African viewpoint: Winning in style

An election poster of Rwandan President Paul Kagame at the Nyabugogo market in Kigali What percentage of a win is big enough to indicate you are much loved?

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, Elizabeth Ohene, a former minister in Ghana, ponders the meanings behind election percentage wins.

In a country widely acclaimed as high-tech, it is disappointing that the full results of the Rwandan elections took three days to be declared.

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No matter how imaginative the manipulation methods employed, the authorities always seem to fall shy of going the whole hog”

End Quote Elizabeth Ohene

The first results came early enough and they were impressive all round.

With results from 11 out of 30 districts, President Paul Kagame was cruising home with about 92% of the votes and all the predictions were for him to end up with a win in that percentage range and indeed, he got 93% of the votes in the end.

There is something quite spectacular about winning an election with 90% or more of the votes.

You must be either very popular, of course; or you must strike fear in the hearts of the electorate; you must either have an efficient machine that turns out the vote; or lots of people who oppose you cannot be bothered to go out and vote; or, you could of course be the only person on the ballot or you have ensured the electorate has been made an offer they cannot refuse.

'Good old days'

I like elections.

I have covered quite a number in my journalistic life and been in a few as a politician.

State drummers hit the Sika Fontomfrom drums during the inauguration of President John Atta Mills of Ghana at the Independence Square in Accra on 7 January 2009 Drummers at the inauguration of Ghana’s President John Atta Mills, who won a wafer thin margin of victory in December 2008

Over here in Ghana our national constitution says that to be elected president of the republic, you need to garner 50% plus one of the votes.

Obviously people do not have much confidence in our politics throwing up somebody big enough to get votes in the Paul Kagame league.

The problem with a 50% plus one winning margin is that it does not ever seem to settle the arguments that an election is supposed to do.

It seems to undermine the mandate given by the electorate.

This is all a far cry from the one-party state days when many African presidents regularly claimed election victories with margins in the 90%.

I used to wonder why they did not simply give themselves 100% wins and save everybody a lot of trouble.

Maybe somebody knows better, but I have searched my memory and my yellowing notebooks and have not found anybody who ever got or claimed 100% win in an election on this continent; not even the Nguemas of Equatorial Guinea or Kamuzu Banda of Malawi in the good old days.

'Don't even go there'

That does not mean we did not have some mighty strange results at the polling station and constituency levels.

Rwandan electoral polling agents counting presidential ballots at Rugunga polling station in Kigali There have been strange results in Africa, but no-one ever wins with 100% of the vote

There was the polling station in the Delta area of Nigeria where by 0915 in the morning, all voting had ended and all the ballot papers were neatly stacked up in the ballot box.

In Ghana in 1992, there were candidates that were said to have secured zero votes at the polling stations at which they themselves voted.

Somehow no matter how imaginative the manipulation methods employed, the authorities always seem to fall shy of going the whole hog, they never declare 100% win.

So the question is this: What percentage of a win is big enough to indicate you are much loved and your message is most worthy without giving the impression that you are a dictator and you have rigged the elections?

After years of watching and participating, I am happy to present the Ohene Standard of Evaluating Election Results (OSEER):

  • 50% plus one up to 51.5%, you have scraped through
  • 51.6% to 55%, you have won
  • 56% to 60%, you have got an impressive win
  • 61% to 69%, you have a landslide
  • If you get 70% to 79%, as Ghanaian opposition politician Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo Addo did in his New Patriotic Party's primary elections this month, you have answered all the questions
  • 80% to 89%, you are feared and not loved
  • 90% to 99.99%, there shouldn't have been an election.

If, like me, you got under 20%, as they say in Ghana, don't even go there again.

Thanks for your comments. Please read a selection below:

Elizabeth, your narrative is indeed true in every sense but when you come to Rwanda, you need not generalise. It is high time everybody know that Rwanda is no ordinary African country and treat it as such without making uniform analyses. Rwanda's background is quite unique and a lot has happened - and is still happenning - that has not happened elsewhere in Africa. So, Kagame garnering over 90% should be considered in the context of the Rwandan situation. Rwandans dont fear him, neither were any votes stolen. Rwandans simply adore Kagame for making them believe again. For making them proud to be Rwandans again. Its still to early for Rwandans to forget what Kagame has done for this country and therefore no surprise if they elect him with 93.8%.

Intare Batinya, Kigali

I think Mobutu won in 1970 by 99.99%, in 1977 by 98.20% and in 1984 by 99.16%. The vote consisted on GREEN for Mobutu and RED for Chaos. This is how those dictator are elected.

