Pockets of progress in Africa’s election landscape

Voters line up in Nigeria’s recent election. It was deemed free, fair and relatively peaceful. EPA

If democracy is understood as a broad concept that includes regular free and fair elections, a system of government that ensures greater public participation, freedom of expression and the right to protest and challenge governments, then Africa is still lagging far behind democracies in Asia, South and North America and Europe.

As it is, very few elections in Africa can be deemed to be free and fair. Some can be considered free only in so far as there is no intimidation. But, large-scale fraud remains a problem.

For elections to be free and fair, their level of organisation, logistics, preparations, training of electoral staff and equipment must all be optimal so that when the results are announced, even the losers have no doubt about the outcome.

Compared to other parts of the world, Africa is not a high flyer in the area of election management. This can be attributed to the scourge of violence, fraud, corruption and intimidation. On top of this, many election management bodies are staffed mostly by party apparatchiks or governing party members. This means that they are unable to conduct elections impartially.

The bad news

The African Union holds its 25th summit in Johannesburg next week. Elections on the continent over the past two months will give it cause for serious deliberation, as well as celebration.

Burundi will no doubt feature prominently on the agenda. The African Union is engaged in frenetic efforts to avert further bloodshed in the wake of pre-election protests sparked by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s quest for a third term in office.

African leaders have urged Nkurunziza’s government to postpone Burundi’s parliamentary, local municipal as well as presidential elections until the conditions in the country are conducive for holding credible polls.

African Union leaders will no doubt remind Nkurunziza that elections are meant to comply with the African Union Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, the African Union Declaration on Principles Governing Democratic Elections and the NEPAD Declaration on Democracy, Political, Economic and Corporate Governance.

They may need to do more. It remains to be seen whether Nkurunziza will heed the counsel of his peers or snub them. If he chooses to ignore them, he will be flouting the provisions of the charter on good elections.

The African Union’s advice to Burundi is to be commended as it affirms the provisions of Article 3 (10) of the Charter. This condemns and rejects unconstitutional changes of government. Its message is unassailable and unambiguous.

The good news

But it is not all doom and gloom when it comes to elections on the continent. Most significantly, Nigeria, which has the biggest economy, has a new popularly elected-president, General Muhammadu Buhari.

Buhari is succeeding former president Goodluck Jonathan, the first time since Nigeria’s independence that an opposition leader has defeated an incumbent. Jonathan conceded defeat after an election that was considered free, fair and relatively peaceful.

The recent Ethiopian election also offered some good news. The African Union observer mission, the only monitoring group overseeing the election, declared the general election up to the organisation’s standards.

A woman casting a vote in Ethiopia. Reuters

But the election was not without controversy. The opposition accused the governing party of electoral fraud.

More election tests lie ahead

The African Union will be hoping for a repeat of the Nigerian success story in other elections scheduled to take place on the continent later this year. They are:

  • Cote d’Ivoire – Presidential: October 2015
  • Burkina Faso – Presidential: November 2015
  • Central Africa Republic – General Elections: 2015 (to be confirmed)
  • Comoros – Presidential: December 2015
  • Guinea – Presidential: November 2015
  • Tanzania - General Elections: October 2015

Bigger countries such as Ethiopia, Egypt and South Sudan often face massive challenges due to their expansive terrains and huge populations. In addition, the three share borders with countries that are in political turmoil such as Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Eritrea.

Challenges with running elections are also compounded by the pervasive security threat posed by rebel forces such as M23 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Shabaab in Kenya and Somalia. All have great potential to derail elections and stall the pace of democratisation that Africa has been undergoing since the early 1990s.

Opportunities for the future

A few countries, such as Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, South Africa, Mauritius, Seychelles and Ghana, have had fairly good experiences that they can share with the rest of the continent and the world.

South Africa, in particular, recently raised the bar in terms of good election management practices. It has earned praise in particular for its innovative political party liaison committees, which act as conflict prevention or resolution mechanisms between parties and the country’s Electoral Commission.

Namibia too has been applauded for introducing electronic voting machines for the first time in its general elections last year.

Election management practices have been changing for the better since the 1990s. Ghana, South Africa, Botswana, Mauritius, Seychelles and Namibia lead the pack in best practice by their electoral management bodies.

Undoubtedly, such positive experiences need to be multiplied if Africa is to make a meaningful contribution to the world of election management and democratisation.

Election management bodies work best when led by politically impartial officials. The result is that many African countries are increasingly accepting the legitimacy of elected governments which derive their mandate from democratic elections.

Not so long ago it was unthinkable for a sitting head of state to be defeated at the polls. Recent events in Nigeria, Senegal, Zambia and Malawi point to progress.

But for worrying signs in Burundi, Africa appears to be finally ridding itself of the president-for-life syndrome. Yet, de facto one-party systems dominate in many countries, especially those that are governed by former liberation movements such as Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Algeria.