African Elections: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

Tuesday, 12 March 2019
Nick Westcott

It has been election season in Africa over the last few months.  To be honest, it is always election season somewhere on the continent.  But since late last year we have had three particularly important elections: in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), in Nigeria and in Senegal.  Each has been important, but in very different ways.

First and foremost, all were overwhelmingly peaceful.  Tragically, there were some deaths in both DRC and Nigeria.  But none of the elections saw the kind of systematic repression or uncontrolled violence that have marred a number of African elections in recent years. 

That does not mean to say they were clean.  To consider the relative democratic health of the continent it is worth looking at each in more detail. I argue that Senegal and Nigeria show a trend towards more stable government, and even the DRC, for all the flaws of its election, is moving slowly in an encouraging direction.

In Senegal, the re-election of Macky Sall to a second Presidential term (this time of five, not seven years) was considered by many commentators a foregone conclusion after his two most prominent opponents - Karim Wade, son of former President Abdoulaye Wade, and Khalifa Sall, former Mayor of Dakar - were ruled out by the courts on corruption charges (not necessarily unjustified).  And so it proved.  Macky Sall won handsomely in the first round by 58%, ahead of former Prime Minister Idrissa Seck with 21% and anti-corruption campaigner Ousmane Sonko with 16%.  To rub in the defeat, Abdoulaye Wade’s appeal before the vote for a boycott was met with an even higher turnout than in 2012, over 66% compared to 51% at the last elections.  While opposition candidates continued to argue that the cards were unfairly stacked against them, they declined to mount a legal challenge not least because the counting of the votes by the Commission nationale de recensement des votes (CNRV) was seen as relatively efficient and neutral. 

This outcome reinforces Senegal’s reputation as one of the most consistently democratic and politically peaceful countries in Africa.  President Sall now has a robust mandate to continue with his ‘Senegal Emergent’ economic plan and attract foreign investment that is looking for stable countries with open economies and rational economic policies where it can earn a decent return.  The major investments under way from BP and Kosmos in the Tortue gas field and Total and Petronas in the Rufisque deepwater oilfield should yield major income streams to the government before the end of the next Presidential term.  But all the more important that Sall does not let his administration slide further into the open arms of corruption that could so easily vitiate much of the development effort, and his government’s credibility.

The election in Nigeria was something of an anti-climax.  By contrast with Senegal, turnout was down from 44% in 2015 to 36% this year, not helped by the Electoral Commission’s last minute postponement of the election by a week ostensibly to enable materials to be distributed to all polling stations.  Even so, some never opened.  In a country where many have to travel from towns to their villages of origin in order to vote, this could have a not insignificant impact.  Nevertheless, incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari (APC) won by a healthy 56% against 41% for the PDP’s Atiku Abubakar, the APC winning a majority in 19 of the 36 states against 17 for the PDP.  This matched the parallel tabulation done by civil society groups, and though he did not accept the result, Atiku decided not to challenge it before the court.  In particular, Buhari’s vote held up in the critical south-western states, where his Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo, and the region’s political godfather Bola Tinubu delivered the votes. Other than that, the electoral map shows very clearly the divide between an APC-dominated north and a PDP-led south.

The turnout makes it a less than overwhelming endorsement of Buhari’s performance in his first term, which moved slowly to tackle the scourges of insecurity, corruption and slow economic growth.  And within the overall electoral maps there were many local electoral surprises, as local rivalries played into the national picture. But what the result shows above all is that Buhari remained better able to mobilise a sufficient national coalition than his opponent, not least through the patronage that incumbency delivers.  Sufficient Nigerians were not so disillusioned that they demanded a change at the top.  While not entirely a good election, it cannot justifiably be called bad.

What is emerging is a relatively robust tradition of Nigerian democracy - rough, resource-oriented but based around the building of national coalitions in a decentralised political system that looks - at this time - able to hold the country together and to sustain enough legitimacy to continue.  Whether this also delivers a government capable of tackling the huge challenges the country still faces remains to be seen.  Without an improved performance in his second administration, it is likely voters will be more critical in four years time.  But with both contenders this time in the seventies - Buhari 76, Atiku 71 - it may at last be time for a generational change.

