Turbulent elections in Africa in 2016: the need for truth telling from the AU

Eighteen presidential elections were scheduled in Africa this year. Thus far, 10 incumbents have secured their re-election, four new presidents have been elected into office, one election has been postponed and three elections still have to be conducted before the end of 2016. A review of the electoral events this year highlights the manipulation, intimidation and contestation that mar democratisation processes in the continent. Yet despite these setbacks, some of the elections were considered transparent, free and fair.

The African Union (AU) sent observer missions to all the countries that have held elections. Yet it was often more about being present than about making a real impact. Calls have been made to hold states accountable through the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, which entered into force in 2012. If elections and democracy are to improve in Africa, the AU needs to be bold enough to criticise flawed electoral systems in its member states.

A number of peaceful and transparent elections

The AU needs to be bold enough to criticise flawed electoral systems in its member states
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It was not all gloomy in 2016. In Benin, incumbent President Thomas Boni Yayi stepped down after his second term, in line with the constitution. Patrice Talon was elected president on 6 March.

In São Tomé and Príncipe, Evaristo Carvalho defeated president Manuel Pinto da Costa, who had served as president from 1975–1991 and 2011–2016.

Jorge Carlos Fonseca was re-elected for a second term as the president of Cape Verde with 74% of the votes in an election considered free, transparent and fair.

Remaining in power through constitutional changes

However, a number of leaders did find ways this year to circumvent the AU’s rejection of unconstitutional transitions of power by changing their constitutions to remove term limits. In countries where there are no term limits, the challenge lay in the credibility of electoral processes. This was especially true in states where incumbent and influential leaders wield the power to determine the outcome of electoral results.

President Denis Sassou Nguesso, who has ruled the Republic of Congo for 32 years, ensured his re-election in March through constitutional changes. In Chad, President Idriss Déby Itno secured his fifth term in office having led a constitutional reform that removed term limits in 2005.

In countries with no term limits, the challenge lay in the credibility of electoral processes
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Given that Déby is the AU chairperson this year and that Chad is a member of the Peace and Security Council (PSC), the AU's statement on the election outcome was particularly guarded. The AU observer mission reported that ‘despite political protests and social unrest due mainly to the deterioration of living conditions, the mission believes that the presidential election of April 10, 2016 took place in a relatively more consensual climate than the previous elections’.

In Equatorial Guinea, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, who has been in power since 1979, was re-elected with 99.2% of the vote in April. Term limits were scrapped in 2011, which means that Obiang – who is now 74 years old – is technically serving his first term in office. This term will last for seven years with grounds for possible re-election for a second term.

Elections as tools to enhance the legitimacy of long-serving regimes

Elections in states with long-serving presidents tend to be attempts to enhance the legitimacy of leaders by assuaging international and domestic actors clamouring for democracy. Western powers require most states to adopt liberal democracies in exchange for aid and assistance. Globalisation further increases the demand for democratic governance.

Some long-serving regimes have opted for ‘rigged’ elections to legitimise their power. Others have systematically weakened opposition parties and dissenting voices through political repression, limiting the financial capacity of opposition parties and using state resources to dispense patronage.

In Djibouti, a weak opposition tried in vain to unseat President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh, who has been in power since 1999. Term limits were scrapped in 2010. Guelleh won the presidential election in April with 87% of the vote. Opposition parties and rights groups criticised the election process for curbing basic freedoms. Yet the AU observer mission concluded that the 8 April 2016 elections ‘took place in peace and serenity’. The mission congratulated Djibouti on an inclusive, free and sufficiently transparent election. The observer mission of the Intergovernmental Organisation for Development (IGAD) also concluded that ‘the presidential election was conducted in a transparent, peaceful, and orderly manner and in accordance with the Constitution and the laws governing the Republic of Djibouti’.

Some long-serving regimes have opted for rigged elections to legitimise their power
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However, the IGAD mission did note that the government gave it only three days to monitor and report on the entire electoral process. The mission also said that it was ‘in no position to provide complete and comprehensive conclusions on the entire election process’. Despite such limitations, African observers often choose their words carefully to avoid ruffling feathers.

Intimidation of opponents during elections

The numerous arrests of Kizza Besigye, the main opposition leader of the Forum for Democratic Change, marred the electoral process in Uganda in February. Besigye was accused of treason for violating public order laws by staging illegal campaigns and protests. Assessments by European Union (EU) and Commonwealth observers stressed that the electoral process was marred by the intimidation of voters and candidates by state actors. The reports also concur that the electoral commission lacked independence and transparency. 

The AU observer mission, meanwhile, drew a carefully worded conclusion, stating that the elections ‘were largely peaceful, but not without shortcomings’. Among these shortcomings was the late delivery of election materials, leading to a four-hour delay in opening polling stations. IGAD also reported that, despite the shortcomings, ‘the elections met the minimum standards of a free and fair election’. Although the AU and IGAD assessments noted upheavals during the election period, they failed to highlight the widespread intimidation of opposition candidates and supporters.

The Commonwealth observer group led by former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo was among the more critical, saying that the election was characterised by the lack of a level playing field, an increase in money politics and the misuse of state resources for party gains. President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in office for 35 years, won 61% of the votes, thereby assuming office for a fifth term.

The AU and IGAD assessments failed to highlight the widespread intimidation of opposition candidates
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In The Gambia, widespread intimidation of opposition leaders and supporters as well as journalists persists as the election draws closer. President Yahya Jammeh, who has been in power since 1994, seeks a fifth consecutive five-year term in office. The election is scheduled for 1 December. The EU and the Economic Community of West African States have decided not to send observers to this election.

