Voting in Sierra Leone

Elections in Africa: trends and lessons

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Elections in Africa: trends and lessons

Luanda Mpungose

13 Jun 2018

6min min read
  • Elections
  • Democracy
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s Zimbabwe, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) prepare to hold historic polls in July, October and December respectively, concerns around violence, intimidation and credible electoral processes are rising. In Zimbabwe, incidents of intimidation and threats of violence have been reported ahead of the 30 July election, which will be a test for the country’s democracy in a post-Mugabe era. In the DRC, the long-awaited and oft-delayed presidential vote – if indeed it happens – will tell whether President Joseph Kabila finally relinquishes power, enabling the country to rebuild after decades of political instability and conflict. And in Cameroon, beset with protracted conflict between the government and protesters in the Anglophone regions, President Paul Biya appears determined to extend his 35-year rule.   

Term elongation – where constitutions are changed to allow the incumbent to retain power – is not new to Africa. However, other trends such as the peaceful transitions of power, judicial interventions and low turnout during elections were evident in the 2016/2017 African elections. Countries heading to the polls should take note. 

Peaceful transitions of power

The Gambia, Somalia, Angola and Liberia all saw peaceful transitions of power despite some tense moments.

In December 2016, Gambian opposition candidate Adama Barrow defeated long-time leader Yahya Jammeh in the presidential elections. Jammeh conceded defeat, but then sparked a constitutional crisis by withdrawing his concession and calling for new elections. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) intervened, demanding that Jammeh hand over power and respect the will of the people. Following an ultimatum from the regional body to either step down or face a military intervention, he chose the former. 

Regional bodies, often criticised for their ineffectiveness during political crises, in this instance demonstrated their effectiveness in safeguarding the democratic rights of African people and helped ensure a peaceful transition of power as mandated by the electorate. They need to play a more active role during upcoming elections to ensure credibility and rule of law. For instance, in addition to sending observers, regional bodies such as the Southern African Development Cooperation (SADC) should have a firmer voice in pronouncing on the credibility (or lack thereof) of elections. The SADC has previously been criticised for inaccurate reporting of the 2013 Zimbabwe elections. Furthermore, regional bodies should send advance missions to countries to assess their readiness to hold polls. 

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and George Weah

Liberia's outgoing president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (L) listens to Liberia's President-elect George Weah during his swearing-in ceremony on 22 January 2018. – Issouf Sanogo/ AFP/ Getty

The Angolan elections on 23 August 2017 heralded a peaceful change in leadership in the ruling party. José Eduardo dos Santos, who had been in power since 1979, stepped down as president and leader of The People’s Movement of the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). He was succeeded by former defence minister and vice-president João Manuel Gonçalves Lourenço. 

In Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf handed over power to George Weah in January 2018, after he defeated her vice-president Joseph Nyumah Boakai in a run-off election. This marked Liberia’s first peaceful transition of power since 1944. Johnson Sirleaf recently won the Mo Ibrahim prize for African leadership, awarded to heads of state who voluntarily and peacefully relinquish power after their term has ended.

Judicial interventions 

The validity of the Kenyan and Liberian elections ended up being decided by the courts. Following Uhuru Kenyatta’s victory with 54% of votes, runner-up Raila Odinga contested the election results in the Supreme Court on the basis of fraud and electoral tampering. The Court found the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) failed to conduct the elections according to the Constitution. In an unprecedented move, it nullified the election results and ordered a re-run election. Kenyatta won 98% of the vote in the re-run election, which Odinga boycotted. The Supreme Court upheld the new results and dismissed the call by the opposition and civil society to reject the results, saying that the petitions lacked merit.

In Liberia, there were allegations of irregularities and fraud in the first round of elections. These polls saw the rise of former football star George Weah of the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC), who won 38.4% of the vote. Prior to the rerun election which was originally scheduled for 7 November 2017, the Supreme Court called halted election preparations but later ruled that the run-off vote should go ahead. Weah was officially announced as president of Liberia in December 2017 after the run-off election, taking 61.5% of the vote against his opponent Joseph Boakai’s 38.5%.

In both Kenya and Liberia, a number of international elections observers, including representatives of the Carter Center and the National Democratic Institute, said the first round of elections were free and fair, despite a few irregularities at some polling stations. However, the Supreme Court rulings reveal that the judgment of election observers was wanting and has brought their role under sharp scrutiny.

