Africa’s rocket science: Free and fair elections
In many parts of Africa, the most difficult thing to do is not to break new bounds in science or institute new philosophical thought. It is ticking a box and having it accurately counted without controversy and violence. Elections, the simple democratic exercise of choosing public officials with the principle of one person and one vote, is Africa’s rocket science. While some countries in the continent have significantly grasped this complicated practice marked as something akin to space technology, many are still turning out less than admirable results. The latest is Guinea. The West African country’s recent presidential election, though positively appraised by election monitors, was rejected by all of the country’s opposition parties as fraudulent even before the results were announced. With the incumbent, Alpha Conde, announced as winner of the polls, his main challenger, Dalien Diallo, has called for protests, a move that could further exacerbate election related violence, which has already claimed about a dozen lives.
All of Guinea’s democratic elections have been heavily disputed and marred by violence. The 2010 presidential race, which was actually the country’s first ever since independence, was heavily protested and the ensuing violence left about seven people dead. The 2013 legislative polls were even bloodier with about 50 people killed in the run up to the vote. But the country is not the odd one out of the eight presidential elections held thus far in 2015. Although Nigeria’s April general election was significantly less violent than the previous polls, many results being are challenged in the courts, some of which have been nullified, but nonetheless underscores how far the country still is from holding a wholly credible election. Togo, Burundi and Sudan were worse case scenarios, with their elections condemned as flawed even before a vote was cast. Ethiopia made the headlines as its ruling party—the EPRDF—won all but 2 percent of the total votes cast through what many have alleged was political suppression. So, why is it difficult to have a simple free, fair, credible and widely accepted democratic election in most parts of Africa?
“The objective realities on the continent make it difficult for a democracy to fully function, much less for free and fair elections to be held,” said renowned Ugandan Human Rights Lawyer, Nicholas Opiyo. “In a continent where the voting population is under abject poverty, widespread illiteracy and where power is still in the hands a few strongmen, free and fair elections will remain an aspiration. Its realization will be gradual and incremental,” he added. “Gradual and incremental” can be used to describe Ghana and Nigeria’s 2012 and 2015 presidential polls respectively, but for Uganda, Opiyo’s home country, there is little evidence of such progress in its past elections and low optimism for the next one scheduled for 2016. “Next year’s poll is not going to be free and fair; neither is it going to be credible,” Opiyo said. “First the much needed reforms of the laws have been stonewalled by the ruling party, the NRM (ruling party) is fused with the state and enjoys the benefit of using state resources to the disadvantage of its opponents. The electoral commission, the security agents are all working to retain the regime in power.”
There’s greater hope in neighbouring Tanzania which goes to the polls on Sunday, October 25th. The country’s previous democratic elections have been peaceful and widely accepted, although some argue this is because of the ruling party’s decades of domination. However, the current presidential contest—majorly between the ruling party’s Pombe Magufuli and his main challenger Edward Lowassa—is the tightest since Tanzania began to hold multiparty elections 23 years ago, and it has been billed the country’s democratic litmus test. “Tanzania has been one of Africa’s most peaceful countries since its independence and has been regarded over the past two decades as one of the continent’s strongest democracies. A close and hotly contested election might challenge these assumptions,” writes Johnnie Carson, former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. “A tight election or the perception of a rigged outcome could increase the chance of post-election violence in what has been one of Africa’s leading democracies and most peaceful countries.” Still, the rhetoric off the campaign trail has been anything but incendiary. “Except for a few barbs exchanged between them, candidates have restricted themselves to issues like corruption, education, health and poverty, argues Aggrey Mutambo in the Daily Nation. “They have preached unity and peace and condemned violent extremism which has sometimes been witnessed in Zanzibar.”
Like Tanzania, political analysts are also optimistic about Ivory Coast’s presidential election scheduled to hold on the same day. The European Union’s decision not to send an observation mission has been hailed as a vote of confidence in the country’s electoral infrastructure. “While the announcement of the official list of candidates in mid-September sparked political protests that killed and injured several, most expect the elections to proceed relatively peacefully,” Sophie Rosenberg, a scholar on justice and post-conflict transition in Côte d’Ivoire and Mali, noted in African Arguments.
Ivory Coast, together with Nigeria, Tanzania, Lesotho and Zambia are, to varying degrees, bright spots in the Africa’s democratic landscape which has 35 presidential or parliamentary elections between January 2015 and December 2016. Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Gambia, and the Republic of Congo are not. They all have sit-tight presidents running or intending to run for re-election within the next 12 months and they all have sought to skew the electoral system in their favour either by altering the electoral laws in their respective countries or refusing to address its existing loopholes. For Opiyo, the reason is obvious, the sit-tight presidents cannot win a credible election. “If elections are free and fair, and if all the instruments of the state are non-partisan and do not aid the ruling party… President Museveni would lose the election,” he said referring to Ugandan president’s bid to extend his three decade rule.
So how do we get to the point where we have not just free and fair elections, but generally accepted results in Africa? “First administrative reforms of the electoral system,” Opiyo says. “There can be greater transparency in the purchase of electoral materials, transmission of results, counting of ballots et al.” But even that would only be a start, “free and fair election will only result from an empowered, informed citizenry” he argues, pointing to Botswana, South Africa and Senegal as a few shining examples. Burkina Faso, whose citizens last month pushed back against a coup by allies of former President Blaise Compaore, is an example of such an awakening in political awareness. After enduring nearly three decades of dictatorship, the country’s November poll breeds the hope of another African country achieving the much desired but largely elusive- free, fair and credible elections.