Africa’s 2015 election experiences present dilemmas for 2016 polls

A truck bearing the image of Uganda’s President Museveni. Reuters/James Akena

This year, like 2015, promises to be yet another busy year in Africa’s electoral democracy stakes. More than a third of the continent’s 54 countries will conduct polls.

All elections are important, but in some countries they carry particular weight. Key ones coming up are:

  • Senatorial, state and federal constituency elections in Nigeria. In Africa’s most populous nation elections can serve as a yardstick for advancing electoral democracy. This year’s elections are expected to lead to further governance reforms. They follow last year’s presidential poll which ushered in a new government.

  • Burkina Faso also experienced fundamental change in 2015 with the departure of President Blaise Compaore. The change must be consolidated with electoral participation of citizens and normalisation of politics in soon-to-be-held municipal elections.

  • Elections in the Central African Republic will be closely watched. They present an opportunity for stabilising a country that has experienced conflict.

  • Zambia’s situation is unique. Its recent elections led to a change of government through the ballot — a rare phenomenon in African politics. Presidential and general elections are due in August.

  • Uganda’s presidential poll will undoubtedly test President Yoweri Museveni’s entrenchment of power. Uganda will face the challenge of adhering to international and African Union election standards by ensuring level playing fields for all candidates.

  • The DRC presidential election set for November will also be scrutinised because of previous violence and the country’s propensity for instability.

  • Ghana’s general elections in November might provide lessons on how to trust in the power of the ballot and run elections peacefully. But its leadership faces severe constraints given that the economy is in the doldrums. It has had to turn to the IMF for assistance.

  • South Africa will arguably hold its most important municipal elections since 1994. To be held between May and August, the elections will test the popularity of the governing African National Congress. Signs are its support is falling in some municipalities.

Elections this year will be held as economic growth shows signs of slowing in Africa. Tougher economic times might heighten electoral stakes.

The good and the bad of 2015

In 2015 almost 20 African countries held municipal, regional, general, presidential elections and by-elections. Two referenda were also held in Rwanda and the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville).

Rwanda’s citizens apparently voted overwhelmingly in favour of extending President Paul Kagame’s term of office, possibly until 2034. The referendum ostensibly suggests that the incumbent respects the popular will by subjecting the term limit to the vote.

The Republic of Congo’s President Dennis Sassou Nguesso also called a referendum to amend the presidential term and age limits, a move rejected by opposition parties. He thus joined African leaders who devise innovative means to cling to power while opposing the provisions of the African Charter on democracy, elections and governance.

But how significant are elections in Africa?

Regular changes of government through free, fair and democratic elections that reflect the wishes of the majority of voters are critical for democratisation.

The 2015 polls could tempt us to perceive elections as a reliable measure of democratisation. But 2015 presented mixed opportunities and drawbacks for democratisation. A major drawback is that some leaders clung to power and elections simply became rubber stamping exercises for the incumbents. This happened in the DRC, Rwanda, Congo (Brazzavile) and Gabon.

Elections are an essential component of democratisation, but other more important measures include:

  • narrowing the rich-poor gap,

  • improving living standards and promoting active citizenship,

  • freedom of expression and media,

  • respect for human rights and rule of law, and

  • accountable public representatives.

Isolated successes were registered in last year’s elections. Some countries for once conducted polls acceptable to local opposition parties, civil society and domestic and international observers. Fewer incidents of violence were seen. Tanzania was a particular case in point.

But, nothing spectacular emerged from Africa’s 2015 elections. Some polls actually perpetuated the usual stereotype of violent elections that threaten peace, stability and democratisation.

They also presented doubts about some incumbents’ legitimacy to rule.

Unfulfilled expectations

There were high expectations about the impending polls early in 2015.

First, they were expected to continue the 1990s trend of further democratisation but with the hope that they would comply with international and African Union standards. Such elections must have integrity, be free, fair and reflect the wishes of the electorate.

Zambia’s presidential elections early in 2015 following the death of President Michael Sata provided some interesting lessons. The opposition claim that the election results did not reflect the will of the people.

The process therefore remains incomplete. Zambians will hold presidential elections followed by parliamentary and local government polls in August.

Second, Africa’s 2015 elections were expected to consolidate democracy at least in countries that now hold regular polls.

And thirdly, the 2015 elections were also expected to help produce leaders with greater legitimacy and accountability.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Ethiopia, Burundi and the DRC produced results where the pendulum swung towards questionable and mediocre ends contrary to election best practices. Thus, this expectation remains unfulfilled.

Ethiopia’s election results suggested a landslide victory for its governing party despite opposition allegations of irregularities. Such scenarios usually create legitimacy crises and may undermine government’s accountability.

For Burundi, the current turmoil is traceable to its questionable elections after ignoring advice that they be postponed to allow for a more conducive atmosphere. The subsequent polls were boycotted by the opposition. They were also shunned by African and international observers.

Third term machinations

Admittedly, citizens have a right to propose constitutional amendments to allow leaders to govern for as long as electorates want. But the tendency by some leaders to extend terms by manipulating national constitutions weakens democratisation and constitutionalism.

President Pierre Nkurunziza’s amendment of Burundi’s constitution and his decision to run for a disputed third term is a case in point.

The era of military coups, dictatorship and authoritarianism might be declining. But leaders who resort to manipulating electoral and constitutional mechanisms and intimidating citizens to prolong their stay in power pose new challenges.

Research suggests that Africa’s elections are struggling to enhance its democratic trajectory. Examining the 2015 elections in Lesotho, Burundi, Ethiopia, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Niger, Sudan, Togo, Benin, Comoros and Egypt hardly inspires confidence. This does not augur well for Africa’s 2016 polls, nor future elections.