In the Republic of Comoros, the presidency rotates among the country’s three islands – Anjouan, Mohéli and Grande Comore. Azali Assoumani of Grande Comore narrowly won the election this year. The opposition claimed that the results were falsified but the Constitutional Court dismissed the claim despite public protests.

Opposition boycotts in Zanzibar and Niger

In Zanzibar, the opposition boycotted the election in March over allegations of electoral fraud. The election was a re-run of the presidential polls in October 2015, which had been annulled due to allegations of fraud.

However, the main opposition party, the Civic United Front, claimed that the cancellation of the October vote was aimed at preventing its leader – Seif Sharif Hamad – from claiming victory. The opposition boycotted the second round of the election, leading to a comfortable win for incumbent President Ali Mohamed Shein of the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party. He won the election with 91% of the vote. The CCM has ruled Tanzania for over five decades.

In Niger, President Mahamadou Issoufou secured a second term in office with 93% of the vote on 20 March. In the first round in February, Issoufou had failed to win the outright majority and had to face a second round against main opposition leader Hama Amadou, who is in jail. The opposition boycotted the polls in protest against his imprisonment on suspicion of child trafficking, saying this was a political ploy to stop Amadou from winning the presidential elections.

Contestation of results

In Chad, the Republic of Congo, Uganda and Gabon, elections were followed by violent demonstrations and contestation over the outcomes. In the case of Gabon, violence erupted on 31 August after the proclamation of President Ali Bongo’s victory over his rival Jean Ping.

As in most cases where the election results are violently contested, the PSC, together with the AU Commission chairperson, urged the Gabonese to make use of all available legal and constitutional channels to resolve their differences. When the case was brought before the Constitutional Court of Gabon, the PSC at its second meeting on Gabon decided that the AU Commission should deploy observers, chosen from among eminent members of high African French-speaking jurisdictions, to assist the Constitutional Court. However, there is no record of such an AU deployment. The court gave Bongo 50.66% of the vote and Ping 47.24%, thereby upholding Bongo’s re-election.

In Chad, the Republic of Congo, Uganda and Gabon, elections were followed by violent demonstrations
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In a communiqué on 5 September, as chair of the AU, Deby affirmed the readiness of the AU to send a high-level delegation of heads of state to Libreville, as soon as the conditions for such a visit were met – a deployment that did not occur.

The Zambian election on 11 August was also among the contested elections this year. President Edgar Lungu narrowly won the elections, with 50.35% of the vote, over his rival Hakainde Hichilema, who received 47.67% of the vote. The opposition rejected the results due to alleged polling irregularities and bias in favour of the incumbent. However, the Constitutional Court dismissed the case, saying that the deadline for contesting the results had passed. Lungu was re-elected into office after having been appointed president in January 2015 through presidential by-elections following the death of Michael Sata in October 2014.

Internet shutdowns

The shutdown of social media has become an infamous approach used by some states to infringe on citizens’ right to information during elections. Worryingly, the PSC meeting on elections in Africa on 12 April seemingly supported these regimes’ perspective on social media by stressing ‘the need to ensure that social media is not abused to disrupt or undermine the credibility of election processes’. In line with this, the governments of the Republic of Congo, Gabon, Chad and Uganda opted for social media blackouts during the election period, thereby creating anxiety over the results.

Such approaches curtail the rights of citizens and prevent them from monitoring and reporting on voting processes and possible fraudulent activities. The observation missions in the abovementioned countries were constrained from reporting on the conduct of elections at most of the polling stations.

Social media shutdowns have become an infamous approach to infringe on citizens' right to information
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In Ghana, however, the government recently dropped the idea of an Internet shutdown during the general election scheduled for 7 December. Inspector General of Police John Kudalor had suggested the shutdown over fears that violence between political parties could undermine the electoral process. President John Dramani Mahama of the ruling National Democratic Congress is seeking a second term in office.

Difficult elections in countries in crisis

In the Central African Republic (CAR), Faustin-Archange Touadéra was elected president in February. He now faces the enormous task of addressing the insecurities and divisions that have plagued the country since 2013. The election ended the two-year transitional government under former president Catherine Samba-Panza.

Presidential elections in Somalia were scheduled for 30 November, but were again postponed to a later date.

A peaceful and transparent election in Somalia is key to consolidating and enhancing the progress made to put the country on the road to stability. Notably, the success of the AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and its planned exit by 2020 is tied to the success of the elections and the ability of Somali leaders to provide political goods to citizens.

The election that was avoided

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, elections were supposed to be held this year for President Joseph Kabila to step down when his second and last term expires at the end of 2016, according to the constitution. However, the Congolese government has argued that a technical delay in preparing the elections means they cannot be held this year.

A highly controversial ‘national dialogue’ – mediated by AU envoy Edem Kodjo and boycotted by the main opposition parties – took place in September this year to discuss the modalities of the election delay and the interim period. These negotiations led to the adoption of a political accord, which, among other things, postponed the elections to April 2018.

To enhance the credibility of democracy in Africa, the AU has to take bold action to challenge governments to implement progressive and structural changes in the conduct of elections. It has to champion regular, competitive and transparent elections to enhance the accountability of governments to their people, the electorates. This includes advocating for the independence of electoral commissions and judicial institutions and the creation of a level playing field where all parties have equal and free access to media, and the right to campaign and assemble.

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