The odyssey of elections in Africa: A new era of democracy and rule of law?

After the Supreme Court of Kenya’s decision to nullify the results of the 8 August 2017 presidential polls, Kenya became the first country in Africa to have such a decision made at that level. This can be seen as part of the momentous transitions on the continent since the 1960s to arrive at multiparty democratic systems. By 2016, no sub-Saharan African leader in power had arrived there directly through a coup d’état.

But does this mark a new era in Africa, where the rule of law can help in bringing true democratic change? The Kenyan example raises some hope and it demonstrates that we need to concentrate our efforts on the legal and political frameworks supporting elections.

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      The evolution of African elections in 2017


      The beginning of the year 2017 brought great expectations from African elections. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) successfully supported the Gambian people to end Jammeh’s 22-year authoritarian regime. Then, we saw the relatively peaceful transfer of power in Somalia, for the first time in decades, that made Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo president for the next four years. Lesotho also elected a new prime minister, Thomas Thabane, who has previously spent two-years in exile.

      Elections are usually viewed as a symbol of democracy. Defining democracy is no easy task because, while resting on recognised fundamental principles, in practice it is much more multifaceted. For African states, the journey to improving democracy has been one marred by struggles and setbacks.

      In the 1980s, only three African countries held relatively open multiparty elections. Since then, the situation has greatly improved: more African countries have held presidential elections (forty-one of the fifty-four countries on the continent organised elections between 2011 and 2012).

      Still, African incumbent leaders are said to win 88% of the elections. Similarly, among the continent’s 54 countries, only 19 leaders from 11 African countries that witnessed a constitutional hand-over of power have been voted out of office since the end of colonialism. Some have argued that African leaders only stage periodic elections to create a facade of democratic legitimacy. If true, the developmental benefits of democracy seem unlikely to materialise.

      Rwanda is one of the latest interesting examples. The re-election of HE Paul Kagame, extending his 17 years in power, came as no surprise to most, as he is considered widely popular among the citizens and internationally. Reduced poverty, increased literacy, improvement in GDP, recognition of women’s rights and empowerment, youth initiatives, and embracing information, communication and technology in its latest form are just some of the areas credited to Kagame’s leadership. Nonetheless, Kagame’s rule has also faced mounting criticism for – among other things – human rights violations, media censorship, and intolerance for political dissent. The country still lacks a viable opposition resulting in “repressive peace” at the cost of civil liberties.


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      The more things change, the more they stay the same


      So far, out of five African countries that have concluded elections this year, three have resulted in an actual change of president or prime minister. Even so, when taking a closer look, you find that even if the leadership changes, power remains in the hands of the same ruling party.

      The situation in Angola is the best example. When 74-year-old Dos Santos, who has ruled Angola for 38 years – did not run as a presidential candidate in August, many saw this as a sign that change would begin. However, while João Lourenço (ex-Minister of Defense) was declared the winner, dos Santos intends on remaining the chair of the country’s ruling party.

      Kenya: The wild card


      The decision to annul the recent Kenyan election results is a whole different ball game and poses an interesting broader question: can democracy be safeguarded using principles of the rule of law on the continent?

      Kenya held its general and presidential elections on 8 August. According to the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) – the official election body in Kenya – current president Uhuru Kenyatta won a second term with 54.27% of the votes against the main opposition leader, Raila Odinga, with 44.74%.

      More than 400 international election monitors and observation missions from the United States, the EU, and the African Union noted that despite some irregularities the elections were declared largely free and fair. But at the same time, a section of Kenyan civil society reported irregularities in the elections. As often happens, the opposition challenged the electoral process and particularly the presidential results, as allowed for under the country’s constitution, citing irregularities and illegalities in the process.

      On 1 September, just 14 days after the petition, in a first of its kind decision on the continent, the Supreme Court of Kenya declared that the 2017 Presidential Election was not conducted in accordance with 4 Articles of the Kenyan Constitution and 3 sections of the Elections Act. It ordered fresh presidential elections to be conducted within 60 days of the decision.

      The Court’s decision linked Rule of Law to the principle of a democratic society. It is the first time an African Supreme Court has overturned an incumbent president’s victory. Since this is unprecedented, Kenyans and the world are eager to see how it unfolds and what it means for electoral processes. Regardless, many hope that the fresh round will not be marred by violence, as was the case for three of Kenya’s past four elections – not least the 2007-2008 election when 1,100 people were killed and 650,000 displaced.

      A precedent or a ‘one-off’?


      Elections to watch out for in the next months will be those in Liberia in October and in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a definitive election date for this year is yet to be set – the budget minister has recently announced that the country might not be able to ‘afford’ it.

      The wave of elections taking place in Africa in 2017 is raising discussions on just how firmly democracy has taken root on the continent. A takeaway from the Kenyan example is that the success of elections and the possibility of legal recourse are bound up in a long-term process, which includes the development of constitutions and a strong judiciary. In African countries where this process is being manipulated, elections would mean very little at the end of the day.


      The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

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