Dealing with Africa’s elections and crises in 2021

2021 is shaping up to be a challenging year for Africa: the continent, like the rest of the world, will be trying to recover from the disruptions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. This will entail dealing with various peace and security threats, as well as governance challenges that have persisted in parts of the continent.

Along with ongoing conflicts and threats, new conflict and instability hotbeds have emerged in 2020 and might be a cause for concern in 2021.

Elections could lead to political crises

There are no fewer than nine presidential elections planned for 2021 – in Benin, Cape Verde, Chad, The Gambia, São Tomé & Príncipe, Somalia, South Sudan, Uganda and Zambia. Ethiopia is also having all-important general elections.

Of these, South Sudan is in a state of active conflict and in the midst of a fragile political transition. Despite some headway having been made in the implementation of the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan, signed in September 2018, progress has again stalled.

According to a November report by the UN panel of experts on South Sudan, President Salva Kiir Mayardit ‘has locked the opposition out of the Government’s decision-making process’, including First Vice-President Riek Machar Teny. South Sudan is thus not breaking the cycle, which undoubtably will not be conducive for the holding of elections.

Planned for February 2021, the transparency and fairness of Somalia’s presidential election are already being called into question by the opposition. The latter has rejected the election committees (the National Electoral Committee and the Electoral Dispute Committee) recently appointed by the federal government.

The opposition believes these committees are biased in favour of the government. It has threatened to conduct parallel polls should the government carry on with its current plans.

Tensions between the federal government and regional states are also high. This does not bode well for the country’s precarious security situation, and could give al-Shabaab and Islamic State in Somalia an opportunity to wreak more havoc.

In Uganda President Yoweri Museveni, in power for 34 years and counting, is running for what would be his sixth consecutive term. Term limits were scrapped in 2005, while the age limit for presidential candidates was removed in 2017.

Uganda’s civic space has been becoming more closed, particularly over the past couple of years, with crackdowns on public protests and targeting of opposition leaders. The arrest of opposition figure Bobi Wine, in November 2020, ignited protests in Kampala. These were repressed and led to dozens of deaths and arrests.

With elections scheduled to take place on 14 January, tensions are likely to rise even further and disputed election results is a likely scenario. 

Zambia has historically had relatively peaceful elections, but after the events of the 2016 polls there are concerns that the same scenario – if not worse – could play out again.

Zambia has historically had relatively peaceful elections, but after the events of the 2016 polls there are concerns that the same scenario could play out again

President Edgar Lungu’s government has undertaken a number of reforms, including revamping the voter’s register, which has raised suspicions of impending fraud. Around 9 million voters are expected to be enrolled in 30 days. 

The opposition scored a major victory in October 2020 when Lungu’s constitutional amendment bid failed. The proposed bill sought to increase the president’s chances of being re-elected through a new system of attaining the crucial 50%-plus-one-vote majority.

South Sudan, Uganda and Zambia will hold general elections – both presidential and parliamentary – and the outcomes of the parliamentary elections will be important for governance in these countries.

Benin is also scheduled to go to a much-anticipated election in April and May 2021. President Patrice Talon is expected to run for a second term. This comes after a tumultuous first term in office, where Talon undermined some of the key tenets of Benin’s nascent democracy through reforms that substantially weakened the opposition. This is in addition to what the opposition has denounced as the targeting of key political adversaries, including former president Thomas Boni Yayi.

In Chad the die is pretty much cast. President Idriss Deby, who celebrated 30 years in power on 1 December 2020, will most probably be re-elected. A constitutional amendment passed in May 2018 allows him to remain in power until 2033, in addition to strengthening his presidential powers.

In August 2020, on the country’s Independence Day, the National Assembly also awarded him the honorary title of Field Marshal, the highest military rank in Chad, thus adding an additional layer to his unfettered powers.

At the same time, the socio-economic vulnerabilities of the country are well known. The threat of rebellion cannot be ruled out, as evidenced by the attempted attack on N'djamena by rebels from the north of the country in February 2019.

The Gambia’s upcoming elections will be the first since president Yahya Jammeh lost power in 2017, thus setting the tone for future elections in the country.