These two elections were not stolen.  That in the DRC undoubtedly was, in an ugly and particularly blatant fashion.  There has been ample commentary on the result, but what is interesting is the international response.

It is quite clear, both from the monitoring undertaken by the Catholic church and by the electronic results obtained by the Financial Times, that the election was decisively won by Martin Fayulu, the candidate backed by both Jean-Pierre Bemba and Moise Katumbi, with around 60% of the vote, well ahead of Felix Tshisekedi with 19%.  The Electoral Commission (CENI), however, ascribed Fayulu only 34.7% and Tshisekedi 38.5% to win. The only thing the CENI and others agree on is that Emmanuel Shadary, President Kabila’s preferred candidate, came third, though probably with well short of the 23% announced by the CENI.

Initially, the AU (chaired at the time by Rwanda’s President Kagame) and the international community expressed deep scepticism of the results.  But the DRC’s Constitutional Court endorsed the CENI’s verdict and, after a lively discussion within SADC it became clear that its dominant voice, Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, was not going to challenge the result - possibly because South Africa’s own election was approaching and he had enough troubles on his plate without a regional crisis.  The rest of the international community then fell in line.

Why in the face of such blatant fraud did it do so?  And why did those millions of Congolese who voted for Fayulu also let it pass without greater protest?  The reported turnout was 48%, meaning nearly half Congo’s voters bothered to vote and presumably cared about the result.

I think there are three reasons. 

Firstly, those countries usually most rigorous in challenging such results, in the EU for example, consoled themselves with the thought that at least it was a change of leadership to an opposition politician and that Kabila had finally stepped down (for now…).  Half a loaf was better than none.  But they were also conscious that if they rejected Tshisekedi, the first people through the door to support him would be China and Russia, with no scruples in taking as much influence and profit from the DRC as possible.  Western influence would decline.

Secondly, for the neighbours the outcome effectively meant a continuation of the status quo, which while not ideal was bearable, even for Rwanda.  A weak and divided DRC enables them to continue to preserve their interests, such as the export of valuable minerals, in the way they have been doing for years, while also enabling them to contain the risks of serious disorder that might spillover and affect themselves.

Thirdly, it illustrates that for most Congolese people, it remains pretty irrelevant who forms the government.  They have so few expectations that the government will provide any services or help with their lives, that they just get on without it.

The conclusion is that, though the DRC has elections, it is not yet a democracy.  In some senses it is scarcely yet a country, more a confederation of bits and pieces under the umbrella of a name and a football team, where most people get by as best they can and a few make a lot of money.  There is no effective means by which leadership of the country can pass from one group or coalition to another to reflect the preference of the people, and elections do not yet provide any kind of adequate accountability.  There is a risk that seeing their preference so blatantly ignored by the politicians, people will become disillusioned with any kind of elections.  But it is still important the elections take place.  Gradually it will become harder to ignore the verdict.  The very fact of elections begins to raise consciousness as much as breeding cynicism.  Eventually the people will become more demanding.  It is just not yet.

But all three elections reveal deeper, more fundamental trends that are increasingly important for democracy in Africa.  These trends are that the electorate is getting younger and the young are getting impatient; and that the electorate is getting more urbanised.  And in towns, impatient young people are increasingly inclined to make their views known directly, and demand change sooner rather than later.

Senegal and Nigeria are well down the track of adjusting their political system to an increasingly urbanised and articulate electorate.  These trends are also impacting other African countries like Kenya, Ghana, Zambia and Ethiopia.  The question is how fast it will impact on others, such as Tanzania.  The DRC remains far more rural than most, despite the ever-growing urban sprawl of Kinshasa, and that fact - with the woeful infrastructure that makes travel in the country a nightmare - means its evolution towards more transparent and representative democracy will be slower. 

Not that there is anything linear in this evolution.  Developments in Europe show that democracies do not always act rationally or in their own best interests, being prey to sophisticated manipulations by political actors inside and outside the country as well as the irrational impulses of the electorate.  But recent African election results are reason enough to maintain hope that Africa is moving in the direction of stability rather than instability - in its own African way, which is the only way it can.

Nick Westcott is the director of RAS.