Jo Kim, New Zealand

Thank you Lizzy for this impressive article about election in Africa. As Nigeria prepares for the Presidential election next year, I would recommend to the INEC chairman to adopt: Ohene Standard of Evaluating Election Results (OSEER). When it comes to elections in Africa, strange things do happen. The Delta area of Nigeria example you cited whereby a polling station was closed by 0915 in the morning shows the length and bredth people go to ring an election. By 0915 am in some cases, the election officials are yet to arrive their destination due to logistics issues considering our bad roads and availability of boats for those in the Delta areas or just setting up their equipment. As for the voters, some are still in bed, just woke up from sleep, taking their children to schools and runing errands. This particular election may have been conducted overnight or robots may have done the voting. Election in Africa for all I know is a do or die affairs. Politicians will go as far as giving money and food stuff such as bags of rice, beans, gallons of palm and vegetable oil or in some cases, hire thugs to intimidate voters. There is also proliferation of arms and ammunitions during election. Some candidates have been either killed or abducted during election. Witch doctors also benefit a lot as candidates seek their help in wining election.

Omorodion Osula, Boston, USA

In as much i agree with Ms Elizabeth Ohene in her election analysis about Africa, i am of view that, every election has its own significance depending on the message(s) that the candidate put across will determine the margin of your percentage. Also, there are some people who are naturally appealing, no matter which political party ticket they stood, they will win an election. Lastly, I would like to make a correction that the NATIONAL PATRIOTIC PARTY is rather NEW PATRIOTIC PARTY. Long live Africa! Long live democracy!!

Setor Awude, Accra, Ghana

Thanks Elizabeth, this is a nice one! Elections in many African countries are done for the sake of maintaining donor relation and to paint the picture of being democratic. Ours in Sudan was done as a requirement of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). The parties were not willing to undertake the exercise and they played the tactics of supporting one another in whatever form. Our ICC wanted Omar El Bashir emerged the winner. I hope the arm of the law remains long and will catch him one day. May the case against him ever remain fresh!

Don Bosco Malish, Yei, Sudan

Please except two points from me. 1. The way we behave determines the level of education and civilization. African leaders and administrators must use their good education to ensure that true democracy works; and they must understand that, peaceful transition brings joy and happiness to the people and sustainable progress to the nation. 2. The President of Rwanda, Mr. Kagame, should now begin to show and sustain the future hope of Rwanda by training people from other regions of that country and also other political pary to take over the presidency (leadership) of the nation. He should demonstrate good leadership and patriotism by saying, this time, even though my people love me, but there are other people in this nation who are good and have a better way to develop this country. Let us give that(those) person (s) a chancce. And of course that person can be determined by having free and fair elections under his guidanceship, and after those elections, he must encourage his people to honor the new government because that is the right thing to do. And Mr Kagame must encourage that new government to learn from his example. This (fairness and integrity) will bring healing to his country; and sustainable development to that nation. Dear Mr. Kagame, do not be happy about, or listen to persons who say you have done well for the nation and therefore you should continue in power. Those persons are your enemies. Thank you, and I hope you wo well and follow my advice (suggestion) for the good of your nation and everyone who live in your country. Thanks.

Remongar Dennis, Liberia

This year features a mix of presidential and parliamentary contests. Elections are now the norm throughout Africa, hinting at a vibrant democratic culture, but serious questions remain about the true nature of many of the ballots and the regimes they usher into power. Rigged ballots can also have dire consequences, such as in Zimbabwe. Africa features a wide range of democratic experience, ranging from true popular participation to absolutely none at all, which mirrors the continents size and diversity. Many elections are marred by fraud, and some are simply charades held by regimes clinging on to power, but others are of a higher calibre and the number of these is rising. Holding a free and fair election, however, is just one component albeit a vital one in determining whether or not a country is truly democratic. Several other elements also play a part such as civil liberties (including minority rights), media freedom and institutional capacity. It is most often in these areas that the continent falls short. It is worth noting that the level of democratisation in Africa is roughly what would be expected given the continents level of economic development, and that democracy is typically more robust in countries with advancing economies. This is hardly surprising, as the strong institutional capacity needed to run an economy is also needed to hold credible elections (and build democracy). With economic freedom comes political freedom and vice-versa. This also suggests that the evolution of democracy in Africa will be a long process, although the signs are promising.

Pratibha Thaker,

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