Elections are scheduled to take place in several African countries this year. Credible elections and enhanced governance play a pivotal role in conflict reduction, fostering a positive impact on the economies of nations. When governments are accountable and transparent, they create an environment that is conducive to investment and business growth.
Elections will be held in Ghana, South Africa, Algeria, Mali, Senegal, Mauritania, Guinea-Bissau, Tunisia, Chad, Burkina Faso, South Sudan, Rwanda, Namibia, Comoros, Botswana, Mozambique and Mauritius this year.
— Africa Facts Zone (@AfricaFactsZone) January 1, 2024
However, there is a notable lack of optimism among many Africans regarding the upcoming elections, following the outcomes of last year's elections, including in Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe. Some users on X (formerly Twitter) expressed concerns that elections may be rigged and marked by violence. Conversely, others remain hopeful that, this time, African countries will successfully navigate the electoral process.
In 2023, elections were conducted in seven African countries, and in all seven, concerns were raised about the continent's democratic landscape.
Nigeria's election in February, which resulted in Bola Tinubu becoming president, faced numerous issues, such as vote buying, voter intimidation, attacks on polling units, and delays by electoral officials. Furthermore, the Independent National Electoral Commission failed to upload polling unit results to the INEC result viewing portal as promised on election day.
In Gabon, Ali Bongo Ondimba's victory in the August elections was followed by a coup d'état, leading to the annulment of the election results.
Sierra Leone witnessed the re-election last June of Julius Maada Bio as president, but the main opposition party contested the results, citing “glaring irregularities.” International observers were concerned about statistical inconsistencies in the presidential election results, and called for transparency.
Zimbabwe's election in August saw accusations of vote rigging, ballot delays, and arrests of poll monitors. The aftermath led to human rights defenders and opposition supporters facing challenges.
Madagascar experienced protests requesting a postponement of elections, but President Andrey Rajoelina proceeded to hold them amid a curfew, opposition boycotts, and low voter turnout. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the President, allowing him to contest despite opposition parties arguing for his disqualification due to his French citizenship.
Liberia's election offered a glimmer of hope, with George Weah narrowly leading in the first round but losing to Joseph Boakai in the runoff. Weah peacefully conceded defeat, and international observers, including the European Union (EU), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the United States, praised the process. However, an attempted coup occurred in November 2023, resulting in charges against Sierra Leone's ex-president, Ernest Bai Koroma, his security detail, Amadu Koita, and 11 others for treason.
In DR Congo, incumbent President Félix Tshisekedi was re-elected at the end of December 2023 for a second term, but the opposition denounced the election results.
With more elections on the horizon this year, the question remains whether the situation will improve. To guarantee the freedom, fairness, and peace of the upcoming elections in African countries this year, valuable lessons can be drawn from past elections held on the continent.
The 2023 elections underscored the importance of independent courts and electoral management bodies in ensuring transparent power transitions. As accurately highlighted by Democracy in Africa, the credibility and success of elections can be attributed in part to a country's Supreme Court's resilience against intimidation from the executive branch. African judiciaries should emulate the example set by Kenya in 2013, where the judiciary resisted threats from political supporters.
A report by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD), emphasized the Electoral Commission’s (EC) crucial contribution to democratization in Ghana. The EC's independence is established both de jure and de facto, with the constitution providing protection against external control and the chairman and deputy chairmen having security of tenure. The report highlighted that the EC's high degree of independence plays a significant role in its success in implementing election recommendations from international observers. It also said that while the EC faces challenges in financial independence, often relying on international donors because of shortfalls and delays in government funding, its historical track record reveals deliberate efforts to insulate itself from political influence and resist interference by the executive.
The International Peace Institute highlights the effectiveness of a robust international presence in preventing violence during DR Congo's 2006 election. Observer missions, according to Democracy in Africa, must go beyond providing data and press statements. They should actively support local civil society groups in opposing governments that violate citizens’ voting rights. Regional organizations like the Southern African Development Community (SADC) or the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the continent-wide African Union (AU), and international missions such as the European Union (EU), National Democratic Institute (NDI), and International Republican Institute (IRI) in the US should move beyond mere condemnation of election malpractice. Although observer missions cannot intervene in domestic affairs, they can share collected data with civil society groups, opposition parties, and ruling parties, empowering them to take necessary actions. In contrast, foreign governments have the ability to exert various forms of pressure on undemocratic governments, similar to their actions against military dictators.
Additionally, the report emphasized the need for the donor community to substantially invest in African civil society organizations and electronic election technologies. These groups play a pivotal role in defending democracy, risking their safety to challenge undemocratic governments despite threats from security forces. Strong civil society mobilization and international donor support, according to the World Foundation for Democracy (WFD), contributed to electoral reform implementation in Ghana. A productive relationship between civil society and the EC ensured local ownership and pressure for reforms.
Across the continent, legal reform implementation is crucial for substantial changes to the political status quo, particularly in political finance regulation and efforts to enhance women's representation in politics.
The successful navigation of upcoming elections in African countries requires independent courts and electoral management bodies, legal reforms, a collective commitment to transparency, resilience against external pressures, and substantial support for civil society and electronic election technologies. Learning from past experiences and implementing these lessons is crucial for fostering democracy and ensuring positive electoral outcomes across the continent.