“Power sharing”: a stumbling block for democracy in Africa?

The governance situation in Zimbabwe has once again made it to the headlines in international media. Against the backdrop of droves of innocent people killed by famine and cholera in possibly the worst managed economy in the world, any advancement from the genuine misrule of Robert Mugabe is news, and good news.

Until recently, the power-sharing deal from last year seemed to be worth less than the piece of paper it was printed on, just like the Zimbabwean currency. Now there is hope, or at least; so it is hoped. Interestingly, the political leadership in Kenya also struck a power-sharing one year ago, a concept that was later exported to Zimbabwe . Possibly, the concept of power-sharing will serve a good purpose in Zimbabwe and Kenya . I say possibly, because it is yet to prove itself useful in the medium to long term.

In this article I will explore the concept of power sharing and ask whether it is a useful pragmatic model or rather a stumbling block for democracy in Africa ?

The concept of power-sharing in Kenya and Zimbabwe is simple but powerful: the voice of the electorate can be disregarded on the condition that the electoral process leads to mayhem and widespread suffering amongst the electorate. Who is behind the violence is less important, as long as a major emergency can be declared. An emergency calls for national unity, which can be translated into power-sharing in a Grand Coalition government that includes the main political adversaries. This way, for example a government that has been voted out can remain in power through the coalition. Grand Coalitions are nothing new; there was one recently installed in Germany .

So why worry? It much boils down to how a Grand Coalition is established, and why. Everyone will agree that in the short term, the power-sharing deal in Kenya was absolutely necessary. The situation in Kenya early 2008 was one of a rapidly escalating conflict and in fact, the country was on the brink of a civil war. The killing had started, and ethnic cleansing was a prime mover. Every one of us who were in Kenya at the time could see what was coming and it sent shivers down our spines. So, whatever it took to stop that spiral of violence and destruction cannot be said to be a bad thing. The flip side is that the concept of power sharing is a last resort, a fall-back position when the system of representative democracy fails. A power-sharing deal is not a result of a democratic process, but derives from a bargaining process led by politicians. The pessimists would have it that it is simply a way to protect vested political interests and to resist popularly supported change processes.

Is it then just a mechanism to revert to the old way of dispensing political power in Kenya ; where the political élite bargain within a closed arena, from which the electorate has been excluded? If this model is exported to other African countries, could it then even result in a major backtracking on the democratic gains made in Africa over the last decades? Githau Warigi, a columnist in one of Kenya ’s dailies, has stated that there is that “nagging feeling that scores of African states will do the same in the coming future”. With a looming split in ANC while South Africa goes to the ballots this year…. is this a nightmare scenario for democracy in Africa ?

Questions are many, but the real answers are few so far. Meanwhile, it would be appropriate for us in the donor community to review our own perception of - as well as our own track record in supporting - political systems and democracy in Africa . In the 1980s, Zimbabwe was the role model of all African states in the eyes of Sweden . In the late 1990s Sweden abandoned Mugabe and jumped on to the donors’ bandwagon to praise Uganda ’s democratization process. This process apparently picked up so well that President Museveni now doesn’t know how to get off the bandwagon. And although Sweden had problems with the undemocratic model of Moi’s regime in Kenya , we used to hail the same country as the haven of stability and peace in Africa . By 2003 we were almost delirious over the democratic landslide change in Kenya , ushering in a new democratic order under the NARC rainbow coalition. And here we are.

What went wrong? Did we bet on the wrong horses, or did the horse fall ill along the race track? In either case, Swedish policymakers seem to have been somewhat blind to – or have refused to acknowledge - some of the symptoms for a long time.

For instance, why did no alarm bells ring when Kenya ’s NARC government split up during the constitutional reform process four years ago? Why did we not look at simple early warning signals, like those from the Afrobarometer 2005 showing growing ethnic polarization in Kenya (see Göran Holmqvist’s note published on NAI webpage Feb 08).

The level of election violence should not come as a surprise. In the recent ‘post-election issue’ of the Journal of Eastern African Studies, Susanne Mueller points out that Kenya before 2007 was anything but a haven of peace and stability. The level of violence in society has been kept deliberately high by politicians for a very long time as a way of controlling the political landscape. The extent of violence, casualties and displacement in 1992 and 1997 was in the same range as of 2007, but apparently this has been forgotten about. The former PS for ethics and anticorruption in Kenya , John Githongo, in the same journal agrees that there has been a myth of Kenya being a peaceful country. But he also argues that the 2007 election crisis does not mean that democracy is inherently destabilizing for African countries. It is a crisis for democracy yes, but throughout world history, crises have triggered important and lasting change for the better. For Kenya as well as Zimbabwe , the power-sharing arrangements can only provide a temporary refuge from political and social meltdown, it is just one step back from the brink. However, that refuge is necessary. It may create an arena for interaction and negotiation, not to preserve status quo, but to bring about lasting change.

A power-sharing can be a means to create a platform for a change process, and that is its main positive value. Therefore, what matters is that actual change is brought about. What can be learnt from Sweden ’s track record of supporting democratization in Africa for the last 40+ years? One thing is to not be so enthusiastic when things seem to go right, that we ignore early warning signals. And vice versa, in our quest to support democratic governance we should not be quick to condemn solutions that have not been copied from the political science textbooks. Somehow we need to be humble and vigilant at the same time. Change must come for Kenya , Zimbabwe and other African countries from within, and we need to encourage that process without masterminding it.

The international community should not discard “power-sharing” as a model for providing space for lasting and meaningful change. But, Sweden and other donor countries should not be lured into a ‘business-as –usual’ approach simply because the Grand Coalition appears to be relatively stable. One year down the line of the Kenyan power-sharing deal, not much change has been accomplished. The just presented independent monitoring report on how the National Accord (the power sharing deal) has been implemented gives little room for optimism (www.dialoguekenya.org). Vested interests from the ‘old guard’ seem to prevail and the political leadership seems to be unable to move from status quo. For a partner country like Sweden it therefore becomes critical to remain true to the principles of the 2008 power-sharing agreement. We must remind ourselves – and our partner government in Kenya - that the most important deliverable from this Grand Coalition is change, for Kenya and its people.

So, is the concept of power sharing good or bad for democracy in Africa ? The answer is that it is good if it delivers positive change and that it is bad if it cements status quo. If we are genuinely concerned for democracy and development in Kenya and Zimbabwe , we simply must watch closely if it does lead to meaningful change or not. That’s where our focus needs to be, in Kenya and Zimbabwe alike.

David Nilsson works for Sida as a regional programme manager in Nairobi . The views in this article are his own.

Contact: david.nilsson@infra.kth.se

To the top