The role of voters in Africa

Amid the coups and wars of black Africa, there are some hopeful signs. Nigeria, the continent's largest country and most important democracy recently held a series of elections in which there was widespread participation. The voters of Kenya, the critical country in eastern Africa, last month forcefully voiced their opinions at the polls. A third canvas of a national electorate will be held in Zambia on Oct. 27.

Not many African states still hold elections, or give their citizens choices when they do. But the ones that still adhere to one or another version of the participatory process are by and large significant ones. Nigeria's model, however flawed, is apt to be persuasive in West Africa if not elsewhere in the continent. Nearly a quarter of all Africans live in Nigeria. It is still a country of corruption, ballot rigging, and serious ethnic and sectarian rivalries. But the elections in August and September gave voters a range of choices for 1,913 offices, most of which they exercised.

The result, in Nigeria, was an affirmation of participatory democracy in an African context. The dominance of the National Party, a coalition rooted in the populous, Muslim north, was reaffirmed.

There were bloody riots in some states, and the Yoruba people of the west felt themselves distinctly cheated. The courts overturned a few decisions because of irregularities. Overall, the conduct of the elections was not ideal. But for Africa, and for a country in severe economic trouble which had experienced more than a decade of military rule before returning to democracy, the result was salutary.

The Kenyan election was less open. Like Tanzania, Malawi, the Seychelles, and Zambia, Kenya has a single-party system. Everyone who runs for parliament must be a party member approved by the ruling Kenya African National Union and by President Daniel arap Moi. Nevertheless, more than a single candidate stood in all but a handful of the 158 constituencies. Most contests were hotly contested, and 57 sitting members were defeated. Five cabinet ministers and 13 junior ministers lost seats.

The minimal participatory practice of choice was upheld; ballot fiddling and other excesses were kept to a minimum. Kenya, as a comparatively stable state without opposition parties, at least gave a range of options to its various peoples.

The Kenyan case, because the office of the President and his policies went unchallenged by the voting test, can hardly be as dynamic a model for Africa as Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and a few other countries that have in recent years given their peoples a range of choices. Yet because so many African nations have changed governments by force, have systematically excluded citizens from even a rudimentary participation in the decisionmaking process, and expect to be ruled for some time to come by strong-armed military or civilian leaders, the reaffirmation of the limited democratic notion of the single-party state contributes to a stability that can be endorsed by Western policymakers.

Zambia's elections have been more tightly controlled at the constituency level than have those of Kenya. Five years ago, President Kenneth Kaunda personally vetoed winners of the preliminary round in several key constituencies. On Oct. 27, however, he promises to give the voters a free rein, albeit within the single-party system. The extent to which all Zambians feel consulted by the process may enable this pivotal country, with its highly urbanized and economically unsettled population, to remain free of military intervention and other nondemocratic excesses.

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