Aligned and enforced election norms and guidelines badly needed

Electoral crises and ensuing political instability have been the bane of most post-colonial African states. The African Union (AU) and regional blocs such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) have tried to craft norms and guidelines to entrench democratic values and stability on the continent. However, even with norms, the subregion has had its share of disputed elections that have caused instability and suffering among its population.

Over the next 18 months Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Lesotho and Zimbabwe are heading for elections. These countries have a history of disputed elections. With each successive election, they make minimal progress in the right direction. However, with each dispute, AU and SADC limitations in handling the electoral process and conflicts become more apparent.

At the core is the understanding that the regional bloc’s role is to encourage rather than force member states to reform electoral processes in line with regional and continental norms. As a result, the two bodies don’t have an iron-clad mechanism to set member states on the right path to consolidating democracy. Analysts believe that regional and continental bodies are complicit in the democratic deficit in many countries as they will not outrightly criticise the clear flaunting of established norms.  

Alignment of norms

In 2015, SADC revised its principles and guidelines governing democratic elections in alignment with the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance of 2007, which was adopted in 2012. While in theory the SADC guidelines attempt to localise the charter, the efforts do not go far enough. Substantive alignment and a clear link between AU and SADC guidelines are lacking.

There is no iron-clad mechanism to consolidate democracy

As it stands, member states can ‘cherry-pick’ which norms to adopt and which to defer. When member states are given this latitude to choose, the message is that the norms are not hard and fast. Secondly, it makes it impossible for the AU to intervene through technical support or criticism of a member state not party to the charter.   

Of the four countries heading for elections, only Lesotho signed, ratified and deposited the instruments of the charter. The other three have only signed, with Zimbabwe being the last to do so in 2018. However, all four countries are parties to the SADC protocol that gives effect to the guidelines.

Such a situation exposes the limits of continental endeavour to consolidate democracy. SADC and the AU cannot speak from the same premise when monitoring and supporting these countries in their electoral processes. The former can decide which electoral issues to bring to the AU, which cannot use its charter to intervene. It is an indictment on the AU and SADC that countries are not given definite timelines to ascend to key continental protocols.

In this situation, creating a joint mechanism of operations would require a shared position on the ratification of both regional and continental norms. Such a mechanism to monitor implementation and provide support is important for the continent to speak with one voice on the democratic trajectory. Given that some instability in member states arises from disputed elections, the AU must be actively involved with states to attain key continental goals such as stability and silencing guns.

Substantive alignment and a clear link between AU and SADC guidelines are lacking

This would also send a clear message that member states cannot play one body off against the other. When there is a crisis in Lesotho, for instance, it has an immediate effect on the region but also affects the AU’s ability to attain peace and developmental goals.

Lastly, as member states acquire multiple regional memberships, the AU’s role will be crucial in anchoring continental norms shared by all regional blocs. The DRC, which is now also a member of the East Africa Community, can hypothetically choose which regional bloc norms align to its wishes and are easy to fulfil. Thus, it would avoid regional accountability. A joint mechanism with regional bodies would enable the AU to step in despite which norms member states align with.

Analysts bemoan the AU and SADC ‘soft’ approach of encouragement rather than persuasion. No joint processes exist to audit member state electoral processes against established norms. Worse is that SADC has no mechanism to persuade member states to ratify the charter. Thus, coordination and a joint approach to elections remain theoretical. Zimbabwe, DRC and Angola, which have not ratified the charter, consistently fall short in one or other area of electoral norms.

Coordination and alignment of norms between the continental body and the regional bloc would enable uniformity and predictability of action. They would build confidence in the citizens that the bodies act as one and follow set norms rather than whims.

The subsidiarity principle between the AU and regional blocs cannot be applied blindly

What’s more, the bodies have not sufficiently established enforcement, implementation and monitoring mechanisms for the norms. Both the SADC guidelines and the AU charter are more normative than prescriptive. In other words, the guidelines speak to the desired state rather than a defined end goal with a strong sanctioning component.

While the guidelines were drawn up as a framework for electoral processes, they remain an unattainable utopia in the absence of clear implementation instruments and sanctions against defaulters. In electoral disputes in countries such as DRC and Zimbabwe, for example, the SADC regional bloc has failed to take decisive action to defend its own guidelines. The AU has remained in the distant background save for the DRC case in 2018.

In this case, it took a firm stand that elections did not conform to the country’s electoral laws and there had to be high-level intervention. Unfortunately, the position was not shared by SADC and the regional bloc prevailed.

Subsidiarity similarity

Subsidiarity between the AU and the regional blocs is akin to member state sovereignty. The principle ensures that institutions and structures close to the people are tasked with providing local solutions and support.

However, the principle cannot be applied blindly. It should be founded on the capacity of the regional bloc to respond and its willingness to act based on its track record. Countries in a regional bloc may falter on the same matter, in this case holding credible free and fair elections, which may jeopardise the founding values of the AU. Clear mechanisms are needed on how the AU can lend technical or advisory support and institute sanctions to mitigate the situation.

While the current situation leaves much to be desired, there is scope for implementation synergies to entrench democratic values in SADC regions. There are certain immediate entry points for building structured implementation and coordination. As a start, the AU should approach the regional bloc to draft timelines for member state ratification of its charter.

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