Lessons Learned about Power Sharing in Africa: Do Not Reward Incumbents Who Steal Elections

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Can politicians and political scientists learn the right lessons from recent political events? In this blog based on his book chapter “The Boomerang Effect”: Lessons Learned from Power Sharing in Kenya and Zimbabwe”, Matthijs Bogaards argues that the story of power sharing in Kenya and Zimbabwe suggests that at least some of the time they do.

Last month, president Julius Maada Bio of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) was re-elected in what Paul Kamara described in these pages as “highly contested and controversial” polls. Observers noted irregularities and the All People’s Congress (APC) opposition party demanded a run-off.  Before this, Sierra Leone had largely escaped the global trend of de-democratization, but now there are concerns about both political stability and peace. In 1999, the Lomé Peace Accords brought an end to the horrific civil war that ravaged Sierra Leone for more than a decade. The heart of that power sharing agreement was a grand coalition government.

In light of this history, it would have been no surprise if commentators had suggested the possibility of a government of national unity in the aftermath of the controversial June 2023 elections. In that case, the main opposition party would have been invited to join the government. President Julius Maada Bio would have stayed in power, but the APC would have received cabinet posts and perhaps a new position as prime-minister would have been created for its leader and presidential candidate, Ernest Bai Koromo.

There have been precedents in Africa: Kenya (2008-2013) and Zimbabwe (2009-2013) are the most important ones. However, it seems that – so far at least – none of the major players have suggested a power-sharing government for Sierra Leone. Instead, the focus of both domestic observers and the opposition is for the correct election results to be reinstated. This is a good thing! Power sharing is an appropriate tool for ending civil war and establishing democracy. But it is problematic as a solution for post-electoral protest and violence. This was the lesson learned by both political scientists and politicians from the experience in Kenya and Zimbabwe.

In December 2007, the parliamentary elections in Kenya resulted in victory for the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), the coalition of opposition parties led by Raila Odinga. Although it seemed he also won the presidential elections, held at the same time, the incumbent, Mwai Kibaki of the ruling Party of National Unity (PNU), was declared the winner and hastily sworn in as president. The opposition did not accept the result and violence broke out on a scale not seen before. It only ended after the ruling party and opposition signed an “Agreement on the Principles of Partnership of the Coalition Government” in February 2008. This was followed by a two-page National Accord and Reconciliation Act that established a prime minister and a government of national unity, which took office in April 2008.

One month earlier, in March 2008, parliamentary elections in Zimbabwe resulted in victory for the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), led by Morgan Tsvangirai. Although he won a plurality of the vote in the first round of the presidential elections, held at the same time, it seems he did not win the majority necessary to avoid a run-off with the incumbent, Robert Mugabe. After a campaign of violent intimidation by the ruling Zimbabwe African People’s Union-Patriotic Front (ZAPU-PF), the opposition decided to withdraw from the second round of the presidential elections. Under heavy foreign pressure, president Mugabe agreed to an inclusive government that incorporated ministers from two opposition parties, with the leader of the main opposition party appointed to the new position of prime minister. The “Global Political Agreement” was signed in September 2008 and the government of national unity took office in February 2009.

At the time, observers worried about a spill-over effect and a “wave” of power sharing governments in Africa. What if authoritarian incumbents learned to cling to power after fraught elections by pretending to share power with the democratic opposition? However, this is not what happened. Both African scholars and African politicians learned the right lessons: Do not reward incumbents for stealing elections.

Students of African politics were quick to point out how the cases of Kenya and Zimbabwe, on the one hand, differed from previous experiences with power sharing in the region on the other hand. The difference was not so much in the scope. Because power sharing in Kenya and Zimbabwe was meant to resolve a conflict about the outcome of elections, not broader underlying grievances, it is understandable that power sharing was limited to the political dimension and did not extend to territorial, military or economic power sharing. Neither was the difference about duration. Peace agreements often have sunset clauses and the grand coalition that governed South Africa after the first inclusive elections was always meant to be temporary. Nor was it about the actual extent of power sharing. Especially in Zimbabwe, the authoritarian incumbent continued to dominate, but that is not unusual. What set the cases of Kenya and Zimbabwe apart was the context.

Power sharing has been practiced widely in Africa. Examples include Burundi, Chad, DRC, Liberia, Somalia and South Sudan. In all cases, power sharing was part of peace agreements that ended civil wars. Although there definitely was violence, in Kenya and Zimbabwe, power sharing occurred in the context of controversial elections, not civil war. So why the solution may have seemed familiar (power sharing), the problem it sought to address (post-electoral protest and violence) was not. This difference is crucial.

Kenya and Zimbabwe turned out to be deterrents rather than precedents. There are only three cases that come close. In Zanzibar, the leaders of the ruling party and opposition agreed to share governmental power before the elections of 2010. Coalition government ended with a dispute about constitutional reform, a controversial election, and the ruling party resuming its monopoly on power. In Madagascar (2011), the transitional unity government served to consolidate the military’s capture of power. In Côte d’Ivoire, a government of national unity never formed. In 2010, the President of the Constitutional Council overturned the election results of the Independent Electoral Commission, thereby making the incumbent the winner, not the opposition.

Both South Africa’s then president Jacob Zuma, and his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, proposed power sharing. By contrast, the prime ministers of Kenya and Zimbabwe came out as strongly opposed to the idea, having experienced – or perhaps more accurately suffered – the consequences themselves. In the end, power sharing was widely rejected in Côte d’Ivoire. This is an example of learning the right lessons. It demonstrates the importance of appreciating analytical distinctions, not conflating the situation in South Africa (How to end minority rule peacefully?) with that in Kenya and Zimbabwe (How to find a peaceful resolution when incumbents refuse a change of government by all means?).

This story has relevance beyond the African continent. Just imagine that Donald Trump wins the next presidential elections thanks to Republican governors who undo Joe Biden’s victory in their states, changing the results. And let’s assume the Supreme Court does not interfere (remember the Florida “butterfly” ballots?). Should we then wish power sharing for the USA, with a cabinet equally split between Republicans and Democrats, with Trump as president and Biden as vice-president? To safeguard the peace, keep the Capitol clean, and prevent the Florida state guard and other right-wing militias from starting a march on Washington? African scholars and democrats know the answer. But so do dictators …

Based on “The Boomerang Effect”: Lessons Learned from Power Sharing in Kenya and Zimbabwe, published in Gedion Onyango (ed.) State Politics and Public Policy in Eastern Africa: A Comparative Perspective. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2023, pp. 75-96.

Matthijs Bogaards is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the Central European University.


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