Kenya's Supreme Court

Kenyan Chief Justice David Maraga (C) and judges stand prior to speaking as the Kenya's Supreme Court on 20 November 2017 dismissed two petitions to overturn the country's 26 October presidential election re-run, validating the poll victory of President Uhuru Kenyatta. – Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty

Low turnout during elections

Of 19.6 million registered Kenyan voters, only 7.6 million showed up to vote in the re-run poll. Odinga had called on his supporters to boycott the election, citing a lack of reforms from the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission and limited prospects for a credible process. 

In Liberia, 1,641,922 people (75.2%) voted in the first-round election but only 1,218,124 (60.6%) returned for the run-off. A lesson to be learnt is that elections marred with corruption allegations, and halted by courts, affect the morale of voters and see less voters coming to polls in re-run and/or run-off elections.

Corruption, fraud and violence

Corruption, fraud, irregularities by the electoral commission and violence incited before, during and after elections have a negative impact on the stability of a country. Furthermore, they damage the credibility of an election, with legal challenges from opposition parties and refusals to concede common. 

In Angola, the main opposition appealed against the election results to the constitutional court on the basis that the results published by the electoral commission were invalid – multiple provincial results did not reflect the numbers sent to provinces by the commission. Although this appeal was rejected by the Constitutional Court due to insufficient evidence in proving the claims made by the opposition party, it remains a cloud over the validity of the results.

Kenya’s election board’s head of information, communication and technology Chris Msando, who played a fundamental role in developing a new electronic ballot and voter registration systems in Kenya, was tortured and murdered shortly before the elections

Candidates running against Rwandan President Paul Kagame in the August 2017 poll did not compete on an equal footing. There were reportedly acts of sabotage when it came to campaigning and fundraising – opposition candidates were reported to have only received three weeks to campaign. Furthermore, it is reported that they were not allowed to place their campaign posters in the same space as Kagame’s, which were practically everywhere.

The rise of civil society participation

States such as South Africa have previously intervened in the DRC to facilitate peacebuilding, albeit without much success. Non-state actors led the peace negotiations in December 2016: Congo’s National Conference of Catholic Bishops (CENCO) negotiated actionable and legitimate commitments by Kabila’s coalition, the opposition and civil society in the peace deal known as the New Year’s Eve Agreement. Some outcomes of the negotiations included an agreement by Kabila to step down and a commitment that elections would take place in 2017 (which did not materialise).

The negotiations were a result of political instability following numerous postponements by the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) which resulted in protests and demonstrations that have claimed scores of lives. The postponements are widely viewed as a delay tactic by President Joseph Kabila to remain in power. 

Congo’s electoral commission announced that the long-awaited poll will be held in December 2018. There are conflicting reports on whether Kabila intends to step down or not this time.

Regardless of the outcome of the elections, the involvement of the Catholic bishops in these negotiations was significant and underscores the importance of civil society groups in brokering peace. 

Lessons for 2018

Firstly, ECOWAS demonstrated that regional bodies can effectively facilitate peaceful transitions of power. The constituents of Zimbabwe, DRC and Cameroon will benefit from the presence of regional bodies as observers to ensure that the elections are credible and, furthermore, to usher in a peaceful transition if required. Zimbabwe has invited European Union observers for the first time in 16 years to monitor polls. 

Secondly, the independence of the judiciary strengthens the democratic process of a country, as illustrated by Kenya and Liberia’s Supreme Court.

Thirdly, term elongation tactics often lead to violence and instability. It remains crucial for leaders to adhere to the democratic process and respect the wishes of their constituents.

In conclusion, credible elections remain a significant aspect of the democratic process of African countries. They convey the will of the people. Although some democratic gains have been made in recent elections, a number of factors, such as corruption, fraud and election irregularities remain an Achilles’ heel in African elections.

(Main image: A voter puts his finger in the ink after casting his vote at a polling station in Freetown on March 31, 2018 during general elections. Voters in the West African state of Sierra Leone were called out to vote in the final round of a presidential campaign marked by verbal sparring, sporadic violence and a last-minute legal battle. - Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty)