Elites, Inequality, and Institutions in African Elections

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Jonathan_PictureThe excellent folks at the Africa Research Institute have been putting out interesting and important analysis for a while now. Recently, the ARI launched a new briefing note on African Elections which draws on some of the work published by regular contributors to this blog, amongst others. We thought this was a perfect opportunity to invite ARI’s Research Manager, Jonathan Bhalla, to explain why he thinks that we should persevere with elections in Africa. 

On 21st March 2012, a group of mid-ranking soldiers in Mali marched on Bamako, the capital city, and attacked several locations – including the presidential palace. The following day Captain Amadou Sanogo announced that Amadou Toumani Touré had been relieved of his presidential duties, and the constitution suspended. The coup occurred just a month before scheduled presidential elections. Four days later, in neighbouring Senegal, octogenarian incumbent president, Abdoulaye Wade, pursuing a third term in office, was defeated at the polls by his erstwhile protégé and former prime minister, Macky Sall. Despite exhibiting dynastic pretensions in recent years, Wade accepted defeat immediately.

In many respects, these two seismic events encapsulate Africa’s rapid – and often fraught – transition to more democratic forms of government. The euphoria of liberation from colonial rule has long since waned, and political elites across the continent are increasingly confronted with new demands for accountability – from inside and out. The proliferation of telecommunications has intensified scrutiny. African hegemonies – old and new – have adapted with pragmatism and resilience to fundamental changes in external relations and political rivalry.

Multi-party elections are now a salient feature of Africa’s fast evolving political landscape. In 1989, three African countries were electoral democracies. By 2011, that number had risen to 18. Twenty-three countries have elections scheduled in 2012. Elections in Africa have assumed a character of their own, producing diverse political outcomes and myriad unintended consequences.


Progressive democratic developments abound. Substantial external funding for elections has recast political competition. Since 1991, 31 ruling parties or heads of state have been voted from power. Institutions matter in ways they previously did not – attempts to extend presidential term limits in Nigeria, Zambia and Malawi were rebuffed by national assemblies. The management of elections has improved, albeit unevenly.

The African Union has consistently supported the democratic process and opposed illegitimate transfers of power. Since 2005, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has suspended and sanctioned all coup leaders who refused to hold elections. The open condemnation by African regional organisations of the March 2012 coup in Mali – and insistence on a return to constitutional order – would have been unthinkable in the 1990s.

Much progress has been made in consolidating democratic politics, but many African elections involve the recycling of protagonists. Vote buying and fraud are common. The military retains significant influence in most African countries. While elections have been more peaceable mechanisms for contesting power than civil war, politically motivated violence occurred in 60% of African elections in 1990-2008.

Democratic reforms have coincided with rising inequality. No government in sub-Saharan Africa has yet created the conditions for sustainable and transformative agricultural or industrial development. Formal job creation has stagnated. Even in industrialised South Africa a quarter of the labour force – and more than half of 15-24 year olds – are unemployed. As living costs rise relentlessly, voters’ demands for economic opportunities will become increasingly voluble.

Considerable emphasis – both financial and symbolic – is placed on elections in Africa. Expectations must be realistic. Elections are not a “silver bullet” for effecting immediate and positive political change. But they do play a crucial role in improving the accountability and transparency of governments – and have assumed a significance that political elites cannot ignore. The democratic genie will not be returned to the bottle in Africa. However, if elections are to have a lasting and deep-seated impact, further consolidation of electoral institutions and processes is imperative.


Click here for the Diehards and democracy: elites, inequality and institutions in African elections briefing note.

Click here for more information about the African Research Institute and a range of other briefing papers.{jcomments on}

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