Can the trend of peaceful African elections be sustained?

At the 1 132nd meeting of the African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council (PSC), held on 20 January 2023, the continent’s elections were discussed. The meeting focused on the AU Commission Chairperson’s report on elections in the second half of 2022. In the ensuing communiqué, the council welcomed the 'growing and encouraging trend of peaceful electoral processes' in member states. It commended the recent peaceful transfers of power in Kenya and Lesotho, and acknowledged the role played by the AU Commission.

More importantly, the report gave an outlook of elections in 2023. As the AU prepares to support the 15 member states holding elections between February and December, what role can the AU play to ensure the peaceful elections trend of 2022?

Challenging contexts

African countries holding elections in 2023 will face the incessant challenges of previous years. The aftershocks of the COVID-19 pandemic, the global economic slowdown, the Russia-Ukraine conflict, rising insecurity and food shortages will have a direct impact on the process. Domestically, citizens’ demands for better governance, secure livelihoods and improved security are central issues animating political contestations in the lead-up to elections. The interplay of global and domestic issues will compound the complexity of electoral contexts in 2023.

The interplay of global and domestic issues will compound the complexity of elections in 2023

In an era of increased citizen awareness and readiness to protest for change, there are likely to be more demonstrations and greater pressure on security agencies to be circumspect in their response. There is ample evidence that the social, economic, security and political context of an election affects voter behaviour and outcomes.

Inability to manage the pressure is likely to increase the susceptibility of electoral processes to violence and contested outcomes. These challenges will manifest differently in the 15 countries. However, the more layered the complexities in a country the higher its vulnerability. Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe are countries to watch.

All eyes on Nigeria

Arguably, among the most anticipated elections is the one in Nigeria on 25 February. The country’s deteriorating security is evident. There, ethnic and religious divisions, economic challenges, rise in secessionist agenda, increased banditry and kidnappings, and splintering and proliferation of violent extremist groups threatened to negatively affect the electoral process. Voter turnout may be compromised in less-secure areas, with implications on citizen participation.

The polls take place as major recommendations from the 2019 elections are yet to be implemented. For instance, the AU’s Election Observer Mission suggested that the government consider reforming its election campaign financing to reduce the cost of candidate nominations, particularly for women. To date, party financing legislation has not changed, allowing the tide of political entrepreneurs to continue flowing. The gender recommendation also remains unmet as only one of this year’s 18 presidential candidates is female.

A restive Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone will head to the polls on 24 June amid a restive political period. Protests in Freetown last year challenged soaring inflation and the rising cost of living. The government and the opposition traded blame over the country’s lagging economy. Mounting political tensions, rising inflation and subsequent civil strikes could increase the likelihood of pre- and post-election violence if the situation is not properly managed.

Given the uniqueness of member state challenges, the AU needs to consider tailormade interventions

Here again, the AU’s observer mission in 2018 made widespread recommendations to various stakeholders to enhance and strengthen electoral processes. Previous elections were characterised by intimidation of female candidates, hate speech, and violent inter- and intraparty clashes.

The AU mission made recommendations to the government, the National Electoral Commission, security agencies, political parties and candidates, the media and the judiciary. Freetown followed up on only one suggestion, when it signed into law the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Act. Despite this and indications of mounting tensions, the AU will be present again in June.

Zimbabwe’s year of action

Opposition parties have labelled 2023 a year of citizen action and mass protest ahead of the Zimbabwean presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for July. Longstanding issues persist. The independence of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission is again in question after affiliates of ruling party ZANU-PF were appointed electoral commissioners.

Furthermore, a decades-long history of crackdown on opposition and civil society continues. Zimbabwean authorities recently deregistered 291 non-governmental and civil organisations for allegedly violating the Private Voluntary Organisation Act, an additional clampdown on democratic and civic space.

This approach is not new for Zimbabwe – it was a key feature of the 2018 elections. Then the AU mission recommended increased access to decision-making to enhance stakeholder confidence, an audit before publishing the final register and removing the accreditation levy for domestic observers. These recommendations would enhance citizens’ participation in elections, but they are yet to be implemented, with the likelihood of uptake remaining elusive. The challenges of previous elections are, thus, expected again in 2023.

Greater AU resolve

Given the challenges predicted for AU elections in 2023, the organisation’s nearly three decades of electoral observation and support will be handy. The role of observer missions, however, is limited to accurate and impartial assessment of electoral processes, recommendations to improve future elections and demonstration of commitment to the consolidation of democracy.

An examination of AU reports suggests that election observation has become a tick-box exercise

While these roles have contributed meaningfully to institutionalising electoral democracy, crucial questions remain. These include the standards for declaring elections free and fair, whether more could be done beyond observations and the uptake of recommendations. Given the uniqueness of member state challenges in 2023, the AU, besides generic support, will need to consider tailormade interventions, technical support, preventive diplomacy and long-term engagements. Only then will its support contribute significantly to change beyond election day and correcting charades of peaceful elections.

Electoral lessons

After three decades of observations, the AU has reached a recommendations loop. A closer examination of the AU’s biannual statutory reports on elections and country-specific observer mission reports calls into question whether observation has become a tick-box exercise. It must be determined whether the cost of observer missions is commensurate with their value-add and effectiveness, given the many independent stakeholders in the space and the slow uptake of recommendations.

Furthermore, should the AU conduct observer missions in countries that have not ratified the African Charter on Democracy Elections and Governance, which underpins the AU’s normative position on democratic governance? These countries are the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Libya, Eswatini and Zimbabwe, to which the AU will deploy missions in 2023. Is there a normative chasm between the AU and its member states concerning elections?

Ultimately the responsibility lies with member states to enact reforms and laws to improve electoral processes, but there’s an equal, shared responsibility for the AU to not rubberstamp election results. This will be a telling year in how the organisation manages elections and whether the continent can sustain the emerging trend of peaceful elections. 

Image: Asokeretope/Wikimedia Commons

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