AFRICA HUMAN RIGHTS ROUNDUP #33
Africa’s quagmire: Making choices in choice-less elections
Elections remain the only viable way in which people in Africa can peacefully and democratically choose, change and hold to account their political leaders. If only it were that simple… over recent years the quality of elections has been slowly and systematically degraded to a point where the question being asked is whether Africa’s elections are now effectively choiceless?
Elections have to be free, fair and credible to give birth to legitimate leaders and to contribute to the growth and building of democratic, peaceful, just and developmental societies. Elections must meet minimum African Union (AU) objectives and conditions, as set out in the AU Constitutive Act which stipulates its objectives and values to “promote democratic principles and institutions, popular participation and good governance.” The AU principles governing democratic elections in Africa stipulate unequivocally that “democratic elections are the basis of the authority of any representative government.”
Reflecting this, the constitutions of most African states also provide for free and fair elections and there has undoubtedly been progress in crafting the legislative and constitutional framework for leadership renewal through free and fair elections. The practices are, however, far from satisfactory and generally do not comply with the standards and norms agreed upon.
The mentality and practice of many leaders in Africa have been to regard power as an end in itself and therefore something to be attained or retained by any means and at any cost. With this approach, the quality of elections has been slowly and systematically degraded to a point where the legitimate question is being asked as to whether Africa’s elections are now choiceless.
Many African elections have been marred by violence and bloodshed, displacements, forced disappearances, blatant fraud. This leads to illegitimate outcomes that have created instability, lack of cohesion and conflict. Compromised electoral management bodies and captured legal systems often conspire to give aggrieved contestants no chance in either elections or courts of law. As we have identified in previous articles in this series, the Covid-19 pandemic has worsened an already dire situation and is being used to close civic and democratic space and in some instances as a pretext to suspend elections and electoral activity. The result has been that Covid-19 has produced more political outcomes than public health ones, putting Africa on a definitive path of democratic regression and authoritarian resurgence or consolidation.
Sham elections continue to poison democracy across Africa, resulting in public loss of confidence and voter apathy. This was recently witnessed in Uganda where voter turnout dropped by 10% from the 2016 elections, with only 57% of the almost 18 million registered voters turning out to vote. Tanzania went to the polls in October 2020 with one of the lowest voter turnouts in the country’s democratic history. About 15 million out of 29 million registered voters cast their votes.
With 12 national elections, pencilled for 2021 and persistent governance problems, the continent faces another trying year. Will this year’s contests be any different?
Covid-19 clampdowns: The dismal track record
There cannot be free and fair elections without free speech and peaceful assembly. A February 2021 Human Rights Watch report chronicles how Tanzania, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Ethiopia, Eswatini, Somalia and Uganda, among more than 20 African governments, are using the pandemic to justify violating the exercise of free speech and peaceful assembly. Covid-19 has been leveraged as a reason to prohibit public demonstrations and stifle dissent.
In this context, one could be forgiven for thinking that elections have become tools to legitimise incumbents’ ‘re-elections’ back into power.
Amidst the smoke and maze of the novel Covid-19 pandemic, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) was declared the winner of the country’s hotly contested presidential election in January 2021. He ‘won’ by 58.64% of the votes. This followed a bloody and contentious election, in which dozens of people were killed. The main opposition candidate of the National Unity Platform (NUP), Robert Kyagulanyi – popularly known as Bobi Wine – was placed under de facto house arrest soon after the results were announced.
Bobi Wine alleged fraud and urged citizens to reject the result, citing ballot stuffing, violence, intimidation, arbitrary arrests, an internet blackout, restrictions on foreign media and international election observation, among other forms of election malpractices. He filed a Supreme Court lawsuit asking the court to nullify Museveni’s re-election. However, in an indictment to the country’s justice system, Wine withdrew the election challenge on February 22, 2021, claiming that “the courts are not independent, it is clear these people (judges) are working for Mr Museveni”.
The blatant use of violence by Ugandan police and armed forces ensured that 76-year-old president Museveni, one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders, retained his 35-year hold on power. Museveni however dismissed allegations of vote-rigging and accused Wine of being a foreign agent. He called the poll “the most cheating-free” since the country’s independence.
Prior to the election, the United Nations, the United States and the European Union (as well as various domestic and other international organisations) expressed concerns regarding the heavy-handedness of the state and human rights violations. They appealed forlornly to the Ugandan authorities to respect human rights, ensure electoral fairness, and investigate the alleged cases of state brutality.
Tanzania went to the polls in October last year amid widespread irregularities including ballot-box stuffing, internet slowdown and pre-election violence and intimidation of opposition members.
The government’s Covid-19 denialism was extended to the campaigning and voting process, and was even used as an excuse to introduce repressive measures in the lead up to elections. This served as a means of preventing citizens from criticising the government and denying them access to information on the electoral process. Independent journalists and news publications were fined or suspended for ‘publishing news about Covid-19.’
President John Magufuli was accused of stifling dissent and narrowing the ever-shrinking democratic space since he took office in 2015. Newspapers were shut down, journalists harassed and arrested, opposition members were persecuted and arrested while the work of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) was severely restricted ahead of the 2020 election.
