Elections in Africa: Tanzania, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, and beyond
Posted on 3rd November, 2020 in Director's Blog
Power is addictive. Almost no-one gives it up voluntarily. So societies evolve ways to transfer power from one person or one generation to another when a change is necessary. The question is whether these systems prove effective.
All eyes today are fixed on the United States, where a reality TV show melodrama has become a terrifying real life confrontation. But in Africa, a raft of elections this year and next are also putting African political systems to the test.
These systems vary from de facto hereditary rule to democratic systems of varying degrees elsewhere. Some countries have applied term limits, which have proven effective elsewhere – at least up to now – in both electoral systems like the US and autocratic ones like China. Increasingly in recent decades, elections allowed people in Africa to choose their leaders – even if, from time to time, men with guns continued to intervene in the process through coups or insurgencies, and even if leaders themselves often sought every possible way to swing the elections their way. These efforts rarely ended well.
Each country must find its own way towards a solution that suits the people who live there – there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Though the ‘directed development’ model inspired by China has recently gained ground, there remains an assumption that liberal, elective democracy represents a gold standard of political systems. This is not only the case amongst Western observers but, as recent research by Afrobarometer presented to USIP has shown, amongst a majority of Africans themselves.
The independence constitutions bestowed on most African countries by their departing colonial rulers, at the insistence of nationalist politicians, generally enshrined democratic institutions: bicameral legislatures, separation of powers, independent judiciary, regular elections…the full package. But these were still imported solutions, not indigenously evolved, and in many cases it did not last long. But the alternatives, with varying degrees of accountability, have also struggled to create stable and prosperous societies able to keep the peace and grow the economy.
Many in Africa are therefore becoming impatient with the imperfect systems they are living under. Recent elections in Africa illustrate the problem.
Tanzania has, up to now, done better than many. Apart from one brief unsuccessful attempt in 1964, there have been no coups. Under its founding father, Julius Nyerere, it passed through a phase of socialist-inspired one-party rule. But the nationalist movement, TANU, renamed the Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM – Party of the Revolution) in 1977, proved remarkably resilient in maintaining a political consensus and allowing renewal through vigorous internal democracy that saw many MPs ejected by their constituency parties for failing to deliver.
But like all parties that regard their position in power as pre-ordained and permanent, they have become corrupted, not just in financial terms – President John Magufuli was selected specifically to try to root that out – but in terms of entitlement and their conviction of a right to rule. This has led to the suppression not only of criticism from outside the party, but of internal democracy as well. Increasing numbers of Tanzanians say they feel voiceless and ignored. The CCM has lost touch with many of its citizens, but cannot conceive of losing power.
The election results declared last week, with 84% voting for Magufuli and 13% for Chadema’s Tundu Lissu, are simply non-credible when compared to the 58%-40% victory of Magufuli over Edward Lowassa in 2015 and the known extent of popular dissatisfaction with the government. Certainly many people voted for CCM, but it is clear from contacts up and down the country that many voted against them – or would have if they’d had the chance. If the CCM was genuinely so popular, why go to such lengths to exclude and harass opposition candidates, manipulate the media, interrupt the internet and block internal and external observers?
The opposition, both ACT-Wazalendo and Chadema, have rejected the results and demanded a re-run. If the issue is taken to the Court of Appeal, however, unlike Malawi’s more independent Constitutional Court there is little chance it will decide against the ruling party. Outsiders may commend (e.g. President Ramaphosa of South Africa) or condemn (e.g. the EU) the result, but as the veteran Kenyan campaigner John Githongo has concluded, Africans must conclude “We are on our own”.
In Côte d’Ivoire, the path taken by President Ouattara also looks more likely to damage his legacy than preserve it. In failing to find, prepare or allow a younger successor and deciding to run again, he risks the conflicts of the past being revived, undoing his achievements of restoring peace and growth to the country after a ten-year civil war. As Burkina Faso’s President Compaoré found in 2014, staying does not bring stability but upheaval. Ouattara should learn from his friend’s mistake, not repeat it. Nyerere and Mandela both showed how stability is better achieved by leaving than by staying.
The opposition have also taken a path of conflict, trying to delegitimise the election by boycotting rather than contesting it. Elsewhere in Africa boycotts have led nowhere, suggesting Bedié and Affi N’Guesson fear that they would lose anyway and Ouattara secure a more legitimate mandate. The problem with this path is that everyone loses: a compromised outcome will bring only instability and impoverishment, not progress. Ouattara’s 94% vote on a 53% turnout will not bring legitimacy or stability. As one young Ivorian entrepreneur has said, “We are bound by fear”.
The elections in Guinea have already shown the risks. The one-time opposition leader and champion of democracy, Alpha Condé, forced through an amendment to enable him to run for a third term, despite all efforts to dissuade him. Here too the opposition candidate, Cellou Dalein Diallo, accuses the ruling party of manipulating the results and claims victory. Opposition supporters have taken to the streets to press their case, but Condé has shown the way to his fellow incumbent presidents by effectively subjecting Diallo to house arrest and repressing protest.
All these incumbents should remember that the Egyptian elections of November 2010 gave President Mubarak’s supporters 95% of the seats in Parliament. Yet four months later he was forced out of power by popular protest as the people would no longer tolerate being ignored. None of these three elections provides a convincing or legitimate mandate and, as in Egypt, if people feel ignored and unable change their rulers at the ballot box, they will find other ways to do it. Instability beckons, especially in Zanzibar, investors will stay away, and ultimately it is the people in all three countries who will suffer until they are genuinely free to choose.
There is an alternative. In both Kenya and Malawi, independent judiciaries have endorsed challenges to fraudulent election results, and in the latter re-run, a more transparent election demonstrated clearly that the opposition won. As a result, Malawi has a stable, popular government with a legitimate mandate and is able to address the nation’s problems, not devote its time and resources to repressing opposition.
Time rolls in waves. There is now a real fear that incumbents in forthcoming African elections will feel emboldened to retain power however they can, and that losers will therefore reject results whatever they are. Those with elections still to come this year may determine which way the tide in Africa is flowing: Burkina Faso goes to the polls on 22 November, Ghana on 7 December, Niger and Central African Republic on 27 December. Next year, presidential elections are due in Uganda and Benin in February, and in The Gambia, Chad and Zambia later in the year.
Though in Africa term limits seem to be honoured more often in the breach than the observance, in Niger at least, President Issoufou is respecting the end of his second mandate and stepping down, giving a chance for renewal if his successors step up to the challenge. But it is disappointing that since the DRC election in 2018, the AU and regional organisations have proven unable to enforce any standards for elections – even ECOWAS which had hitherto been the stoutest defender of democracy in the region.
As I have argued before, in Africa the people’s voice is growing louder. If leaders will not listen to it in electoral processes, and will not give their people a free choice, then an ‘African Spring’ may be closer than we think.
Nicholas Westcott is the director of the Royal African Society.