African elections: works in progress

Trends are encouraging, but some polls still fall short
From Africa Renewal: 
page 15
Counting votes after the 2006 election in the Democratic Republic of the CongoCounting votes after the 2006 election in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: While some post-war elections help entrench democracy, others may mark a continuation of "war by other means."
Photograph: UN Photo / Kevin Jordan

Until two decades ago football games were arguably the most heated contests in most of Africa, sometimes stirring disputes for months. Then came the era of competitive elections. From the beginning, the electoral game topped the charts. And much like football amateurs would tell you about the many games they watch, some elections deserve good grades, others merit bad ones, most lie in the middle. Twenty years into the continent's era of multiparty elections, with around 60 legislative, presidential and other contests taking place in Africa this year alone, such diverse trends persist.

In March Benin held its fifth round of competitive national elections since 1991. The incumbent president, Yayi Boni, won a second term in office and his party maintained its dominance in parliament. Despite claims of vote-rigging by some opposition leaders, observers say the race was fair. Much as in Ghana, Mali, Senegal, Mauritius, Botswana and South Africa, elections in the tiny West African nation, once prone to military coups, have come to embody the best trend on the continent.

These countries have many things in common, including an active civil society, a vibrant and free press, an independent electoral body, a competitive political landscape and a widely shared respect for the rule of law (see box below). Rarely do violent protests precede or follow the proclamation of election results. Peaceful handovers of power following an opposition victory are not uncommon. "These political systems are a result of a long and negotiated compromise among the elites," observes Achille Mbembe, a political scientist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Perpetuating strongmen

Other elections, however, point to a different trend. True to the words of a former president of the Republic of Congo, Pascal Lissouba, who once professed that "one does not organize elections to end up on the losing side," such contests are mainly window-dressing exercises aimed at legitimizing the status quo. They often occur in countries where the same leaders have been in power for a decade or more. Just months ago, before popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt ousted strongmen from office, most elections in North Africa belonged in this category.

There are currently some 10 countries in sub-Sahara Africa with leaders who have been in power for more than 20 years, says Almamy Cyllah, the Africa director for the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), a think-tank based in Washington, DC. These leaders' electoral victories are achieved in various ways, including "by suppressing or banning opposition parties, acting in such a way that opposition parties boycott the election altogether, monopolizing state resources or media, intimidating voters or conducting outright fraud."

Such scenarios will probably be repeated in upcoming elections. "In all likelihood, most of these countries will not experience political change or viable elections in the near future — perhaps not until the death of their current rulers and possibly not even then," Mr. Cyllah told Africa Renewal. In such countries, adds Mr. Mbembe, "The rulers and their supporters have been able to control the pace of change. They have designed the rules to maintain their grip on the state and the economy, while allowing insignificant reforms."

The struggling majority

In the grey area between these two extremes lie a majority of African elections. Nigeria's latest round of voting, in April, although tainted by all-too-familiar instances of fraud and violence in a few regions, won some praise. Analysts maintain that the election that saw a victory for President Goodluck Jonathan was the cleanest the country has ever seen. Months earlier, in Guinea, 52 years of dictatorship came to an end with an election that appeared unlikely until it finally took place. Alpha Condé, a veteran opposition leader, won the presidential race to become Guinea's first democratically elected leader since independence.

In these two cases, as in many more across Africa, some of the vital elements required for a free and fair contest were missing. Long histories of vote-rigging, a lack of institutional experience and the weakness of the free and independent media continuously threatened the processes. Yet the determination of certain key actors (including, in the case of Nigeria, the head of the national electoral commission) helped achieve a breakthrough.

"Now what this category of countries needs is to build on the gains they've made in such difficult circumstances," urges Akinyemi Adegbola, an expert in electoral assistance at the UN Department of Political Affairs in New York.

Given the many weaknesses of these countries' systems, the fierce competition that often marks their elections can sometimes lead to unrest and violent conflicts. "Competitive elections have not always turned out well in Africa," remarks Mwangi Kimenyi, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a US think-tank. "In Kenya, Zimbabwe and Côte d'Ivoire, elections have tended to weaken the institution, with claims of rigged and stolen elections," he argues. "In these and other cases, elections have actually further polarized ethnic groups and led to violent conflicts."

