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Elections in Africa: integrity builds democracy

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Picture: Oupa Mokoena / African News Agency (ANA) / Taken September 8, 2023 – Leader of Economic Revolutionary Alliance, Talent Rusere, leads a march to the Zimbabwean embassy in Pretoria, South Africa, to demand re-elections in Zimbabwe, claiming that the recent elections were unfair. ‘Questions on how to strengthen political transitions towards democratic governance and consolidation in Africa need to focus on improving electoral integrity and quality on the Continent,’ the writer says.

By Nkanyiso Simelane

Elections are crucial to the functioning of any democracy as they provide an ideal mechanism for democratic changes of government. This is particularly pivotal on the African Continent in the context of democratic consolidation and mitigating the unconstitutional changes of government. As such, questions on how to strengthen political transitions towards democratic governance and consolidation in Africa need to focus on improving electoral integrity and quality on the Continent.

The resurgence of military coups on the Continent in the 2020s has refocussed attention to responding to this phenomenon. Earlier this year, the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), in collaboration with the African Governance Architecture (AGA) produced the third edition of the African Governance Report (AGR) on Unconstitutional Changes of Government (UCG). The AGR “presents an analysis of the influences, causes, drivers and triggers of UCGs in Africa”. Of particular importance, the AGR identified the deficit in the integrity of democratic elections as the first catalyst, cause and trigger of UCGs in Africa.

Elections in Africa can be considered in the broader context of democratisation and consolidation of democratic institutions. In some cases, elections in Africa are characterised by violence because of the structural and institutional settings in which they are conducted. This is influenced by the nature of the regime, patronage, election management and electoral system.

These factors, along with intense electoral competition, at times increase the occurrences of violence in elections. Democratic institutions can provide gateways for the use of violence and need to be altered through the consolidation of democratic political culture and value systems.

Democratic institutions can provide gateways for the use of violence and need to be altered through the consolidation of democratic political culture and value systems.

The integrity of elections has been gravely compromised by spates of violence and subsequent coups in recent times. Improving the quality of elections enables competition between candidates which prevents the use of violence to contend electoral outcomes. Moreover, it entails improving the capacity and policies governing the electoral participation of citizens that also needs to be safeguarded and protected from intimidation and violence.

Recent elections on the Continent highlight some of these issues. For example, in the lead up to the 2023 elections in Nigeria, violence was utilised by various armed groups as a tool against political opponents, influencing electoral processes and deterring rival candidates from contesting elections. A report found that political violence increases during the pre-election phase.

This negatively impacted party supporters, candidates, and the Independent National Electoral Commission’s staff. ACLED recorded over 200 violent incidents involving party members and supporters, which resulted in close to 100 reported fatalities, and 44 incidents of violence against INEC offices and staff 12 months prior to the 2023 elections. Therefore, great attention needs to be given to prevent and mitigate violence during elections in order to improve the quality and integrity of elections.

Even in cases where elections have not be marred by violence, their credibility is questionable, which is equally problematic. Elections need to not only be declared free and fair, but also be accepted as free and fair by the winners, losers, and electorate. Cases such as in Kenya, where electoral outcomes were disputed to the extent of approaching the courts, highlight the need for free and fair elections that are viewed as impartial even by opposition political parties.

Poor quality and integrity of electoral systems not only contributes to the risk of UCGs, but also an increase in civil uprisings. This is particularly the case in countries with decreasing voter turnouts, which creates a culture of viewing elections as an unfeasible avenue to influence improvements in governance and leadership. It further facilitates an environment where non-electoral means are increasingly explored, thus undermining peace and security on the Continent.

One of the key findings of the AGR noted that “instability may result if elections are not considered credible”. This is made evident by the recent coups in Niger and Gabon shortly after elections. In Niger, the opposition leader alleged that the 2021 elections were fraudulent, amidst growing dissatisfaction in the political system of the country.

Gabon had held its elections on August 26, 2023, and a coup took place shortly after President Ali Bongo’s re-election. One of the reasons cited for the coup were accusations of election fraud by the ousted President Bongo. All three of his electoral victories have been deeply disputed and have led to a lack of trust and confidence in electoral processes. It is evident that an important instrument to mitigating UCGs is improving the general quality of elections in Africa and their legitimacy.

The loss of confidence in the electoral systems, especially amongst African youth, poses the greatest danger to peace and security on the Continent.

This can be done in various ways. Firstly, the African Charter for Democracy, Elections and Governance needs to be domesticated by all African Union member states. This ensures that the standards of domestic elections meets those set regionally and internationally. Secondly, the domestic Electoral Management Bodies need to be sufficiently funded to ensure that they are adequately equipped. It must be noted that in South Africa, the Independent Electoral Commission has received budget cuts leading up to the 2024 general elections. This, in a time of electoral reform that has expanded the Commission’s work. This poses a potential threat to the Commission’s work which needs to be avoided.

The loss of confidence in the electoral systems, especially amongst African youth, poses the greatest danger to peace and security on the Continent. When the youngest demographic population in the world experiences decreased youth voter turnouts – it is a cause for concern. Hence, the third point is that young people need to be included in electoral reform processes, electoral observations, and participate in the work of domestic Election Management Bodies. Furthermore, young people need to be increasingly put forward as electoral candidates in order to restore confidence in electoral institutions. Despite its youth bulge, Africa’s electoral candidates and elected leaders do not adequately reflect this demographic.

Lastly, regional and continental Electoral Observation Missions need to be robust and more aggressive. The recent preliminary report by the Southern African Development Community’s Electoral Observation Mission presents a step in the right direction. The preliminary report stated that the Zimbabwean elections fell short of constitutional and legislative standards of the country and of the region.

Furthermore, the absence of most SADC Heads of State from President Mnangagwa’s inauguration is a welcomed, robust approach to condemning irregular electoral outcomes. The above-mentioned recommendations and steps will not only contribute to consolidating Africa’s democracy, but will also restore confidence to citizens in constitutional changes of government through elections.

Nkanyiso Simelane is a research intern at ACCORD

This article was first published on ACCORD