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Kenya Elections May Spell Hope for Other Africa Opposition Parties - 2002-12-29

It appears that the main opposition party in Kenya has won over the ruling Kenya African National Union party. The apparent opposition victory in Kenya might breathe new life into all of Africa's struggling opposition political parties.

The number of opposition political parties in Africa rose dramatically in the 1990s. But most have found it difficult to win elections. So how did the Kenyan opposition win over a party that has ruled the country since independence from Britain in 1963?

Morgan Tsvangirai is leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change in Zimbabwe. He said there is an important lesson for opposition parties in Africa to learn from the Kenyan elections.

"I must say that four years ago there was what was called the 'Kenyan syndrome,'" said Mr. Tsvangirai. "The Kenyan opposition was divided. Well if there is any lesson, it is that the Kenyans have learned their lesson themselves, that the opposition must stop bickering among themselves; it must be united. That there is no point in getting disunited while the tyrants and dictators sit pretty and exploit that division."

Mr. Tsvangirai dismissed claims by some critics that African opposition political parties have failed to connect with their people because they lacked appealing political or economic messages.

"The conditions that prevail in Africa are not that democratic. Where there are democratic conditions, people will always choose what is right for them," he said. "Unfortunately in most circumstances, the leaders want to insist that they know what the people want. And they don't want to create the conditions for the people to express their sovereignty."

Togba Nah Tipoteh is leader of the opposition Liberian Peoples Party. He recently declared his candidacy to run against President Charles Taylor if Liberia's planned general elections are held next year. He said the lesson from the Kenyan election is that there is a need for a level political playing field in Africa.

"I think foremost is that the independence of the election commission is very important. And then secondly, the access of candidates to the media. And thirdly, the participation of the international community. And finally of course is the collaboration among certain parts of civil society, particularly certain groups of political parties," said Mr. Tipoteh.

But Mr. Tipoteh said Liberian opposition politicians need to do more toward uniting themselves if they are ever going to defeat President Taylor in next year's election. "Any of the political parties are not really active on the ground as you will have them in Kenya, where you see very active political parties and each of them bringing something significant to the table, to the collaboration, so that they can pull (together) their assets. Assets not in terms of their financial assets but in terms of constituency that they bring," he explained.

Mr. Tipoteh said he is optimistic that come next year what he calls democratic forces from different political parties will converge in such a way that there will be at least three presidential candidates in Liberia.

President Eyadema of Togo has been in power for 33 years, and next year the Togolese will vote again for a new president. Edem Kodjo is leader of the opposition Pan-African Convergence Party of Togo. He said the opposition politicians in Africa must know that change is possible only if they are united.

Mr. Kodjo said the African people are ready for such change. "I think that the African people are now matured to give up dictatorship for good democratic systems," he said, "and really I wish the best to the Kenyans, and I hope that the forthcoming elections in Togo will take the same step in uniting all the components of Togolese opposition to fight a good fight against Mr. Eyadema and to make sure that he is not re-elected next year."

Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Herman Cohen said unity of opposition parties in Africa is key to defeating leaders who have overstayed their time in office. However, Mr. Cohen said the United States and other Western democracies have a role in building vibrant multi-party democracies in Africa.

"I think what the United States is doing, and that's what I'm familiar with, is that they are providing training for political party cadres," said Mr. Cohen. "The National Democratic Institute and the National Republican Institute, they go out and they teach political cadres how to be a good political party, how to organize yourself. Also it's good to help people in parliament understand better what their role is. How to read a budget, how to present legislature, how to be critical of the administration and not just be a rubber stamp. This also contributes to democracy."

Many analysts believe that Africa's democratic future and its political stability lies in a strong and united opposition.