Africa’s pivotal election year: Why the signs are not good – even despite Senegal

Sierra Leone, 2018 elections
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Last year, Africa experienced a string of depressing outcomes in most general elections held in Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Gabon, Madagascar, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Apart from disenfranchising voters, these outcomes contribute to the disengagement of its youthful population from the democratic process. More so, they have severe socio-political and economic implications for the citizens that reverberate for years after the elections. While the countries that held elections in 2023 (except Liberia) have come to terms with the adverse effects of an unsatisfactory electoral process, 2024 is shaping up to be a pivotal year for elections on the continent. In the next eight months, Chad, Ghana, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, South Africa, South Sudan, Namibia, and many more are due to go to the polls.

The recent victory of the opposition in Senegal has reinvigorated democrats across the continent – especially as the situation had looked so bleak. But few of the elections to come are likely to see a transfer of power – with the exception of Ghana. This is both because they are less democratic, and because – in some cases – elections might not actually happen.

In Rwanda, Paul Kagame is poised to run for re-election in July after a controversial constitutional amendment that qualified his candidacy. Political uncertainties in Chad and South Sudan have kept analysts wondering whether elections will be held in those countries as planned. Ghana offer the greatest potential for fiercely contested and close races with long-term implications for the country’s stability and that of their respective regions.

Given the recent spate of coups, the focus of most democracy and development analysts will be on countries in the West Africa regional bloc. Ghana and Mali – will be holding elections against the backdrop of political upheavals taking place in the past year. Mali’s consecutive coups in 2020 and 2021, characterized as part of the “epidemics of coups” by the United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Gutierrez, have worsened democratic stability in the country. Against this backdrop, the country faces severe human security challenges with the growth of violent extremist groups that overlap with inter-communal violence and food insecurity. These factors highlight the democratic challenges the country faces.

The decision to postpone the elections initially scheduled for February 2024 presents worries about a timeline for the country’s return to democratic rule. This situation is exacerbated by the Junta’s recent decision to leave ECOWAS this January along with Burkina Faso and Niger. As the country faces its latest democratic challenge and uncertainties, the only clear path is that the road to democratic stability in Mali is long, with severe implications for the security crises the country currently faces.

Elections in Ghana have been scheduled to be held in December 2024. Often seen by many as the bastion of democracy in West Africa, Ghana’s elections have performed relatively well in recent cycles while containing their dose of political drama and tension. Currently, both major political parties in the country are fairly evenly matched, with Vice President Mahamudu Bawumia for the ruling party and former President John Dramani Mahama representing the opposition party. However, elections will be held amid increasing reports of attacks on Journalists and media institutions – a troubling sign for the vibrant democracy that the country has been known for.

The country’s premier journalists’ body reported over 40 documented such cases of attacks between 2019 and 2023. Furthermore, recent proposals from the Electoral Commission to change voters’ election dates and identification requirements on election day have drawn the ire of the opposition party. In a country where a slight margin has won Presidential election results since 2016, controversial changes by the electoral management body can considerably impact election outcomes, including raising tensions between supporters of both parties.

South Africa is also poised for a crucial election, with poll results predicting that for the first time, the Africa National Congress (ANC), which has led the country for decades, could lose its majority and fall below the 50% threshold, possibly prompting the party to form a coalition with smaller parties. The elections will be held in May amid socio-political issues relating to official corruption, high unemployment, and insecurity. Furthermore, the majority of the country’s population are disenchanted with democratic outcomes so far, putting added pressure on voters and political parties alike.

2024 is a pivotal year for elections in Africa, and some will see the opposition victory in Senegal as a sign of better things are to come for African democracy. Yet the uncertainty and structural challenges facing the countries that have yet to go to the polls this year suggests that on average the depressing trends of last year are set to continue. This is troubling, particularly for a continent facing severe economic downturns, political instability, and the disenchantment of its population with democratic institutions. 

Nkasi Wodu, a Senior New Voices Fellow of the Aspen Institute, is the project coordinator of the Democracy Network, a 10-country project on increasing civic engagement in Africa funded by the US Department of State.

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