African opposition parties have for long been the vanguards of human rights in the continent but their major weakness is in their very identity of being opposition and nothing else. They keep losing elections regardless of how popular they are or seem to be and after every election they break out into that ever so common chorus, “Elections were rigged.” Some disappear while the government of the day makes a mess of whole countries and simply reappear towards elections with no manifestoes save for rebutting policies raised by the incumbent parties. Politics to them is simply pointing out where the incumbents failed without offering alternative policies. Their whole flaw is their make that preordains them to remain opposition with no prospect of ever winning elections.
Opposition parties carry the hope of many people who are excited to see a better, fresher government take over the reins but they have somehow only been champions at disappointing the electorate. They ride on emotion and not logic making their popularity count for little come election time. To quote Edward Rutabingwa, an astute contributor for the Rwandan publication, The New Times, “One of the many problems these politicians have is that they are extremely ‘criticism oriented’. The opposition groups concentrate a lot more time criticising the incumbent presidents and their governments instead of attempting to address even the obvious problems like unemployment and poor infrastructure.”
The reality of the matter is most opposition parties are all talk and little productive talk at that. The speeches are largely meant to stir up the feelings of people and sensationalise matters without genuinely offering solutions the opposition would implement if granted the chance to lead. That the ruling parties’ reigns are chaotic ends up not helping the opposition much. An opposition without ideology is worse than a ruling party with a flawed philosophy and the electorate remembers this in the voting booth.
In addition to being rebels without a cause, some opposition parties if not most are guilty of having a nucleus alone with no supporting structure. They are built around the one charismatic leader who comes out at rallies and people go wild. The grassroot structures are essentially inexistent and as soon as a more charismatic member emerges, the party breaks into two. One quickly remembers the split of Zimbabwe’s MDC when the Secretary General Tendai Biti’s charisma became a little too much to be contained in the same party as the party’s leader, Morgan Tsvangirayi. Biti now has his own party thus weakening the MDC which is the country’s biggest opposition movement. Ethiopia’s CUD also fragmented into the Unity for Democracy and Justice, UEDP-Medhin, AEUP and Ginbot 7 Movement for Justice and Freedom and Democracy. It is these leadership problems and the interference of ruling parties that causes the fragmentation of opposition parties.
Vanguard reported on a study by the International Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences that showed in 2001, Botswana had 12 political parties. This is dwarfed by the Ivory Coast’s 130 in 2006, Senegal’s 77, Liberia’s 200 and Mali’s more than 159. These small parties normally refuse to form alliances with the bigger ones using their share of the electorate to negotiate government positions with the ruling parties instead. They end up being neutralised and exposing themselves to be nothing more than just potential looters themselves waiting to run countries down.
Mr Adewale Kupoluyi writing for the Vanguard lamented the tendency of some opposition parties to rush into the cabinets of the incumbent parties whenever opportunity presented itself. He argued, “…the party leaders use the party to mobilize sufficient goodwill from the electorate in order to bargain with other party-leaders for the sharing of public goods.”
It is easy to be too harsh on the opposition parties without acknowledging their environment of operation. The African political sphere is no utopian ground of fair-play but a dog eat dog ground. Most party leaders have been arrested, tortured and some cadres killed in some countries.
The study by Teshome for the World Academy of Science Engineering and Technology rightfully asserted that, “In many African countries being an opposition is a very risky undertaking even after the introduction of a multi-party democracy in the 1990s…..opposition political parties in Africa are forced to function under severe political constraints imposed by the electoral authoritarian governments.” The paper goes on to give examples of politically motivated assassinations in Zambia, Kenya and Ethiopia among many other violent responses other countries have used.
Can the opposition parties be blamed then in such environments? Just how much democratic lobbying can be squeezed out of the totalitarian governments in some states? The sensible resolution to these moot points is to agree that the opposition parties cannot change the ruling parties’ responses but they are to blame for their own internal fissures. The people deserve parties not simply personality cults. The people deserve parties with ideological direction not simply groups of critics parading as serious politicians. Thus far, opposition politicians have been a disappointment and they have to take some blame for the continued rule of some undeserving parties in Africa. Their inherent weakness is they are built to oppose not to lead.
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