Multiparty politics has existed among us for more than 20 years. Most people have forgotten why there used to be single party politics. Reasons are mostly historical.
Men and women who got inspired to lead their countries out of colonial rule into independence had only one goal. To begin with, Kwame Nkrumah, the first President of Ghana put it this way: Seek ye political kingdom first, other things will be added unto you.
The primary aim was acquisition of freedom from foreign domination. If someone formed another party in opposition to the one in existence, he was suspected to be a stooge of the imperial rulers who wanted to derail the nationalist movement. Such a person was denounced as a traitor.
The fact that his party might be rooted in his ethnic group or religious sect did not do much to absolve him from suspicion. Splinter parties continued to exist only up to independence days under the protection of the colonial governors.
As soon as independence was granted, some of these parties died a natural death because their leaders fled the country as did TDT Banda in Malawi who was leader of the Christian Liberation Party and Dr Kofi Busia, leader of National Liberation Movement in Ghana.
In other countries, laws were passed that made opposition parties illegal. The rationale behind this attitude was that opposition parties were dividing the nation on ethnic lines, thereby frustrating efforts to weld the tribes into a nation.
In some countries such as Nigeria, it proved difficult to impose one national party. Instead, the country was divided into three one party systems dominant in a particular region.
The Action Group based on the Yoruba people was the exclusive party in Western Nigeria, the National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) with roots in the Igbo ethnic group was exclusive in the Eastern Region and the Northern People’s Congress with roots in the Hausa/Fulani ethnic groups and the Islamic faith was exclusive in Northern Nigeria.
In some countries, one party systems were combined with strong dictatorships. They aroused opposition at once.
In Malawi, there was a Cabinet crisis that led to the flight of the President’s former henchmen. In Ghana, there was a military coup supported by foreign regimes who suspected Nkrumah to be leaning towards the Soviet bloc during the Cold War.
Other one party regimes were democratically run in the sense that the rank and file influenced policies. There were no repressions at least not of the glaring type. These countries were Tanzania and Zambia. Whereas there were Malawian asylum seekers in Zambia and Tanzania, there were no asylum seekers in Malawi from these countries.
Nevertheless, people in all the one party regimes got tired at the same time by the early 1990s. When communism collapsed in the Soviet Union, apartheid collapsed in South Africa and one party regimes collapsed almost everywhere in Africa.
The fear that multiparty would usher in ethnic politics proved correct though with varying effects in Tanzania which was exemplary. The ruling party continued to rule even after the advent of multiparty because regionalism and ethnicity were mild.
Elsewhere, presidential candidates won because they belonged to dominant regions or tribes. They created new grievances because the winners often had less than 50 percent of the votes. In making top appointments, the President’s region or ethnic group tended to be privileged thereby sowing new seeds of divisions.
To avoid this, one country after another modified its constitution to provide for a re-run if none of the presidential candidates won at least 50 percent of the votes. Zambia is the latest country to have made such a provision. In Malawi there is reluctance in doing so.