Voters look for their names on voter registration lists outside a polling station in BeninVoters look for their names on voter registration lists outside a polling station in Benin: Once prone to coups, Benin now has regular elections that are widely considered transparent and fair.
Photograph: Associated Press / Valentin Salako

After war

The grey middle ground is also populated by elections held soon after the end of civil wars. In the past decade, as many African conflicts have drawn to a close (see Africa Renewal, December 2010), several post-conflict elections have taken place. So far the results have been mixed. While such elections are helping entrench democracy in Liberia and Sierra Leone, they were followed by a return to war in Angola in 1992. Most recently, in Côte d'Ivoire's November 2010 elections, disputes over the results led to some of the worst killings and human rights violations in the nine-year war that has crippled the country.

In other countries emerging from war, elections have legitimized the winning side in that war and marked "the continuation of the war by other means," comments Mr. Mbembe.

Elections after wars pose unique challenges. Countries emerging from war "must first seek to create prerequisites for democracy, including full demilitarization, an appropriate electoral system and a competent electoral administration," argues Michael Eiseman of the Electoral Institute for the Sustainability of Democracy in Africa, based in South Africa.

A process, not an event

Despite the difficulties, the fact that competitive elections are no longer rare in Africa is a positive development. "They have given many Africans, who for a long time were under oppressive dictatorships, the opportunity to elect leaders that represent the needs of the African citizens and prioritize development goals," says Mr. Kimenyi of the Brookings Institution.

Yet Mr. Mbembe of the University of the Witwatersrand has regrets: "Elections have become the most direct trigger of violence in Africa. Far too often, they divide people and cause destruction of lives and properties." True, concedes Mr. Cyllah, "Elections are often marred by fraud or incompetence and do sometimes result in violence." But, he insists, "No other means have brought about non-violent transitions of power with the same consistency."

Efforts are under way to improve electoral contests across the continent. Over the past decade in particular, independent electoral commissions have become a standard feature, remarks Mr. Adegbola. The UN Development Programme and international non-governmental organizations have been supporting the creation of such commissions. They have also trained local observers, assisted in voter registration, vote monitoring and tallying, and worked with civil society groups. Likewise, donor countries have helped finance many recent elections in Africa.

Improving electoral processes is vital, emphasizes Mr. Kimenyi. "The source of problems in recent disputed elections in Africa has been weaknesses in the electoral processes," he says. However, argues Chris Hennemeyer, an election consultant and former director of IFES's Africa programme, "Right now, there is little African countries need to learn about the technical issues surrounding elections."

Elections observation, often focused on voting day, is gradually taking a wider perspective. Beyond recording irregularities at polling stations, a growing number of observers are paying attention to other elements, including the media coverage of the campaigns and the voter registration process. The aim is to ensure equal access to public and private media for opposition candidates and incumbents, as well as to increase the credibility of the voters list. "This shift is important," Mr. Hennemeyer told Africa Renewal. "An election is not an event, but a process. There is a need to monitor what happens months if not years before."

And despite the central importance of elections in building and solidifying democratic societies, analysts point out, their quality depends on progress in other areas as well. Good elections are directly linked to the independence of the judicial system, a competitive media environment, the ability of civil society to be involved in public life and a political landscape that allows free expression of diverging views.

Beyond such issues, Mr. Mbembe advocates a wider use of proportional representation in African elections. Such an arrangement, he argues, can bring more peaceful transitions by lowering incentives for protest and violence from those most afraid to lose. In such arrangements, unlike in football games, victory will cease to mean that the winner takes all.   

Designing credible elections

Debates about elections in Africa are as common as elections themselves. For years, many meetings, seminars and conferences have been held with the aim of identifying the crucial ingredients for credible polls, including some organized by UN programmes and agencies. These have identified a number of best practices, drawing on both exemplary elections and more challenging cases. There seems to be general agreement about the factors that can help produce credible elections:

  • Chief among these is the establishment of a truly independent and impartial electoral commission. Such an institution can act as a referee during elections and its independence and impartiality can enhance citizen confidence in the process. Commissions should act in a transparent manner and engage with all actors involved in elections.
  • In addition, non-partisan domestic and foreign election observers can provide an impartial assessment of the electoral process, further helping citizens assess its legitimacy.
  • The media should be able to provide balanced coverage of all candidates and parties.
  • Civil society groups should be active in issues ranging from voter education to the promotion of election dialogue and initiatives to defuse conflicts.
  • Throughout the electoral process, security personnel must remain neutral.
  • Competing political parties and candidates must show willingness to conduct themselves peacefully and fairly. Incumbent leaders must set a tone of tolerance and respect for the election process.

When many or all of these elements are in place they can help set the stage for elections that are inclusive, transparent and accountable to citizens. Where these standards are met, analysts argue, the public is likely to have confidence in the election process and outcome.