/ 3 March 2020

Elections test Africa’s democracy

Lesotho Elections Transparent And Fair, Says Sadc
In some of the countries having elections this year, the results will not only be determined by what happens on polling day.

Once again, the state of democracy on the continent will be tested as millions of Africans go to the polls this year to decide who will lead them for the next few years. The recent ruling by the Constitutional Court in Malawi annulling the results of the disputed 2019 presidential elections may offer a ray of hope to many of those who will be voting in 2020, in that the judiciary can be a final arbiter when there is evidence of electoral malpractice. 

The February election in Togo was less encouraging, because it took place in an environment of tight restrictions on media, civil society and opposition groups, handing President Faure Gnassingbé a fourth five-year term.

In some of the countries having elections this year, the results will not only be determined by what happens on polling day, but will be affected by civic space restrictions that reduce the ability of citizens, the political opposition, civil society and journalists to participate fully in electoral processes. Conflict and the rise of insurgent groups will also have a bearing on the outcome of the elections. 

Here is a look at some of the upcoming elections. 

Burundi: May

The country has been in a state of crisis since 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza defied the Constitution and stood for a third term in office. Having since then expressed that he will not contest the May elections, Burundi has a unique opportunity to turn a new chapter, restore democracy and allow the safe return of all citizens, human rights defenders and journalists who fled the violence that erupted in 2015. 

Unfortunately, observers of the state of human rights and the political dynamics in Burundi will be quick to observe that the decision by the ruling National Council for the Defence of Democracy–Forces for the Defence of Democracy to nominate the secretary general of the party, Évariste Ndayishimiye, as its frontrunner for the elections is tantamount to replacing Nkurunziza with another version of himself. Ongoing attacks by the youth wing of the party — the Imbonerakure — and the state’s repression of the media is an indication that the status quo will stay the same after the elections. 

Burkina Faso: November 

The elections are crucial for democratic consolidation, and offer an opportunity for a first political transition since the uprising by citizens in 2014 that forced Blaise Compaoré to step down as president after 27 years in office. President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré is seeking a second term in office. His resolve will be tested by the main opposition candidate and former prime minister, Kadré Désiré Ouédraogo. Whoever emerges victorious will have to urgently address security problems that have caused widespread displacement in Burkina Faso. 

Central African Republic: May

(with a possible run-off in February 2021) 

The elections will be affected by the humanitarian crisis, prompted by the conflict that began in 2012. President Faustin-Archange Touadéra will face competition from several opposition parties and voting will be affected by the violence and the restricted access voters will have to voting stations. Whatever the outcome of the elections, the main preoccupation of the government will be the security situation and the enforcement of the peace agreement that was signed last year. 

Côte d’Ivoire: October 

The rise in restrictions on civic space and the targeting of members of the political opposition ahead of the polls may have a bearing on the outcome of this election. Many Ivorians would have preferred a new generation of politicians to choose from, but the main contenders are the current president, Alassane Ouattara, and former presidents Laurent Gbagbo and Henri Konan Bédié. All three have dominated the political scene in Cote d’Ivoire since 1990. 

The judicial persecution of Guillaume Soro, a former prime minister and another contender for the presidency, and his supporters have led many to believe that actions against them are politically motivated. The October elections present an opportunity for Côte d’Ivoire to consolidate its democracy and distance itself from the violence that divided the West African nation for much of the 2000s. 

Ethiopia: August 

The pre-election period has been overshadowed by growing ethnic and inter-regional clashes and instability that threaten to derail the unprecedented democratic reforms implemented by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed since he took over in 2018. The success of the elections will have implications for the consolidation of Ethiopia’s democracy and its strategic role as a key player on the Africa continent. 

Tanzania: October 

Once a beacon of democracy in East Africa, the past four years under President John Magufuli have been characterised by human rights violations and violence against the political opposition and civil society. We are likely to see an increase in attacks, abductions, intimidation and arrests of members of the political opposition and human rights defenders as the president hangs on for another term in office. 

Ghana: December 

One of the more stable democracies in Africa, the December elections will be a repeat of the last vote in 2016 and may offer former president John Dramani Mahama a chance to reclaim the presidency from his rival, President Nana Akufo-Addo. There has been a string of attacks against journalists covering the activities of political parties in the pre-election period. The elections will be a close contest, but millions of Ghanaians will vote for the candidate they believe will curb corruption, bolster economic development, create jobs and institute reforms in the finance sector. 

Niger: December

At a time when many African leaders change constitutions to hang on to power, President Mahamadou Issoufou will step down after completing his second five-year term in office. This sets a laudable precedent in the consolidation of democracy in Niger. But, for Niger to build on this democratic foundation, it has to address the restrictions on political activities and the attacks on fundamental freedoms that characterised the 2016 elections. 

The main opposition leader, Amadou Issoufou, was jailed for a year at the time of the elections after he was accused of taking part in a child-trafficking scandal. Niger has been facing security problems following an increase in attacks by insurgent groups that is spreading across rural areas and threatens the major cities. 

Seychelles: December 

President Danny Faure and the United Seychelles Party will face a mammoth test in the upcoming elections against stiff opposition from Wavel Ramkalawan, who leads the opposition coalition (which is already in control of the legislature). The elections will be preceded by some reforms in electoral processes implemented at the end of 2018. The elections should further strengthen the growth of democracy in Seychelles. 

David Kode is the advocacy and campaigns lead for Civicus, a global alliance of civil society organisations.