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A busy election year ahead in 2019
21 January 2019

2019 will be a busy electoral year on the continent, with 11 presidential seats up for grabs. Some of those elections will be combined with legislative and/or local polls. Ideally, Africa should be moving towards less contentious and violent pre- and post-electoral situations. Yet electoral periods remain volatile and pose serious challenges to peace and stability on the continent.

What to look out for in 2019, and what can Africa do to address electoral violence and avert crises?

Nigeria and Senegal first to vote

Nigeria will open the continent’s electoral year with presidential elections on 16 February. Africa’s most populous nation will also hold elections for its House of Representatives and Senate in the same month, followed in March by state assembly and governors polls.

After a long history of coups d’état and dictatorships, elections have become the only way to secure Nigeria’s top job
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Since the election of Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999, after a long history of coups d’état and dictatorships, elections, however contested, have become the only way to secure Nigeria’s top job.  In 2019, 78 candidates will compete for the presidency. The main contenders are the incumbent, Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress, and Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party.

Security and the economy are the major issues surrounding the elections. Young people are also demanding a seat at the governing table with the passing of the ‘not too young to run’ bill, which has lowered age limits to run for political office.

On 24 February Senegal will hold presidential (as well as regional and local) elections. The campaign to collect signatures to be eligible to run for the presidency began in August 2018. This is in line with a controversial constitutional amendment passed in April. The amendment requires those who want to be on the ballot to collect 53 000 signatures from voters in at least seven regions, and a minimum of 2 000 ‘sponsors’ per region.

The opposition in Senegal has slammed incumbent Macky Sall for measures that it says have shrunk the political space
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The opposition has slammed incumbent Macky Sall for measures that it says have shrunk the political space and removed all obstacles to his landslide victory. Two of his key opponents, Khalifa Sall and Karim Wade, were convicted of corruption and have been barred from contesting the elections. Khalifa Sall, the now former mayor of Dakar, is held in detention. He insists that he will run and has launched a campaign from his cell.

South African elections in May

South Africa, by all measures a stable democracy on the continent, will hold general elections in May 2019. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) is expected to remain in power. However, it could see its majority in Parliament dwindle even further than in 2014 as a result of repeated corruption scandals and growing discontent with the ANC among sections of the population.

The ruling ANC is expected to remain in power but it could see its majority in Parliament dwindle
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The judiciary is increasingly being used to hold government accountable and as a tit-for-tat between individuals and political parties. While this is a sign of the vibrancy of South Africa’s democracy, it could also overburden the courts with issues that Parliament and the executive should address.

If the opposition Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters gain more seats in the legislature, it could open up an era of coalition governments and/or seriously hamper governance processes. 

Important polls in North Africa

The ruling Algerian Liberation National Front announced in late October 2018 that Abdelaziz Bouteflika (81), in power since 1999, would seek re-election in April 2019. Bouteflika amended the constitution in 2008 to remove presidential term limits. He had suffered a stroke in 2013 that left him with serious permanent after-effects. Algeria has, over the past several years, suffered an economic and social crisis.

Tunisians continue to take to the streets to demand better living conditions
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Meanwhile, following the 2011 Jasmine Revolution, Tunisians continue to take to the streets to demand better living conditions. The 2019 elections, in October (legislative) and November (presidential), could come with more social unrest.

Over the past few months, Mauritania’s Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz has denied rumours of a possible third term. Abdelaziz says he will not amend the constitution to run again in April 2019. The arrangements for his succession (or lack thereof) could, however, be contentious.

Tension in two lusophone polls

Guinea-Bissau has been prey to a political crisis for the better part of Jose Mario Vaz’s presidency, starting in 2014. The crisis has deepened over the last three years, leading to the signing of the Conakry Agreement in October 2016. This year’s legislative elections have already been postponed twice. The 2019 presidential polls, if they take place, will be marked by tensions.

In late 2019 Mozambique will also go to elections that are expected to be tense. The polls are likely to occur in a situation of ‘no peace nor war’ between the ruling Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) and the Mozambican National Resistance (Renamo). The country also faces what appears to be an Islamist insurgency in the northernmost province of Cabo Delgado.

Combined elections, including for the presidency, in Malawi (May), Botswana (October) and Namibia should come with minimal trouble.

Legislative elections to watch

In 2019 Cameroon, Guinea (Conakry), Benin and Chad will hold legislative elections.

The upcoming elections in Cameroon will follow contentious presidential polls in 2018
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At the request of the government, Cameroon’s Parliament, dominated by the ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM), extended its own term in office until late 2019. The upcoming elections will follow contentious presidential polls in 2018, and uncertainty looms with the so-called anglophone question and the threat by Boko Haram in the extreme north of the country. A CPDM win will simply entrench the status quo and Biya’s stay in power.

Although stable, Benin will hold legislative elections crucial for incumbent Patrice Talon. He has been criticised for having made it more difficult to run for presidential and legislative elections by amending the electoral law.

In Conakry the February 2018 municipal elections were marked by a low turnout and post-electoral violence that left at least nine dead. Legislative polls are expected to be held by February 2019, undoubtedly under high tension. There is uncertainty over President Alpha Conde’s intention to run for a third term in office, which is prohibited by the constitution. A parliamentary majority could help him to amend the law and run in 2020.

Legislative elections in Chad were due to take place in 2015. Postponed several times and scheduled for November 2018, the polls are now announced for May 2019. Chad has also been undergoing a socio-economic crisis and is experiencing what appears to be an insurgency in its extreme north region of Tibesti.

How to sanitise the electoral climate?

Often, election observer missions come too late in the process to ensure that elections are credible
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The major issue with elections on the continent is the absence of a level playing field for all contestants. Incumbents use subterfuge to tip the scales in their favour. This takes various forms: taking control of the state apparatus, amending the constitution, changing the electoral law, controlling the media, making arbitrary arrests and detaining opponents, as well as electoral fraud and repression.

Often, election observer missions come too late in the process to ensure that elections are credible and that everyone adheres to the rules of the game. Even long-term African Union (AU) election observer missions are often deployed after constitutions or electoral laws have been changed, opposition activities have been curbed and the credibility of the elections are already in jeopardy. The result of this is highly contested elections that create or exacerbate violence and instability.

Ultimately, ensuring peaceful polls is intrinsically linked to governance that creates the conditions for credible and appeased electoral periods. Until that is established, 2019 is expected to come with of its fair share of contested elections.