Regional and local government elections in Africa

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Following the demise of the Cold War in the late 1980s and early 1990s, post-colonial Africa is still faced with many election challenges which make its realization of democratic promises a distant mirage, while Africa has without doubt attained the political kingdom by having an open multi-party political dispensation, yet its aspirations for democratic governance are yet to be achieved. This owes to the fact that the continent is marred by intra-state conflicts mainly due to ethnicity and agrarian questions, poverty and lack of employment.

To begin with, the lack of understanding of key issues around decentralisation is generating a great deal of mistrust between stakeholders with some, especially the minority coalition in both houses of parliament, believing that the national government is seeking to frustrate devolution. Many countries in Africa have held elections as provided for in their constitutions and legal framework, while electoral outcomes have not translated into sustainable democracy.
Indeed in certain instances, electoral results have been used to legitimise authoritarian regimes. Therefore, the significance of elections as a critical element of democracy cannot be overstated. And, preoccupation with elections at the expense of other elements in the democratization process often defeats the whole purpose of democratization.

They should be a strategy for consolidating democracy in Africa; a paradigm shift that cuts across all sectors should be explored. This should strengthen the institutions of political parties as a strategy for deepening democratic consolidation, and political parties should understand the purpose of decentralisation, because most governance structures in Africa are centralised and top down in character.

It is imperative to mention that the legacy was inherited from the colonial administration. It was however retained under the justification that what is needed in Africa is national unity. While the pursuit of a more unified state is necessary, given the divide and rule tactics, ethnic regionalization and national unity narrowly defined means pulling all resources at the centre under the overbearing control of the executive and the power elites to capture.

This in return contributes to corruption and inequality because resource allocation is premised on political affiliation. The development in regions is also stifled and rural urban migration becomes rife.

Decentralisation is critical to sustainable development and poverty alleviation. Despite increasing democracy and stability in Africa, corruption and conflict remain serious barriers to ending extreme poverty on the continent. In addition to the human and psychological toll corruption and conflict take on African populations, they also cost money and the continent loses billions each year as a result of corruption alone.

Democratic governance requires citizen participation and inclusion in the management of their affairs. While many countries in Africa have faithfully held elections as provided for in their constitutions and legal framework, electoral outcomes have not translated into sustainable democracy. Ideological and political realities also impact on the de facto situation.

In considering possible ways to address the situation, there is no doubt that all stakeholders need to come together in a process of consultation and negotiation. Ideology, bias and prejudice are not going to solve the problems faced by regional and local authorities in Africa. The issues need to be tackled with an open mind and in a spirit of goodwill.
Clarity is needed on what exactly these local authorities require, how they can be revived, and what form of adjustment. They must be responsive, accountable and managed with integrity, while probity and transparency are important tools to public accountability.

The purpose of regional councils is to build capacity of the local authorities to the level that their constitutional powers and functions require. This requires a profound change of heart among all stakeholders, especially in the national government, but without it there is little hope that the local authorities will be able to bounce back from the position of inferiority into which they have been maneuvered.

Research shows that Africa has made considerable progress towards democracy over the last two decades. The majority of the 54 countries in Africa have embraced multi-party democracy, and coups and authoritarian systems that characterize the post-independence Africa are on the decline. The challenge, however, is to consolidate the democratic gains that have been realized so far. Democracy will have no meaning if the promises of democracy do not translate into tangible benefits to the citizens.

• Dr Sitali B. Lwendo is a Lecturer and Head of Department of Political and Administrative Studies at the University of Namibia, Faculty of Economics and Management Science. He holds a PhD in Public Administration (North West University in the Republic of South Africa).

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