Are Africa’s Poor Elections Signaling a Democratic Setback?

Recent events in Benin highlight the way elections have become a trigger of violence and instability.


Fraud and violence associated with elections continue to be a thorn in the side of democracy and stability on the continent. While there have been more elections and fewer coups in Africa since the early 1990s, increasingly, elections are being abused by some governments to impose autocratic practices.
Recent events in Benin illustrate that even in countries known for their political stability, these gains, registered since the 1990s, can easily be reversed. Election observation has not been an effective tool to address this.

Elections dominate the political landscape

Over the past decade, an average of 26 African countries (almost half the continent) were scheduled to hold elections each year. These included an average of 13 presidential elections and 16 parliamentary elections each year.
By all measures, election processes are thus perhaps the principal variable that animates the political landscape of the continent. This has made elections not just important for determining political outcomes but also central to the stability of states.
In many countries pre-electoral periods have become moments of undoing of long and hard-fought democratic gains.
However, in many countries pre-electoral periods have become moments of repudiation and undoing of long and hard-fought democratic gains. This is done through, among others, constitutional amendments, changes to electoral laws and the custom-made tailoring of constituencies to favour incumbent regimes, the control of  electoral management bodies and judicial institutions, and the muzzling of political oppositions and civil society.

Lessons from Benin

Recent events in Benin have highlighted concerns about elections’ being a trigger of violence and instability. At the heart of this issue is the question of the preservation of power. President Patrice Talon, who was democratically elected in 2016, amended existing electoral laws as part of efforts to address the phenomenon of one-party dominance. However, the lack of consensus around the reform process has created a rift between the government and the opposition. The government has since been accused by the opposition and civil society of using the reform process as a pretext to shrink the political space and ensure Talon’s stay in power.

At the heart of this issue is the question of the preservation of power

The resulting new law and the charter on political parties have caused most opposition parties to be barred from contesting the legislative elections, while others simply boycotted the 28 April 2019 polls. This is a dramatic setback for one of Africa’s most stable democracies since the early 1990s – a democracy that enjoyed not only relatively free and fair elections but also a vibrant political pluralism and civil liberties.
The events in Benin are symptomatic of a trend that can be seen across the continent, with the notable exception of a small handful of countries that do not have a history of pre- and post-electoral political manipulation and abuse of incumbency.
In the face of constitutional amendments aimed at extending incumbents’ tenures and strengthening their power, elections, instead of contributing to democratic consolidation, have become major sources of instability on the continent. Disruptions associated with elections hinder democratic processes and, at worst, constitute a complete step backwards. This in turn places states in a position where they perpetually have to start over in terms of rebuilding democratic institutions, instead of consolidating gains made over time.
This is a dramatic setback for one of Africa’s most stable democracies since the early 1990s

Only a few peaceful elections in 2016

In 2016, 28 countries held elections at the presidential, national or local level or a combination of these. Elections in Benin, São Tomé and Prìncipe, Cape Verde and Ghana were considered generally peaceful, free and fair and saw minimal disruption.
However, the other polls were preceded by constitutional amendments, such as in the Republic of Congo, where President Denis Sassou Nguesso was allowed to extend his stay in power. Earlier removal and the absence of term limits in Chad, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Djibouti and Uganda, for example, ensured that incumbent regimes were all re-elected in polls with questionable credibility.
Protests and violence with loss of life erupted in most of these countries, except for Equatorial Guinea, where Teodoro Obiang Nguema has total control of the country, ran quasi-unopposed and won a landslide victory with 93.7% of the votes.
Some elections were even held in spite of prevailing security challenges. This was the case in the Central African Republic (CAR). In other cases in 2016 some elections were boycotted or postponed.

Protests and violence with loss of life erupted in most of these countries
Polls postponed across Africa

The same trend can be observed with elections in 2017, 2018 and the first half of 2019. A large number of elections in 2017 were dominated by postponements in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Chad, Gabon, Libya, Madagascar, Mali, Niger, Somalia, Togo and Tunisia. Apart from Libya and Somalia (and to a lesser extent Mali) with noticeably precarious situations, most postponements were the result of political and socio-economic challenges largely caused or deliberately orchestrated by incumbents.
Last year also saw its share of postponed elections: Cameroon and Guinea-Bissau joined the cohort. Two constitutional referenda, in Burundi and Comoros, were held to extend presidential term limits for Pierre Nkurunziza and Azali Assoumani, who also reinforced their executive powers.
Polls were boycotted by the opposition in Togo, were highly contested in Zimbabwe and Mali, and regarded as a parody in Gabon. The DRC finally held elections after a three-year stalemate that kept Joseph Kabila in power. The electoral dispute went well into 2019 and fuelled regional divisions over associated issues.
The DRC finally held elections after a three-year stalemate that kept Joseph Kabila in power

Unrest around elections

So far in 2019, only Senegal and South Africa have had peaceful polls. The Nigerian Independent Electoral Commission took the world by surprise when it announced the postponement of the February 2019 polls at the eleventh hour, thereby raising crucial questions about the credibility of the outcome. Loss of lives also occurred during the elections.
In Algeria, former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s attempt to run for another term was fiercely opposed by street protests, leading to his resignation after 30 years in power. Elections in Benin and Comoros were marred by violence and the loss of lives. This year has also seen a constitutional amendment in Egypt, allowing President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to stay on until 2030, while reinforcing his powers (and that of the military).

Election observation is too limited a tool

Election observation by continental institutions such as the African Union (AU) and regional economic communities has proven insufficient in tackling the numerous challenges surrounding elections. This means that the AU has to do more.
Election observation by the African Union and regional economic communities has proven insufficient
For one, the institution will have to decisively deal once and for all with the issue of constitutional amendments and tempering with electoral laws to undermine the integrity of political processes and national consensus on constitutionalism. These tend to weaken, if not destroy, national social contracts and create perpetual instability.
There is a need to rethink how the AU engages with elections and autocratic rule. Moving from simple election observation to monitoring could be an option. The monitoring could begin with thoroughly assessing the capacity and impartiality of electoral management bodies, and making and following up on recommendations to improve electoral processes.
Best practices in elections from across the continent could serve as a benchmark. The African Peer Review Mechanism, by virtue of its current mandate, seems best suited to take up the additional task of determining best practices in terms of structural issues related to elections.
Other best practices revolve around limiting the advantage of the incumbent. In Madagascar, for example, the president has to step down two to three months before the elections to limit abuse of incumbency. In other countries such as Cape Verde and the Seychelles, the roles and prerogatives of mayors and ministers are restricted in the pre-election period, also with the aim of addressing the abuse of incumbency.
Clearly, elections are not a problem in and of themselves, but political parties, particularly incumbents, wage an intense contestation that undermines stability, democratic consolidation and the rule of law. This has proven a major threat to peace and stability on the continent and should be addressed with urgency.

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