Periodic elections in Africa have become a norm in many countries on the continent marking a major development from when dictatorial regimes were spread over the continent. As these countries continue with their experiences in democracy, focus is now on to the quality of the elections. The fear for many is that the election process and their results are merely an exercise that tries to add legitimacy to the incumbents in power, mostly authoritarian regimes. Credible elections meeting the free and fair threshold are far in between. There are widespread cases of election malpractices ranging from vote rigging, voter buying, intimidation and even arrest of political opponents, electrical registers manipulation etc.
At least 25 African countries are conducting elections within the 2016/2017 season. While there are successes already recorded from elections in Ghana which were hailed as credible with a high quality of free and fairness, there was a more familiar tale in the Ugandan and Zambian election to name but a few. Ugandan elections saw the complete shutdown of social media while the leading opposition candidate was detained severally in days leading to the elections.
Such actions continue to undermine the democratic gains made in the continent. Each election in Africa is unique on so many levels. However, these are the six major common challenges limiting the credibility of election in Africa.
Weak Election Institutions
National electoral commissions in Africa are the bodies charged with preparing, conducting and officiating elections. According to non-partisan research group Afrobarometer, only half of Africans trust their electoral commissions to deliver credible elections. From the point of the composition of the commissions’ boards to their vote counting, there is widespread interference by the political elite especially from the incumbent governments. This lack of independence allows for all kinds of vote rigging at all levels. Aside from independence, the commissions need to have the capacity in terms of resources and authority to best facilitate the elections especially in rural areas as well as hold accountable the various contestants and their supporters.
Poverty and Political Illiteracy
The major underlying challenge in many of the problems facing the continent is poverty. An impoverished electorate is easily bought and hardly focuses on issue based policy but rather as the election nears, it is about who gives the biggest handout. Much worse though is that the marginalized areas hardly get the support needed to ensure they have the registration in place and can participate in an important civic duty. Youths from such places are easy recruits for gangs and militia to cause havoc to opponents and violent protests.
The level of literacy is also low meaning the ability fairly grasp what is at stake holding each contestant accountable is not there. For such citizens their rights are turned to favors by politicians who enjoy manipulating them. Efforts for civic education and community organization are almost futile in such conditions.
Incumbent Abuse of Power
While the incumbent office holder tends to have a slight advantage in most cases world over, in Africa this is easily turned into abuse of office. Presidents and governors and their friends tend to use public funds for campaigns and in the case of presidents whole civil service, the police and other government machinery for campaigns and political opposition manipulation or harassment.
A good example is the debate that has raged in several countries over term limits as the likes of Museveni and Kagame have had the constitution changed to accommodate extra term limits prolonging their stay in power. Such machinations result in what Koffi Annan terms as ‘rule by law and not rule of law’.
Weak Party Structures and Ideologies
Where the political climate allows, you will have countries in Africa with even hundreds of registered political parties. Many of these are just vehicles to seek influence and are dominated by a couple of individuals who patronize them. As such party switching is common as the politicians themselves get bribed to switch allegiances. The parties hardly have distinguishing ideologies or governance alternatives leaving individuals to vote based on promises and personalities and nothing about issues affecting them and the best solutions.
An Independent Judiciary
While elections were hailed as the solution to the endless civil wars that had gripped the continent in decades past, in the present times they have mostly been the cause of violence. Tightly contested elections that turn out to be shams and disputed pit opposing supporter against each other and the situation quickly turns to anarchy. The 2007/08 clashes in Kenya as well the 2010/11 Ivory Coast crisis are fresh examples.
Violence is largely due to a lack of credible and trusted judiciary system that can quickly resolve election disputes. Many judiciary systems in the continent are not independent nor and a backlog of cases means by the time an election dispute is resolved it is long into a political term. This leaves violent protests as an unfortunate alternative.
As with many problems facing the continent a majority of the solutions depend on the political will availed. In the words of Former UN Secretary Kofi Annan “General Greater efforts are needed to build the institutions, processes and behaviors that are vital for genuine multi-party competition and the attribution of political power. Such elections bestow legitimacy on the winner, provide security for the losers, and end the “winner-takes-all” politics that discourages democratic practice.”