President Adama Barrow’s first term has largely been about undoing over 20 years of Jammeh’s rule. This mammoth task requires reforming every sector of the country, not least of which the economy and the security sector, as well as finding avenues for the country’s youthful population.

Parliamentary elections are also planned in Algeria, Côte d’Ivoire and the Central African Republic (CAR). Algeria has struggled to get rid of the tentacles of ousted president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s regime. These polls might be another opportunity to determine whether and what kind of reforms can be conducted in the country.

For Côte d’Ivoire, following the re-election of incumbent Alassane Ouattara to a controversial third term, parliamentary elections might constitute another casus belli, depending on how the opposition decides to approach them.

In the CAR, the legislative elections could also be crucial – the national assembly, in theory, is a critical element in the country’s governance, including when it comes to approving state contracts for the exploitation of mineral resources. This follows presidential elections in the CAR at the end of December.

Conflicts and instability to watch in 2021

The protracted conflicts in Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Libya and the CAR are likely to still feature on the agenda of the African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council (PSC). They will have to be treated appropriately to try to break the eternal cycle in which they are seemingly stuck.

The protracted conflicts in Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Libya and the CAR are likely to still feature on the agenda of the Peace and Security Council

Meanwhile, more attention will have to be paid to the conflicts in northern Cameroon and northern Mozambique. The gruesome events of 2020 are a stark reminder that the continent needs to act speedily and decisively on early warnings of burgeoning conflicts.

Ethiopia’s fragility has come to the forefront with the outbreak of an armed conflict in November 2020 between federal government forces and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Although the federal government seems to have regained control of the province, the conflict is likely to persist.

The country remains at risk of further conflict undermining both stability in Ethiopia and peace in the entire Horn of Africa region. General elections were postponed from August 2020 to sometime in 2021.

The Sahel region and West Africa are the other hotspots in need of continued attention, particularly with regard to terrorist threats. Democratic governance deficits have contributed to political tensions and instability.

Despite several ad hoc measures, the dynamic nature of the underlying causes of conflict  and the various violent extremist groups will continue to present major challenges to peace and security in the region.

In 2021 the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, including lower economic output, job losses and growing poverty, might lead to more demands for social intervention from governments that already face protests over the inadequate provision of public goods.

There is also a likelihood of continued popular protests in places such as Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire and Uganda, as witnessed in 2020.

Overall, more robust African responses will be needed to tackle the many complex challenges. Plans for economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic will have to go hand in hand with addressing the governance issues that preceded the pandemic.

The PSC should be more proactive in tabling issues, while the AU Commission chairperson could mobilise resources such as preventive diplomacy and mediators. AU member states should also do more to adhere to continental norms and instruments such as the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance.

The Democratic Republic of Congo will chair the AU in 2021, and will have to contend with these continental issues. This comes as President Felix Tshisekedi is trying to consolidate his position by breaking off his political alliance with former president Joseph Kabila and attempting to gain control of the national assembly and government. 

Country

Election

Date

Algeria

People's National Assembly

Late 2020 or early 2021

Benin

Presidential & Local elections

11 April 2021

Burkina Faso

Local

Due 2021

Cape Verde

Presidential & National Assembly

March 2021

Central African Republic

National Assembly

Due Feb/Mar 2021

Chad

Presidential

24 Oct 2021

Côte d'Ivoire

National Assembly

Due 2021

The Gambia

Presidential

4 Dec 2021

Madagascar

Local & Senate (indirect)

Due 2021

Mauritius

Local

Due 2021

Morocco

House of Representatives, local
Assembly of Councillors (indirect, after local)

Due Nov 2021

Rwanda

Local

Due 2021

São Tomé & Príncipe

Presidential

July 2021

Seychelles

National Assembly

Due Sep/Oct 2021

Somalia

Presidential (indirect)

8 Feb 2021

South Africa

District & Municipal

Due 2021

South Sudan

Presidential, National Assembly, local

Due 2021

Uganda

Presidential, National Assembly, local

14 Feb 2021

Zambia

Presidential, National Assembly, local

12 Aug 2021

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