Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has been the president of Algeria since 1999, has bid to extend his rule by another five years. He is 82 years old, ailing, confined to a wheelchair since he suffered a stroke in 2013 and very rarely seen in public. Bouteflika is currently in Geneva, Switzerland, seeking treatment.
Because he wants to contest the coming election expected in April, many Algerians have taken to the streets since February 22, protesting against his candidature. The protesters demand that their president withdraws his candidature as a condition for them to get off the streets.
Now, this should be most surprising to an untrained brain. All Bouteflika has done is to offer himself as a candidate, one of many choices from which Algerians may take their pick. Isn’t this what democracy is supposed to be about?
But, of course, the reality is very different. Before the turn over to multiparty politics and regular elections in the 1990s, African strongmen just ruled without a care in the world. In Uganda, for instance, Idi Amin declared himself president for life. Ascending to and holding power was decided by mastery of the gun.
The game has since changed with the collapse of outright military rulers in Africa, but the gun still remains the mediator of power in most African countries. Algerians don’t want Bouteflika to contest because they know that mere appearing on the ballot paper is sufficient for him to “win”. He “won” the last election while confined to his wheelchair.
In Cameroon, Paul Biya, in power since 1982, “won” another seven-year term in October last year. Biya spends most of his time in Europe and knows very little about the country he supposedly rules. But there is a mechanism that will always ensure that he “wins” elections whenever they are held. Reflecting on this, it is important to consider whether it actually matters that people in many African countries go to elections at all.
In Uganda, a donor-sponsored research project after the 2011 election returned a worrying verdict – most Ugandans are sure that President Museveni cannot be beaten at the polls.
Shortly after being nominated to run for president in the round of 2016, Dr Kizza Besigye told the press, in the presence of Electoral Commission officials at Namboole, that he was sure they could not declare him winner whatever happened. Because many people feel this way, society has become very cynical about government, and many people who can manage to keep a safe distance from politics and politicians do so with relish.
Politics, therefore, doesn’t attract the best brains in many societies. That is why the brand of democracy applied in Africa, if it is democracy at all, urgently needs to change. The harder question is how to change it.