Shortchanging Democracy in Africa

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Fodei Batty explores the role of the international community through elections, arguing that external intervention has fundamentally compromised the prospects of democratisation across the continent. Fodei is an assistant professor of Political Science at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, CT, USA.

If long snaking lines at polling stations on election days are any indicator, then African voters remain committed to voting as an expression of basic democracy. However, there is growing dissatisfaction with democracy as recent findings from the Afrobarometer surveys indicate.

We need not search too hard for answers to why Africans are increasingly dissatisfied with “democracy.” Less than three decades after a democratic wind of change blew across the continent, Africans wonder if the idea of democracy is another cruel joke at their expense; just like colonialism, SAPs, and most Western imports purporting to enlighten a “dark continent.”

It is gradually dawning on many African voters that they vote and someone else determines the outcome of their elections. Meanwhile, their roads remain unpaved, reliable electricity is the stuff of foolish dreams, and many still lose their children to diseases long extinct elsewhere while their so-called elites send their children overseas to the best institutions in the world, or to escape epidemics, as happened recently in West Africa.

I recall standing in line in 1996 to cast my ballot in the first elections for which I was eligible to vote. My fellow Sierra Leonean voters and I were excited! After years of war we had lofty dreams that our votes could translate into peace, jobs, prosperity, and gleaming skyscrapers of the kind we saw in imported magazines. After all, we had the natural resources to realize such dreams, or so we thought. We were encouraged by international and local groups to cast our ballots without fear or ethnic favor –that democracy will bring development, etc. We believed, wholeheartedly.

Soon after, the war continued. Our hopes were dashed! It was back to business as usual. Corruption scandals remerged and some analysts eventually blamed us all for it. Should we not forgive ourselves for entertaining dreams that “democracy” could change things for the better?

Nowadays, a lot of electoral contests in Africa carry discourses of changing or keeping the incumbent regime. The choice is partly dependent on external factors as members of international community, such as the European Union, are accused of picking winners that fit their interests.

Perhaps, nothing has undermined democracy more in Africa than this trend. It is now more important for politicians to get the blessings of the international community than the voters to whom they should be accountable. Through elections monitoring, meddling in Africa on behalf of ‘democracy’ has reached new dimensions in recent years, especially following the terrible events of September 11, as Western strategic interests in international security trumped the global agenda.

A verifiable pattern is that for some hardcore authoritarian regimes such as Afewerki’s Eritrea or Nguema’s Equatorial Guinea, elections are either not observable because there are none, or the results are never in doubt.

In another set of countries, such as Uganda and Chad , authoritarian leaders have mastered the art of leveraging regional insecurity to make themselves indispensable. The post-Gaddafi chaos in Libya helped their cause greatly. Dreadful of refugee flows or potential terrorists congregating in the vacuum that could be triggered by their absence, the international community finds justification for such authoritarian leaders as allies and surrogates in the war against terror, at the expense of the voters’ interests.

Here, elections monitoring are mere lip service to the regime. Following each election, the perfunctory verdict usually reads: “…although the process was not fair, it was largely free and we did not observe anything that would have changed the outcome of the vote…”

Meddling by the international community has been most disruptive, however, in countries such as Sierra Leone and Kenya. Ironically, these countries hold the greatest promise of advancing democracy if their politics is allowed to evolve organically. Their elections often reflect genuine competition and the widest openings for credible challengers.

One such opportunity came with the 2007 elections in Sierra Leone which pitted the incumbent SLPP’s Berewa against the opposition challenge of Ernest Koroma’s APC. Berewa and the SLPP were depicted as corrupt and, according to some reports, some British citizens called for regime change. When the electoral dust settled, Berewa lost amidst allegations of vote rigging. Numerous ballots from polling stations in constituencies favorable to him were controversially disqualified by the NEC.

Now, it is Koroma’s turn to be subjected to international scrutiny. There are more reports of corruption under his administration than there ever was under Berewa and the SLPP. Some Sierra Leoneans blame the international community for shackling them to Koroma in 2007 by insisting upon regime change in the first place.

For his reelection bid in 2012, Koroma banned all vehicular transportation on election day, except for top APC officials. Such dubious regulations, coupled with intimidation of the opposition and allegations of bribery have cast a dangerous pall over Sierra Leone heading into future electoral contests.

A critical flaw in elections monitoring and observation in Africa is that the period of such monitoring is much too brief. Even the most extensive and diligent elections monitoring missions, such as the Carter Center, usually arrive in a case country less than a month before polling day. By then, the damage is often already done by those who intend to manipulate elections. Electoral abuses such as the inflation of electoral registers, bribing polling agents, and intimidating voters are not carried out on election day itself or, most times, even the immediate weeks leading up to the polls when international observers are present within the country. Such abuses occur months, sometimes even years before elections are held.

Take, again, the example of Sierra Leone. In 2015, the country held its first national population census since the previous one in 2004, two years after the end of the rebel war. According to the UNFPA, the final census report will be released in December 2016. The provisional results so far, suggest incredible increases in the population in parts of the country that are favorable to the incumbent APC party. On the other hand, parts of the country that, traditionally, are electoral strongholds of the opposition SLPP party are projected to see significant reductions in their populations following what observers, such as the Institute for Governance Reform, an independent local nonprofit, believe was a flawed process in conducting the census.

Should the figures from the census stand despite the expressed concerns, then the APC has already unfairly manipulated the electoral process to ensure victory in the next elections long before any hastily assembled elections observations team sets foot in the country.

At present, there is no mechanism, however, for even the best elections monitors to detect such sophisticated manipulation of elections. Thus, the international community must concede unfamiliarity with complex domestic politics in Africa and focus, instead, on eliminating violence and the intimidation of voters during elections so that democracy is truly allowed to prevail. Otherwise, they will unintentionally end up with the same outcomes, such as refugee flows and the resumption of conflicts, they seem so desperate to avert.Unfortunately, we could see these conflicts in countries where democracy held the greatest promise in Africa but was shortchanged by external interests.



2 thoughts on “Shortchanging Democracy in Africa

  1. Spot on! Unfortunately, it seems we will be saying this in the future, as we have done in the past and are doing now! When African voters learn of politicians holding big meetings in the diaspora, the first question that comes to mind is :’why are these politicians canvassing for votes to people who may not likely vote?’. The appropriate answer is highlighted in this brilliant piece – the target is really the international community. Make speeches on University Campuses or Research institutes and let the ones who matter take notice!

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