Africa in 2023: The year in elections

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This month Africa rounded off a depressing string of problematic yet crucial elections in 2023, with Madagascar on November 16 and Liberia on November 14, 2023. The other elections held on the continent were in Nigeria, Gabon, Sierra Leone, and Zimbabwe. Except for Liberia, the five other elections are troubling for the continent and its democratic outlook.

The 2023 electoral calendar started on a sour note with the Nigerian elections. Known for its strategic position as a leader in West Africa, Nigeria experienced what was, at best, a controversial election, with Bola Tinubu elected president with only 37% of the vote in the lowest turnout in the nation’s Fourth Republic. Although the electoral management body introduced significant electoral changes to bolster the integrity of the process, particularly through the use of technology, the outcome turned out to be much more hotly contested when substantial amounts of that technology failed to perform correctly. For a country facing substantial political and ethnic divisions and apathy, these election process failures did nothing to improve the situation and created huge pressures on the already-compromised judiciary, further reducing confidence in the electoral and judicial systems.

In Sierra Leone, elections followed the pace set by the elections in Nigeria. The US Department of State expressed severe concerns about the integrity of the process, complaining that the final result did not correspond with Parallel Voter Tabulations (PVT) results collected by domestic and international observers. Similarly, there were reports of intimidation and harassment of opposition candidates and voters. The result of the election did not meet many voters’ expectations.

In Gabon, irregularities in the run-up to the elections foreshadowed a military coup on election day, beginning with government agencies suppressing civil society. For example, the High Authority of Communication (HAC), the government’s media regulator, suspended independent media organizations, and President Ali Bongo’s government went against the usual convention and excluded journalists from the membership of the HAC itself. Furthermore, internet access was cut off on election day – a practice the Bongo administration has deployed on other occasions to restrict media access. On election day, irregularities were rife, culminating in a government curfew supposedly to prevent aggrieved citizens from voicing their grievances. These undemocratic electoral practices clearly played a role in prompting the military to takeover the government on election day itself.

In Zimbabwe, President Emmerson Mnangagwa won the August 23 elections with 52% of the vote in an election atmosphere rife with repression and irregularities. First, the government enacted the controversial “Patriotic Bill” – a law analysts described as attacking freedom of expression. Journalists and suspected opposition members were barred from covering the President’s reelection campaigns, and critics of the government were harassed and intimidated. In a second move reminiscent of former President Robert Mugabe, over 41 election monitors were arrested on election day on grounds of trying to interfere with the results. The arrested people were members of civil society groups – Zimbabwe Elections Support Network and the Election Resource Center – accredited to monitor the elections. The workers were held without access to their lawyers, prompting an outcry from civil society organizations, the SADC, and the United States Government. Crippling civil society and undermining democratic electoral principles allowed Mnangagwa and his ruling ZANU-PF to hold on to power.

In Madagascar, despite weeks of protests asking for a postponement of the elections, incumbent President Andrey Rajoelina held elections and won comfortably amid a curfew, boycotts from ten opposition candidates, and low voter turnouts. Opposition parties had argued for the disqualification of the President from the elections after discovery that he is a naturalized French citizen, given that the constitution clearly voids his candidacy in such a circumstance. However, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the President, giving him an all-clear to contest.

Liberia, however, offers a glimmer of hope and a departure from the irregularities experienced in the other five elections. Incumbent President George Weah lost in a close race. Although the same factors were present as in the continent’s other four elections – low turnouts, closely contested candidates, a country divided politically — President George Weah conceded a defeat after losing in the run-off. This single act of leadership alone ensured that Liberia, riddled with years of civil war, will continue to consolidate democracy and unity. In addition, the election management body and other state institutions demonstrated appreciable levels of neutrality, which reduced political rivalry and led to a successful and peaceful election.

The 2023 elections raise pertinent lessons about democracy building in Africa. First, African citizens cannot rely on the goodwill of politicians to have a transparent transfer of power. The place of the courts and the electoral management body in running peaceful elections and the penchant of executives to undermine the integrity of these institutions have become looming questions in the development of democracy across the continent. In many African countries, citizens fear that the courts and electoral management bodies are extensions of the executive based on questionable decisions favoring the head of government or in the fraught conduct of elections, which disenfranchise many citizens. Examples abound in Nigeria, Gabon, Zimbabwe, and Sierra Leone. In Kenya, however, the success of elections in recent years can be attributed in part to the Supreme Court’s defiance in the face of executive intimidation. Other African judiciaries must follow the Kenyan example.

Second, observer missions must move beyond data gathering and press statements to help local civil society actors take concrete action against governments that deny citizens their right to choose their leaders. Regional politico-economic blocs like the SADC or ECOWAS, the continent-wide AU, and international missions like the EU or NDI and IRI in the US must agree to move beyond simply condemning election malfeasance. Observer missions cannot interfere in domestic affairs, but they can provide the ample data they gather to civil society groups, opposition parties, and ruling parties alike to take action. Foreign governments, however, can apply additional forms of pressure against governments that retain power through undemocratic elections as they do to military dictators.

Thirdly, more than ever, the donor community should invest significantly in civil society organizations and the use of electronics. These organizations are at the frontlines, defending democracy, risking their lives and freedom to stand against the undemocratic bent of governments and their hordes of military and police forces. From Sierra Leone in the west to Madagascar in the east, civil society organizations push electoral management bodies to do better, pressure governments, and continue to shed light on discrepancies. More so, they deal with disappointments when election management goes wrong, nurse public wounds, and mobilize again. The life of a civil society activist in Africa requires continuous hope in political despair, defiance in the face of anti-democratic forces, and relentlessness when change comes slowly. Liberia and Kenya demonstrate that where the electoral management body applied the proper use of electronics, outcomes and perceptions were of a much higher quality.  Nigeria’s botched use of technology, however, also demonstrates the perils of when civil society is underequipped to monitor its use.

In conclusion, while the 2023 election score card for African countries might be disappointing, there are however, significant lessons to learned in moving the integrity of elections and democratic processes forward – a step that is sorely needed in the face of undemocratic government takeovers in recent years in the continent.

Nkasi Wodu, a Senior Fellow of the Aspen Institute, lawyer, and Doctoral Candidate of Global Governance and Human Security University of Massachusetts Boston, 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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