Election rigging claims spark turbulence in Comoros

2024-01-19

Africa’s 2024 election season – comprising 19 presidential and general polls – got off to an unpromising and alarming start this week. After Sunday’s re-election of President Azali Assoumani to an effective fifth term, violent protests against the result broke out in Moroni, the capital of Comoros.

The government responded by imposing a night-time curfew and deploying the army on the streets. The United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights appealed for calm and for the authorities to show restraint in dealing with the protests.

‘Comoros is experiencing an insurrectionary situation,’ the five losing presidential candidates said in a joint statement. This was ‘fuelled by a spontaneous reaction of indignation’ among young people against Assoumani’s perceived rigging of his victory. The candidates called for nationwide protests on 19 January after prayers.

The riots were sparked when the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) announced on Tuesday that Assoumani had won 62.97% of votes in the first round, avoiding a run-off. The most astonishing statistic was that only 16.3% of registered voters turned out to elect a president. So Assoumani will assume a mandate to govern with just 33 209 of his people formally backing him.

With a voter turnout of 16.3%, Assoumani has a mandate to govern from just 33 209 people

The excuses offered included tropical cyclones and general voter apathy. But these did not explain why the turnout in the simultaneous vote for the three island governors had, on average, been over 50%.

At the very least, that suggests a massive vote of no confidence in Assoumani and the integrity of the presidential poll. At worst, it’s hard to avoid suspicion of vote destruction, especially because CENI had already estimated a turnout of over 60% on Sunday night, a diplomat told ISS Today.   

‘How can they maintain that out of 4 voters who turned up at the polls, only one put his ballot paper in the box, when the presidential and governors ballots were harmonised?’ the five losing candidates asked in their statement. Ibrahim Mzimba, former foreign minister and now a strategy head for the opposition, denounced the ‘inconsistency and contradiction of the figures announced.’

Some opposition parties had called for a boycott of the polls. And many Comorians, even if they didn’t formally endorse a stayaway, had nonetheless told Radio France International they didn’t believe in an electoral process that was a foregone conclusion.

The African Union’s (AU) election observation mission issued a typically non-committal interim report, saying the polls had been ‘peaceful and without major incidents.’ The International Organisation of the Francophonie noted in its interim report that voting had largely been ‘free, reliable and transparent.’ Both missions nevertheless suggested how the government, CENI and the parties could improve future elections and heal social and political divisions.

The five losing candidates ‘rejected in toto’ the AU assessment, saying ‘it denotes culpable complicity’ in the rigging.

Unlike the presidential poll, the turnout in the three island governors’ vote was on average over 50%

The opposition indicated its intention to refer the matter to the courts to ‘put an end to this masquerade which violates the sovereign choice of the Comorian people.’ But few cherished any hope that the Supreme Court would help, as it’s widely considered a servant of Assoumani’s interests.

Assoumani’s democratic credentials are doubtless being judged against a questionable political career. As army chief of state, he seized power in a military coup in 1999 before standing down under international and regional pressure in 2002 to run in controversial elections, which he won.

He stood down again in 2006 before returning to office after winning elections in 2016. He prolonged his tenure by holding a controversial referendum in 2018 to extend the presidency’s lifespan to two five-year terms. The poll also scrapped the effective system of rotating each presidential term among the nation’s three islands. This rotation had ended the separatist crises that had begun in 1999. 

Assoumani’s amendments ‘reset the clock’, allowing him to be re-elected in 2019 for another five years. After Sunday’s victory, he’s set to remain in office until 2029. That would total 20 years in office, spread over five terms.

‘Assoumani’s latest term has been marked by crackdowns on dissent and curtailments of press freedoms. Journalists work in an atmosphere of intimidation and fear of arrest, resulting in widespread self-censorship. Demonstrations are regularly banned. Opposition party members are threatened and detained by the police and army,’ says the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

The AU’s election observation mission issued a typically non-committal interim report

Liesl Louw-Vaudran, the International Crisis Group’s Senior Adviser on the AU, told ISS Today that if the AU wanted to prevent coups, it should do more to promote fair polls and sharpen its election monitoring.

She felt the AU election observation report should have covered important elements such as the huge discrepancy between the number of voters who participated in the presidential elections and those of governors, ‘which seems very problematic.’

The report should also have made more of other vital aspects it mentioned, Louw-Vaudran said. For example the dispute between the government and the opposition about granting the diaspora the right to vote, ‘which in this case would have made a big difference.’ And the clash around the dismissal of the Supreme Court head before the polls. ‘The court has the final say about the fairness of the elections.’

Louw-Vaudran also noted that, ‘Assoumani chaired the AU in 2023 when the organisation called on countries to respect democratic rule following the coups in Niger and Gabon. And yet he has now been elected for a third consecutive term, after already serving for several years. Even if the constitution permits him to run for a third term, as a good democrat, he should step aside and give others a chance to be presidential candidates.’

Such manipulations of the electoral and political process, and centralisation of power in a heterogenous country with three distinct island cultures, seem perilous. Comoros has already experienced 21 coup attempts since independence from France in 1975. And Africa is seeing an upsurge in coups, some precipitated precisely by leaders clinging to power by cynical ruses such as extensions of presidential term limits.

Peter Fabricius, Consultant, ISS Pretoria

Image: © AFP Photo

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