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We need to consolidate electoral gains in Africa

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Graphic: Timothy Alexander / African News Agency (ANA)

By Siyabonga Mkhwanazi

Africa over the last few years has been heralded for emerging from the past where “strongman” politics and dictatorships have dominated the political landscape.

Leaders from the continent said this week at the Association of World Election Bodies international conference in Cape Town it is not all doom and gloom in Africa when it comes to democratic order and regular elections.

But the military coups and counter-coups have recently blighted all efforts to put Africa on the map where there are regular elections.

Former President Thabo Mbeki told the conference to ensure the legitimacy of the electoral process in any country, the elections must be about the people and not anyone.

Picture: Supplied – Former South African President Thabo Mbeki during his keynote speech at the 5th general assembly.

The people must be able to choose the leaders they want to represent them.

“But whatever anybody says in this regard none can question that one of the things must be done to ensure that they must be given not only the right, but also the possibility to freely elect their representatives,” Mbeki told the conference.

There have been successful elections in Sierra Leone, Niger, Tunisia, Kenya. Madagascar, Malawi and other parts of the continent.

However, the continent would need to build up on that and ensure momentum is built and they exploit the gains that have been made in those elections.

It would be important to sustain good electoral stories in Africa to ensure there was stability in a number of countries.

Robert Gerenge of the African Union said they know that one of the challenges we face is to consolidate those gains.

Gerenge said the state of democracy in Africa was a mixed bag.

“It’s not all gloomy, it’s not all dark in the context of the democratic recession. With this apparent picture of democratic recession it is important in Africa where we conduct elections in a very difficult context, it is difficult to recognise we have had democratic transitions in the past 10 years,” said Gerenge.

He said despite the difficult conditions in Nigeria in 2015 they were able to have successful elections. There was the Boko Haram insurgency in the north of the country at the time.

He said there have been successful electoral stories in Africa despite the difficult conditions.

Lesotho just had successful polls where a new party swept into power. Angola had elections a few months ago.

Gerenge said Liberia, Niger, Tunisia, Zambia, Kenya, Sierra Leone and Madagascar also had elections.

“We know one of the challenges we face is to consolidate these gains that we have. That is why in the African Union in the last three decades we have engaged in norm setting,” said Gerenge.

However, they are concerned about the resurgence of coups and counter-coups.

In fact, research shows that since April 2021 we have had a military coup every quarter if you count the number of coups we have had. We had a coup in Burkina Faso. We had a double coup in Sudan and a counter-coup in Mali. This has raised concern what the AU is doing about these coups. In fact, it has a sanctions regime, which it is deploying” – Robert Gerenge

One of the measures include suspending countries, who had coups, from the AU. This is to put pressure on coup leaders to start the process of democratic reforms and peaceful transition to civilian rule where the people would vote for their preferred leaders to lead the said country.

Gerenge said in March they hosted a conference on unconstitutional changes of governments in Africa. One of the recommendations from that conference was to “review the framework of the AU’s sanctions regime and adopt a comprehensive regime” to deal with the governance challenges in Africa.

Dr Khabele Matlosa from the Centre for African Diplomacy and Leadership at the University of Johannesburg said the question of democratic recession or democratic erosion has been part of the political narrative for some time.

He said between 2002 and 2022 there have been 23 military coups in Africa.

This comes after the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s and the emergence of a unipolar world during that period. But in the late 1990s to the early 2000s the US hegemony ended with the emergence of China and Russia.

But the military coups have over the last two decades been haunting the continent of Africa, said Matlosa.

“We also have unconstitutional changes of government. In Africa between 2002 and 2022 we had 23 attempts at unconstitutional changes of government and 18 of those succeeded and five failed. We have to deal with military coups that are now a norm in our continent,” said Matlosa.

Professor Attahiru Jega of the Department of Political Science at Bayero University in Nigeria said in the 1990s there was a wave of democratisation in Africa, which saw many countries having periodic elections.

Prof. Attahiru Jega of the Department of Political Science at Bayero University in Nigeria

But there has been another aspect of democratic recession in Africa, which former US President Barack Obama referred to as “strongman politics.”

In Africa there are leaders who espouse democracy but in practice undermine it.

Jega also said they were concerned about the lack of funding for electoral bodies. Strongman politics undermine the rule of law and conducting free and fair elections.

Many of the electoral bodies indicated that they need more funds to be given to them to be able to run proper elections.

These funds would ensure that there was democratic participation in the process of choosing public representatives.

Investment in the electoral infrastructure must be looked at.

This was an important aspect as it would ensure proper elections.

Many African countries, said some of the delegates at the conference, face the challenge of lack of resources during election time and if more money was allocated they would be able to be more effective.

However, despite these challenges elections have been held, where the voter turnout was high, and free and fair elections were delivered.

But the authorities have the task to try and pump more funds into elections in their countries.

Gerenge said despite setbacks in some of the areas including coups the state of democracy in Africa was not all doom and gloom.

They need to strengthen existing instruments in order to deal with the unconstitutional changes of democratically elected governments in Africa.

That is why the recommendations of the AU conference in March on this issue would have to be implemented.

Gerenge said sometimes an injustice is done when the focus tends to be on the negative side of things in Africa and not deal with successful election stories like in Lesotho recently and other countries where polls are held under difficult conditions with lack of proper resources and funding.

But it is the commitment and desire of the AU for smooth democratic transition in every country.

Elections are instruments used to ensure political stability and making a choice by the voters who they want to be their government.

These choices cannot be imposed on the people by the coup leaders or any other form of unconstitutional changes, said Gerenge.

As Mbeki said earlier in the conference the principle that the people shall govern must be applied.

They were always occupied in their minds by this objective that the people shall govern during struggle days.

This must continue to be the objective of any society in Africa that the will of the people is respected and cannot be changed at any time by coup leaders.

Mkhwanazi is a current affairs content editor at Independent Media

This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.