Fool’s Errand

Why do Western countries keep funding corrupt elections in Africa?

An Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) official carries closed ballot boxes to be counted in Mombasa on March 5, 2013. Kenyans nervously eyed results today, trickling in a day after they turned out peacefully en masse for critical presidential elections, the first since disputed polls five years ago triggered election violence. AFP PHOTO/Ivan Lieman        (Photo credit should read Ivan Lieman/AFP/Getty Images)
An Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) official carries closed ballot boxes to be counted in Mombasa on March 5, 2013. Kenyans nervously eyed results today, trickling in a day after they turned out peacefully en masse for critical presidential elections, the first since disputed polls five years ago triggered election violence. AFP PHOTO/Ivan Lieman (Photo credit should read Ivan Lieman/AFP/Getty Images)

Elections are always with us: No sooner has a party won a set of polls than it starts gearing up for the next. In Africa, the same cycle applies to the Western donors that regularly stump up hundreds of millions of dollars in support of the democratic process.

That’s why I recently found myself discussing preparations for Kenya’s next elections, due in 2017, with a young diplomat over lunch in Nairobi. As the all-too-familiar terminology — the drive to boost voter registration, the importance of guaranteeing the electoral commission’s integrity, the need to engage stakeholders — tripped off his tongue, I began to feel old, jaded, and increasingly angry.

The problem is that I’ve heard this all before (as, of course, have Kenya’s voters). I’ve covered four elections in Kenya, and in the run-up to each, Western diplomats and aid officials talked earnestly of voter registration and stakeholders, transparency and empowerment. They invariably expressed unshakeable confidence in the electoral commission of the day. And the results in the end have been, well, …“mixed” is probably the politest term I can use.

In 2007 and 2008, the rigging was so egregious that it brought Kenya to the brink of civil war. More than 1,000 people died, the army eventually intervened, and a transitional government was hurriedly constructed on the smoldering ruins of what had once seemed a stable African democracy. The discredited head of the electoral commission, Samuel Kivuitu, later admitted that he didn’t know who’d won.

In 2013, organizers decided the latest in technology — a computerized electoral register, biometric identification kits, and the electronic transmission of results — would guarantee a clean poll. Barely tested and ill-suited to local conditions, however, the new equipment failed spectacularly on election day, forcing organizers to revert, humiliatingly, to manual methods of tallying votes. Electoral commission officials have since been accused in a British court of pocketing huge bribes for the allocation of contracts in what was dubbed “the world’s most expensive election,” and they are now being questioned by a Kenyan parliamentary committee. But violence was largely avoided, so despite major question marks hovering over Uhuru Kenyatta’s first-round win, the election was labeled a success by Western donors — who picked up $100 million of the $293 million bill for the polls.

Western countries sign up to help in plenty of other countries too. Indeed, in the next few years, East Africa will be the stage for a series of elections, many of which will see dismaying levels of violence and repression but whose outcomes already look ensured. Most will receive sizable donor funding.

In Tanzania, the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party — already four decades in power — is set to be re-elected this month despite growing unpopularity. In Uganda, where elections are due next year, President Yoweri Museveni — nearly three decades at the helm of his country — is certain to triumph once again. In Rwanda, President Paul Kagame will stand for a third five-year term in 2017. Victory is a foregone conclusion there too. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front can rest on its laurels for a bit — it won, ludicrously, 100 percent of parliamentary seats in May.

The end of the Cold War toppled Africa’s most high-profile big men, but only for a new generation of ruling parties and presidents to emerge who are increasingly skilled at manipulating the democratic process to ensure open-ended rule. Hence the growing continental fashion for third-term leaderships. “In countries like Tanzania and Kenya, elections are becoming more genuinely competitive, but the opposition continues to lose, while in states like Uganda and Rwanda, democracy is stagnating,” says Nic Cheeseman, an Oxford University professor and author of a new book, Democracy in Africa. “There’s no clear evidence of democratic progress overall.”

