Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang Nguema has clearly not read Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas’s book How to Rig an Election, which ‘advises’ leaders not to overcook their victories at the polls.
Instead, the provisional results of the 20 November presidential, legislative and municipal elections show Obiang’s Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea coalition took well over 90% of the vote in the Central African oil-rich state. The Convergence for Social Democracy of Andrés Esono Ondo is trailing with just 152 votes. In a population of fewer than two million, about 400 000 registered voters placed their ballots.
Cheeseman and Klaas’s book, despite its tongue-in-cheek title, takes a serious look at fraudulent democracy worldwide – a problem that is widespread in Africa. The authors note that ‘while a comfortable win is desirable … it can demoralize political challengers while also persuading election monitors there is nothing worth investigating – a landslide victory often arouses suspicion.’
They quote Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko – Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest ally who has been in power since 1994 – speaking with astounding candour of his 2006 election victory. ‘I admitted that we rigged the election … I gave the order to change it from 93% to around 80% … because more than 90%, just psychologically, that is not well received.’
And Cheeseman told ISS Today this week: ‘As dictators and their advisers told us when we were researching our book … winning over 95% is “banana republic”-style manipulation. If you want it to be believable, you need to keep your vote share between 60% and 80%. Giving yourself 96% of the vote basically says you don’t care what people think – either domestically or internationally.’
Cheeseman also suggested that it might not have been a good idea, in these circumstances, for the African Union (AU) to have sent an election observer mission to Equatorial Guinea. ‘When regimes operate on that basis, international election observers are unlikely to be able to have a positive effect, so avoiding legitimating a bad process may be the best they can do.’
Obiang is Africa’s and the world’s longest-serving president. He has ruled the country with an iron fist for 43 years after toppling his uncle in a 1979 coup. And his landslide win does seem to show complete disregard for what anyone might think.
Rather paradoxically, he has been trying for the past several years, to present himself as a democrat who cares for his people. In reality, they remain mired in dire poverty despite the country having a GDP per capita of US$11 264 in 2022, putting it 70th in the world, ahead of the likes of Mexico, Turkey and South Africa.
Significantly, Obiang himself asked the AU to send the observer mission. In 2014 he volunteered Equatorial Guinea for peer review under the African Peer Review Mechanism – an AU body that assesses member states’ governance. Revealingly though, he’s never been scrutinised by the nations participating in the mechanism.
And, like the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Obiang has ingratiated himself with the AU by hosting several of its summits and reputedly paying for many delegations to attend, tapping the country’s vast oil wealth. He also stepped in to host the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations soccer tournament when Morocco withdrew because of Ebola. Clearly Obiang is trying to whitewash his poor governance record.
The results trickling from the electoral commission so far could conceivably be accurate because Obiang has eliminated or co-opted the opposition. In 2018, for example, the courts dissolved the main opposition party Citizens for Innovation, for ‘undermining state security,’ and sentenced 21 of its 147 supporters accused of ‘rebellion’ to more than 30 years in prison.
Obiang has a taste for implausible election victories. He won the 2016 contest with 93.7% of the vote, the 2009 poll with 95.8% and the 2002 one with 97.1%. Is another landslide win this time mostly aimed at proving a political point at home? Now 80, is he trying to eliminate any political rival to guarantee a dynastic succession to his son Teodorin, the current vice-president?
Given the country’s large oil reserves and tiny population, it’s astonishing that it has received two IMF loans recently, in 2019 and 2021. However, the loans have brought pressure for greater distribution of oil income.
But surely the AU should not allow itself to fall for Obiang’s ruse? It sent a large observer mission comprising over 50 members from 37 African countries. The AU said it had deployed the mission ‘as part of the AU Commission’s mandate and commitment to supporting credible, transparent and inclusive electoral processes in [AU] member states.’
In its preliminary report on the elections, the observer mission reached a rather bland, although positive conclusion that ‘the general elections were in accordance with international standards and the national legal framework governing those elections.’ However, the report briefly mentioned that the results ‘were not systematically displayed’ at each polling station as they should have been.
The Community of Portuguese Language Countries observer mission also noted the same problem. Posting election results at each polling station is widely accepted as a basic requirement for preventing rigging, as it makes it harder to doctor the results along the chain of evidence.
Was it wise for the AU to send observers to this election? Did it advance or retard democracy in Africa? On balance, one would have to suggest the latter. It’s positive that the AU is trying to take elections more seriously. But a bland report focused on voting day and lacking in contextual perspective gives Obiang a free pass and lends him democratic credibility the country doesn’t deserve.
Freedom House rates Equatorial Guinea in its lowest ‘not free’ ranking. The Ibrahim Index of African Governance gives it just 28.7 out of 100 for overall governance, placing it 51 out of 53 countries in Africa. On the democracy measure, it scored just 17 out of 100 for participation, rights and inclusion.
At a time when democracy is under threat from coups and third-term presidential bids, more rigour is needed from AU election observation – not just for the long-suffering Equatoguineans but for the continent at large.
Peter Fabricius, Consultant, ISS Pretoria
Image: © Samuel Obiang / AFP
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