Recent events in Senegal have brought to the fore the serious impact of the governance challenges facing the continent. This is of particular concern because Senegal is considered one of the more stable countries in Africa.
In March 2021 Senegal saw protesters take to the streets of the capital city, Dakar, and other parts of the country, initially to object to the incarceration and impending trial of opposition figure Ousmane Sonko. Protesters’ grievances then morphed into protests against their socio-economic conditions, worsened by restrictive COVID-19 measures that have robbed many Senegalese of their livelihoods.
Although Sonko was released under legal supervision, which helped appease protesters and ended the demonstrations, the underlying socio-economic grievances and fundamental issues with the justice system must still be addressed. These are likely to re-emerge in the coming months.
The Senegalese case is an example of the governance challenges facing various countries – even the most stable ones – on the continent. This raises questions about how to address countries’ structural vulnerabilities to prevent generalised and protracted instability from taking root in Africa.
African governance frameworks such as the African Governance Architecture, as well as governance tools developed at the level of regional economic communities, are important normative tools to help deal with governance issues on the continent.
However, instead of being mere ‘nice to have’ documents, they should be domesticated and implemented effectively. There should also be efforts to devise new ways to address challenges around the governance of elections.
Electoral governance challenges
What has contributed to the public anger in the Sonko affair is the perception that the Senegalese judiciary is under the thumb of President Macky Sall's regime and that he has used it to eliminate his political opponents. This view is grounded in existing and documented concerns about the independence of the judiciary. Critics also cite Sall’s infamous declaration that he will ‘reduce the Senegalese opposition to its simplest expression’.
Sonko’s case followed the judicial conviction and de facto political demise (albeit perhaps temporarily) of two of Sall’s strong opponents, namely Karim Wade (son of former president Abdoulaye Wade and former minister) and Khalifa Sall (former mayor of Dakar).
Both Wade and Sall became ineligible to compete in the 2019 presidential elections as a result of their convictions. The drafting of new electoral laws restricting the number of opposition candidates ahead of the 2019 polls also fuelled the view that Sall was deliberately trying to weaken the opposition.
The Senegalese case is a good illustration of a governing authority that strips democratic institutions of their substance in order to subjugate them to the whims of an incumbent. This results in the distortion of the political arena, delaying democratic maturation or even rolling back hard-fought democratic gains.
The tendency to tamper with the political playing field by amending electoral laws has been observed in other countries, such as Benin. Its electoral democracy was thought to have made progress over the past 30 years with inclusive elections and peaceful transfers of power.
Yet, as in Senegal, President Patrice Talon has enacted electoral reforms that have skewed the political playing field and caused the opposition to boycott elections since 2019, including crucial parliamentary polls. As a result, the country has also seen protests erupt, while the April 2021 elections took place without any serious contenders running against Talon.
Third terms and centralised power
In a way, however, Senegal and Benin seem to represent more ‘palatable’ cases of problematic electoral governance. Overall, Africa has seen a growing tendency among incumbents to introduce constitutional amendments allowing them to run for third terms and, in some cases, increasing the power of the executive.
While some blatantly remove the limit of two terms in office, other leaders such as those of Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea have played around with age limits and come up with the ‘innovative’ argument that a new constitution effectively institutes a new Republic, which then gives them a clean slate with regard to terms.
The different iterations of tempering with democratic dispensations and institutions to ensure electoral victory pose an increasingly difficult challenge, particularly in the face of new tactics to silence the political opposition, shrink the civic space, and capture state institutions.
These issues are commonplace in longstanding regimes such as those in Chad, Uganda and the Republic of Congo, all three of which have seen incumbents Idriss Déby, Yoweri Museveni and Denis Sassou Nguesso re-elected in what many consider to be sham polls.
Other longstanding regimes that could be running out of steam include those in Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, where the question of succession is becoming ever more pressing. Succession will also potentially become an important question in Djibouti, where incumbent Ismael Omar Guelleh has just been re-elected (with 97.44% of the vote) for his fifth and possibly last term in office.
These challenges around electoral governance have not been and cannot be addressed by election observation alone, which has been taking place on the continent for at least the past two decades. Governance deficits transcend the electoral field and affect the very core of how African countries are governed, with clear implications for their stability.
Societal, social and economic governance
Governance problems on the continent revolve around the management of states, resulting from the inability of many leaders to properly manage economies, diversities and political inclusion. This leads to a loss of trust in state institutions and in their capacity to execute basic functions, particularly the provision of the public good.
As such, economic and political inclusion, particularly that of women, youth, minorities and other marginalised groups, remains a major challenge. Even though some African economies have seen sustained growth over the past few decades, such economic growth trajectories have not benefited most people. In many countries, this has instead widened the gap between rich and poor.
In other words, poor governance has failed to address the issues of political exclusion and economic marginalisation. This, in turn, has had a negative impact on social progress, particularly in contexts where there are no social safety nets provided by government.
Moreover, the double challenge of rising inequality and a growing population will become increasingly unsustainable for the continent.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has had a lower death toll than initially projected in Africa, it has highlighted major governance issues, including structural economic and social security flaws. The governance of the pandemic itself, while touted as exemplary in many regards, has also been subjected to similar patterns around corruption, mismanagement of allocated public funds and abuses of power.
It is crucial to change the course of governance on the continent. This means ensuring more inclusive political and economic participation for all where needed, and creating new economic and social models to drastically reduce poverty and inequality.
While the African Continental Free Trade Area is touted as a formidable tool to boost intra-African trade and stimulate sustained economic growth, it must be used effectively to create more inclusive and sustainable economies. It cannot meet its goals without improving governance.