One might think Western donors would conclude that intimate association with a series of tainted polls does no good at all for their credibility with their constituents and allies. So why are states whose aid budgets are under sustained pressure back home — pressure that can only increase as Europe’s refugee crisis bites — ready to keep funding other countries’ controversy-blighted elections?

Term lengths are one factor. Not presidential or parliamentary terms, but the all-too-short stints in office of the ambassadors, deputy heads of mission, first secretaries, and World Bank and IMF directors posted to Africa — stints that work disastrously against the buildup of institutional memory.

Edward Clay, the former British high commissioner in Nairobi, once described to me the cycle that diplomats and aid officials underwent following their arrival in Kenya. In the first year, there was huge enthusiasm, a gung-ho determination to increase aid, he said. By the second year, doubts began creeping in. “In the third year,” he said, “they all seemed to go bonkers, so disillusioned they couldn’t speak or think rationally.” Few made it to a fourth year, when a mature understanding of the challenges of partnering with what Transparency International ranks as one of the world’s 30 most corrupt countries would no doubt have dawned.

“When it comes to ambassadors, I’m onto my third Israeli, my third German, and will soon be onto my third Indian,” a diplomat told me over drinks at a bar in the wood-paneled Muthaiga Country Club in Nairobi. Another, who could name only one European ambassador who will see both Kenya’s 2013 and 2017 elections out, acknowledged: “The turnover question is a major issue. You have a very high turnover in Nairobi because people get worn down.”

In contrast, the African political and business elites these Westerners deal with aren’t going anywhere. They have spent decades building up their networks, piling up favors to be called in, secrets to be capitalized upon. They effortlessly outmaneuver less experienced “development partners,” waiting patiently for the more confrontational members to leave. They know all the tricks required to ensure that polls come out in their favor.

But if Western donors are handicapped by naivety, self-serving pragmatism is also involved. According to Cheeseman, “Donors will say, ‘This gives us an ‘in’ with the electoral commission and the government, and perhaps we can prevent things going completely off the rails if things go wrong.’” The problem is that “having an ‘in’” also means being implicated in the final election result.

The relationship, like all aid relationships, tends to become self-perpetuating in a way that undermines the democratic principles it theoretically supports. “With these kind of overfunded elections, you become hostage to the situation,” admitted one ambassador. “If you criticize the process, you are essentially criticizing yourself. What are you going to do — send a cable back to headquarters saying, ‘I wasted a couple of million dollars?’”

Hence the “strange narratives” — as Cheeseman dubs them — that tend to spring up around elections flawed by ballot-stuffing and overvoting, too often deemed convenient “successes” back home because no donor wants to admit it supported a travesty of the democratic process. I remember being invited to give an account of Kenya’s 2013 elections at the Overseas Development Institute, Britain’s leading development think tank, where — after itemizing a list of anomalies so alarming they would have ordinarily justified a recount — I was flummoxed at being asked by my interviewer why I thought things had gone so well this time around.

But five decades after Africa’s countries achieved independence from colonial powers, it’s surely bizarre and worrying that sovereign states should routinely turn to foreign partners to fund the contests legitimizing their rule in the first place. “We’ve allowed African governments to become dependent on the West for the running of their elections,” says Cheeseman. “I can understand it in a society emerging from conflict, like Mali, but in corrupt or resource-rich countries like Kenya and Nigeria, it seems unnecessary.”

In Nairobi, it’s going to be a while before the scandal-plagued electoral commission works out what it wants from donors next time around. I’m guessing, however, it will call for yet more expensive high-tech equipment to eliminate the problems that plagued the 2013 “tamper-proof poll,” with all that implies in terms of juicy procurement contracts.

At which point I can only pray that the various heads of diplomatic missions will say, “Not unless we see prison terms and serious fines doled out for what happened during the last one.” But I’m not counting on it.

Photo credit: Ivan Lieman/AFP/Getty Images

 Twitter: @michelawrong

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