resources appropriately.

We should be less concerned with the ideological differences between opposition formations and far more concerned with promoting the concept of opposition and its legitimacy: all the citizens of this great continent deserve no less.

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