Elections in 2017: can the AU up its game?


The presidential elections that took place in Benin and Ghana in 2016 were thankfully peaceful and transparent. If it hadn’t been for the polls that led to a change of leadership in these two West African countries, last year would have been defined almost exclusively by its contested election outcomes.

Across the continent, from Gabon to Zambia and from Chad to Uganda, incumbent presidents clung to power amid widespread accusations of fraud, manipulation of electoral processes and blanket restrictions on social media.

The list of 2017 elections published by the African Union’s (AU) Department of Political Affairs is much shorter than that of 2016, with only two presidential elections (in Rwanda and Liberia) and two general elections (Kenya and Angola) that could see the appointment of a new president. To this list should be added the election of a new president in Somalia, postponed to this month, and presidential elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – now to be held in December 2017.

The AU sends observer missions to all these elections – there were 19 in total in 2016 – but is often accused of merely rubber-stamping the results, regardless of whether they are free or fair.

The AU is often accused of merely rubber-stamping election results

In an interview with the Institute for Security Studies’ PSC Report towards the end of last year, AU Commissioner for Political Affairs, Aisha Abdullahi, said that the AU has improved its system of observing elections by looking more comprehensively at a country’s political situation ahead of elections. It follows a ‘multi-pronged approach’ that includes sending pre-election assessment missions ahead of time – and not only a day or two before the polls, she says. In that way, it can assess whether the playing field was level before voting day, which it very often isn’t. 

On paper, this approach looks excellent. However, such long-term observation missions are very expensive and the AU often has to rely on donor funding to do this.

The many other factors that are also at play in the interaction between the AU and its member states mean that these missions are often of little consequence.

In Gabon, for example, AU observers made a comprehensive statement noting imbalances in media coverage of the various candidates; the lack of full participation by civil society; and a refusal by some electoral staff to allow observers to enter polling stations on voting day. This preceded the post-election crisis of August and September 2016, in which opposition leader Jean Ping challenged the victory of the incumbent Ali Bongo. The report, however, got very little attention.

On the other hand, the European Union (EU) observer mission – which said much of the same in the run-up to the polls – made sure they captured the media spotlight to promote their analysis and criticism of the process. The EU has a long history of independent election observation.

The AU’s Peace and Security Council subsequently also became involved in the post-election crisis in Gabon and requested the AU Commission to send ‘eminent members from high Francophone jurisdictions’ to Libreville to assist its Constitutional Court in arbitrating in the election dispute. This never happened, and Ping lost his battle to have the results overturned.

In the end, and this is likely to be the case again in 2017, any strong continental action about disputed results largely depends on the political will of the regional organisation dealing with the matter.

The AU has improved how it observes polls by looking more comprehensively at the political situation

Last year, three of the most contested elections (in Gabon, Chad and the Republic of Congo), took place in Central Africa, where the regional organisation, the Economic Community of Central African States, is hardly functioning.

On the other hand, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is far more dynamic. Regional heads of state interrupted their December break to travel to Banjul to try and convince President Yahya Jammeh to step down after his defeat in the Gambian elections of 1 December. They did so again last week, but to no avail. It seems the situation is heading for a showdown between Jammeh and his elected successor, who is supposed to be inaugurated on 19 January.

In 2017, the AU Commission is again likely to be held hostage by strong personalities and influential members when it comes to elections. In Rwanda, where presidential elections are being held on 3 August, President Paul Kagame is expected to be a shoo-in for re-election after a constitutional amendment in December 2015 made it possible for him to run for a third seven-year term.

Kagame is an influential leader, not only in his region, but also on the continent. It would be very surprising if Addis Ababa indicated so much as a minor questioning of Kagame’s expected victory.

Also in August, Angola is expected to hold general elections. President José Eduardo dos Santos has indicated that he isn’t planning to run again, but his party – the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola – is widely expected to win. Dos Santos will handpick his successor. Here also, the AU is not expected to play a major role – unless things go drastically wrong and the regional organisation, the Southern African Development Community, has to step in. At this stage, such a scenario seems unlikely.

Kenyans are also going to the polls in hotly contested elections in the same month. The run-up to the elections has been characterised by tough politicking, and observers fear that violence might break out before or after the polls.

In these elections, issues of the freeness and fairness of the polls are hugely important. The main wrangling, currently, is over who should sit on the electoral commission and how voting should be done. 

Here, the AU could play a meaningful role in long-term observation of elections and by providing technical support. After so many years of trial and error across the continent, countries are still struggling to find viable electoral systems – either manual or electronic – that satisfy all parties and which can ensure that polls are free and fair. The AU could assist in helping countries to learn from best practices in neighbouring states.

It is clear that the AU has improved its capacity to observe elections, but it could do much more

Jakkie Cilliers, Head of African Futures and Innovation at the Institute for Security Studies, notes that the most important drawback of AU election missions is that they are ‘generally politically managed, and their results essentially predetermined by officials who are elected by the same persons they have to oversee’.

He adds: ‘The AU needs to establish a credible election observation mission at arms length from the Commission, or enter into a partnership with civil society if it wants to gain credibility in this domain.’

In her PSC Report interview last year, Abdullahi said that her department has been tasked with reviewing all elections that have taken place in Africa between 2012 and 2016 ‘to critically look at lessons learnt from these observations’.

When it comes to elections, the AU can rely on a number of key documents that member states have adopted. Chief among these is the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, which provides clear guidelines to ensure that polls are free and fair.

In the past four years, AU Commission Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma made a number of statements on election crises, but was not as actively involved as was many of her predecessors. Her successor, who will be elected at the upcoming 28th AU summit, might choose to follow this line and focus on long-term development issues like Agenda 2063. This is a way to avoid clashes with strongmen on the continent.

If the man or woman who gets the job, however, decides to take a stronger stand in promoting free and fair elections, it could serve democracy and perhaps break the cycle of post-election violence that was so prevalent in 2016.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant

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