There are three major elections in Africa this month. None offer an encouraging picture of the state of democracy on the continent.
On Friday August 4, in Rwanda, President Paul Kagame will be re-elected with a majority in excess of 90%. History has taught us to be suspicious of any leader who boasts such overwhelming popularity, and the political system that gives it to him. That suspicion is not misplaced in Rwanda, where potential political opponents are harassed, jailed or even killed, and where Kagame and his Rwandan Patriotic Front enjoy a near-monopoly on campaign funds and media coverage.
Whether Kagame’s authoritarian development model is effective or not is a debate for another time; what we can conclude is that this “election” will not give Rwandans the chance to tell Kagame, and the world, what they really think of his leadership.
On Tuesday, attention turns to Kenya. This, at least, is a contest. Although opinion polls give President Uhuru Kenyatta the narrowest of leads, these polls are not the most reliable, and opposition leader Raila Odinga will be hoping to force a run-off election.
The build-up to the vote has been marred by violence and the hollowing out of independent media and civil society. The torture and killing earlier this week of a senior electoral commission official was the latest in a series of election-related deaths, raising fears of a repeat of the devastating post-election violence in 2007 and 2008. Some Nairobi residents, still scarred by that bloody period, are stockpiling food in anticipation of instability.
In Angola, President José Eduardo dos Santos is carefully stage-managing his departure from the presidential palace after 38 years in power. Although a new president will be installed after this vote, the governing party is likely to retain an overwhelming majority in Parliament, helped by a concerted campaign to silence opposition voices and independent media.
Rwanda, Kenya and Angola all claim to be democracies. Their elections are, ostensibly, proof of this. But democracies are about more than just voting. Instead of highlighting their democratic credentials, these polls – each flawed in its own way – instead highlight just how far these three countries still have to go.