Opposition complaints about bias within the National Electoral Commission (NEC) also mirrored the growing politicisation of other key institutions particularly the police and the army. Despite stakeholder concerns about the human rights situation in the country and an uneven playing field, the election went ahead and Magufuli won “resoundingly”.
In Guinea too, elections have proven to be a charade, characterised by massive fraud, boycotts, arrests and imprisonments. A constitutional referendum held in March 2020 ‘allowed’ 81-year-old president Alpha Condé to run for the third time despite a two-term limit. Dozens of opponents were killed in the months after he announced his bid to seek a constitutionally prohibited third presidential term.
Unsurprisingly, Condé won the October 18, 2020, election by 59.5%. Following the election, security forces used excessive force to disperse opposition-led demonstrations in the capital, Conakry. Within a week, at least 30 opposition members had been killed. The main opposition candidate, Cellou Dalein Diallo, was held under de facto house arrest, without charge, from October 20 to October 28. Upon his release, Diallo appealed Condé’s victory at the country’s Constitutional Court. Despite credible evidence of fraud and manipulation of votes on an industrial scale, the court upheld Condé’s ‘victory’.
In Zimbabwe, elections and electoral activity including political demonstrations are suspended under the guise of Covid-19 containment measures. The government also stepped up weaponisation of the law and surveillance against journalists, opposition leaders and civil society organisations resulting in the United Nations Human Rights Office expressing concern.
2021’s elections: red flags flying
Analysts are already casting doubt on whether Zambia, The Gambia, Ethiopia and Somalia among other countries holding elections this year will be able to deliver democratic processes whose outcomes reflect the will of the people.
Presidential elections in Somalia were originally planned for December 2020. They were pushed back to 8 February 2021 citing logistical reasons and disputes regarding the oversight process. They did not happen and have not happened. The four-year term of president Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo formally ended in early February – but he has refused to leave office thrusting the country into a constitutional crisis. The Institute for Security Studies, says the election impasse “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.”
Ethiopian elections were originally scheduled for August 2020, but were postponed due to Covid-19. Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) leaders went ahead with provincial elections in September. This set up a confrontation with the federal government that escalated into a full-blown armed conflict in November. Analysts say the unresolved implications of the Tigray fighting casts a shadow over and underscores the fragility of Ethiopia’s nascent electoral process. In December 2020, the Ethiopian Electoral Commission announced that Ethiopia would hold its legislative and regional elections on 5 June 2021 amid a full-blooded conflict that threatens to destabilise the whole region of the horn of Africa.
Zambia has historically held relatively peaceful elections and transfers of power, but after the disputed 2016 polls there are concerns that the same scenario – if not worse – could play out. This follows reports of increased authoritarianism and the use of the ruling Patriotic Front’s youth militias (‘cadres’), intelligence services, police, and military loyalists to intimidate president Lungu’s political rivals. Lungu has also had opposition party members arrested on spurious charges, politicised the judiciary, restricted civil society, and closed independent media outlets that were critical of his government.
On 4 December 2021, The Gambia goes to the polls in its first presidential election since the ouster of long term dictator president Yahya Jammeh who ruled for 22 years. Jammeh’s successor president Adama Barrow was backed by a coalition formed by seven political parties. He promised to serve only three years and resign, but he rescinded that promise, sparking violent protests in the country.
Barrow’s reversal has been a particularly bitter pill for his supporters since he represented a coalition of seven reformist parties when he won in 2016. Many Gambians fear that the country may fall into another prolonged era of impunity without the means of peacefully removing their leader.
Can apex courts defend democracy?
Only Kenya and Malawi’s judiciaries have overturned presidential elections in Africa. Some believe that this gives a ray of hope. However, for Kenya, the boldness of the Supreme Court led to the significant undermining of judicial independence by the executive. President Uhuru Kenyatta openly said that we have a problem with the judiciary that we need to ‘fix’. In a subsequent electoral case, the Chief Justice could not even constitute a quorum with the general belief that judges were intimidated or compromised to sit. The resultant fresh election was neither free nor fair, with the opposition Raila Odinga refusing to participate.
Malawi became the second African country to annul a presidential election over irregularities, after Kenya in 2017. Factors conspired in favour of democracy in the re-run. Despite the police service being compromised and partisan in favour of the incumbency, civil society was more organised and courageous, the courts stood their ground and maintained courage, independence and impartiality despite executive threats. In contrast to many other African states, president Peter Mutharika was unable to call upon military support as the Malawi Defense Forces (MDF) had moved to shield protesting citizens and protect the judiciary since the 2019 election.
The overturning of presidential election results in Kenya and Malawi set bold global precedents for the courts but the extent to which this is a building block to strengthen Africa’s democratic practices is yet to be seen.
That is another reason why the AU needs to revive efforts to impose a continent-wide two-term limit on presidents. The African Union would be able to sanction, and even expel, countries that violate the term limits rule that several civil society groups have also campaigned for. Stricter sanctions must be imposed on those who continue to violate their own constitutions, through the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, and the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections. Democratic elections are meant to be the basis of the authority of any representative government and should be the new reality across the continent from now onwards. DM/MC
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