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AU action to bolster elections should start at the top

Immediate past chairs of the African Union have not set a good example on elections and democracy.

Twenty-one African countries are expected to hold elections in 2024, according to the African Union’s (AU) calendar. Already, the first two scheduled polls in Comoros and Senegal – which each held the last two AU chairships – have been marred by irregularities.

Voter apathy characterised the presidential and island assemblies election in Comoros, where President Azali Assoumani’s victory – based on a paltry 16.3% voter turnout – was disputed by the opposition, who alleged ballot rigging.

In Senegal, President Macky Sall’s domination of the electoral process and postponement of the polls initially scheduled for February, were met with widespread protest in a traditionally stable state. Although the Constitutional Council has overturned the postponement and elections are now set for 24 March, Sall’s tampering with the process jeopardised the credibility of the polls and increased the likelihood of electoral violence.

Both instances suggest that AU member states don’t respect the principles and norms of the organisation they are members of, and in Comoros and Senegal’s cases, have recently led. As immediate past AU chairs, countries at the helm of the union should be setting a better electoral example.

Other than rotating among Africa’s regions, there are no selection criteria for choosing the AU chair. Even so, an unwritten rule is that the chair must comply with and foster the organisation's norms and principles. When AU chairs conduct poor elections in their own countries, does this misgovernance at the top trickle down?

Already, the first two polls of 2024 in Comoros and Senegal have been marred by irregularities

Africa’s electoral landscape is now characterised by voter apathy, mistrust in election management bodies and destructive power contestation among political elites. Elections in 2023 highlighted a reversal of the democratic gains made in countries such as Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Prime examples were the polls in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zimbabwe, which witnessed sustained voter suppression amid a persistent loss of confidence in the electoral process. Since 2011, African citizens’ support for the ballot box has dwindled by an average of eight percentage points across 29 African countries.

Although the delivery of free and fair elections is the responsibility of member states, the AU and regional economic communities can influence election quality at a supranational level. A tripartite relationship exists between the AU Commission, AU chair and member states, requiring all parties to respect and enforce instruments such as the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance. Have all three arms fallen short on electoral norm enforcement, and if so, how can this be fixed?

The choice of AU chair is likely to have a bearing on how member states and incumbents running for re-election perceive the AU’s role and influence on polls and good governance more broadly. So far, the electoral record of several African governments chairing the AU is questionable.

The history and pattern of governance in a country should be considered when selecting the AU chair

Apart from the recent Senegal and Comoros cases, Egypt – while serving as the 2019-20 AU chair – implemented electoral reforms against the spirit of AU norms and values. Egypt’s Constitution was amended to allow third terms, and the presidential term limit was extended from four to six years. The reforms allowed President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to stand for a third term in the December 2023 elections and extend his stay in power until 2030.

The 2024-25 AU Chair, Mauritania, will hold presidential and senate elections in June this year. The country has a history of military coups, and only experienced its first peaceful transfer of power in 2019. It now faces a litmus test to determine whether its path towards democratic consolidation can be maintained. Mauritania’s electoral process should be closely watched, as it could have implications both domestically and across Africa.

Although the AU prides itself on the principle of non-indifference, a chasm exists between AU norms and the practice of its member states – and the gap is widening when it comes to the conduct of elections.

Irregularities during Comoros’ elections – while its president chaired the AU – were a prime reflection of how many African countries and the AU Commission undertake, observe and report on polls. The commission congratulated Assoumani on his re-election, approving the results and the electoral process, and calling for dialogue to ease political divisions. This is despite the meager voter turnout and widespread local rejection of the outcome.

Countries must improve their reporting on progress in implementing AU instruments like the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance. Only Rwanda and Togo have so far submitted reports. This process is a key tool that allows the AU’s Department of Political Affairs, Peace and Security and member states to assess electoral and governance performance.

Amid criticisms of election rubberstamping, more sober assessments by AU election observers are needed

More sober assessments by AU election observer missions are also needed. The AU Commission’s elections report to the Peace and Security Council on 24 January highlighted challenges and painted a worrying outlook for 2024 polls. This comes amid mounting criticism from civil society and opposition parties that the AU rubberstamps elections.

The AU Commission’s report is a positive step, but more stringent enforcement mechanisms are needed to ensure compliance with its recommendations. One measure could be to use the implementation rate of previous observer missions’ recommendations to determine whether future missions are sent.

Selection of the AU chair should also be guided by the extent to which the nominated member state complies with the organisation’s instruments on governance, peace and security. The history and pattern of governance in a country should be considered when selecting the AU chair.

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