Maverick Citizen


Will Africa’s super year of elections result in greater democratisation of continent?

Will Africa’s super year of elections result in greater democratisation of continent?
Africa's journey towards democratic growth since the end of colonial rule has been guided by the African Union's legal and policy framework, emphasising the importance of genuine free and fair elections. (Photo: iStock)

2024 is a major election year. With Senegal (March) and South Africa (May) as some of Africa’s leading democracies going through elections in the first half of this year, this has triggered a reflection on democracy in Africa.

Since the end of the advent of colonial rule, Africa has been on a steady path of democratic growth. The African Union (AU) has provided leadership in adopting a legal and policy framework within which democratisation needs to happen, as evidenced by the adoption of such instruments as the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR), the AU Constitutive Act, the African Charter on Democracy Elections and Governance (ACDEG) as well as declarations and standards governing democratic elections.

This overall legal and policy framework in Africa recognises that the authority to govern is derived from the will of the people exercised through genuine free and fair elections that are held periodically. With these standards, the AU has also shifted from the principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of the State, to adopt the principle of non-indifference which recognises that sovereignty comes with the responsibility to protect people’s rights under the State.

Elections, coups and governance

In this context, elections in Africa are seen as a major vehicle of democratisation. This is evidenced by regular and generally chronologically compliant elections that are held as a method of choosing and deploying leaders into public office. Despite the increasing role of elections in the choice of leaders by the people of the continent, the continent has also experienced a spike in unconstitutional changes of governments through coups, which poses a significant threat to democratic governance and the rule of law. Notable coups have taken place in what is now being identified as the Africa coup belt with Gabon, Niger, Burkina Faso, Sudan, Guinea, Chad and Mali experiencing successful and even somewhat popular coups. Some of the countries where coups took place had undergone elections, making researchers and analysts conclude that people have lost confidence in institutions set up to strengthen and defend democracy. Fraudulent elections have been deemed to constitute constitutional coups owing to instrumentalising the electoral process as a vehicle for power acquisition or retention.

Challenges and opportunities in Africa’s super election year

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has identified 2024 as “a hugely significant elections year” given that over 2 billion people in 72 countries in the world “will have the chance to vote, far more in one year than ever before.” 19 of those elections are expected to take place in Africa. No wonder 2024 has earned the identity of an election super year!

Senegal has already held elections in March 2024 after initial attempts by incumbent President Macky Sall to postpone the elections to December 2024. This resulted in widespread protests by Senegalese demanding the elections be held as constitutionally mandated.

South Africa is next to hold elections in May 2024. The beginning of the super elections year in Africa started with arguably the most developed democracies on the continent.

Macky Sall

Macky Sall, former President of Senegal. (Photo: Sean Gallup / Getty Images)

Read more in Daily Maverick: 2024 elections hub

A significant number of Africa’s 19 elections in 2024 are concentrated in the final quarter of the year. The countries that are expected to hold elections in the elections super year of 2024 are the following: Senegal, Togo, South Africa, Madagascar, Mauritania, Rwanda, Mozambique, Chad, Botswana, Tunisia, Somaliland, Guinea Bissau, Namibia, Ghana, South Sudan, Cape Verde, Mali, Mauritius and Algeria.

South Africa’s elections highly anticipated

South Africa’s elections are heavily anticipated. South Africa has had a history of the liberation party — the African National Congress (ANC) — winning elections in the past without major challenges and without the need to form a coalition central government. This has been a consistent pattern in several southern African countries such as Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, Botswana, Tanzania and Angola where single-party dominance of the liberation struggle parties has been the norm for years.

With sustained intra-party polarisation and toxicity, and the inability in the past to create conditions for the majority of poor people to have meaningful economic activity, many people believe that the ANC faces one of its toughest elections and runs a real risk of being unable to earn more than a 50% majority. This may force the ANC to get into a coalition arrangement to form a central government, which, if it happens, will be a first since 1994 when apartheid ended.

This potential shift in South Africa may signal a phase in southern Africa of evolution of multiparty politics and see the rest of the sub-region emulate developments in Zambia and Malawi, where there have been peaceful transitions of power from the ruling/governing parties, including liberation movements, following democratic elections.

Elections in the coup belt of Africa

Outside of southern Africa, several Sahelian countries that have experienced coups in recent times are on track to hold elections as part of their agreed-upon timetable to return to civilian rule.

The seeming popularity of coups in Africa has been vexing. Questions have been asked if the people of Africa prefer military as opposed to democratic rule.

Surveys conducted by Afrobarometer in 39 countries “reveal that many African citizens support military intervention — but also that most societies do not want army rule, and see coups as a short-term solution to a crisis of democracy. In the latest round of surveys conducted over the last two years, a slight majority (53%) say that they support armed intervention if civilian leaders abuse power. Yet a much larger majority (68%) say they are against military government.

Afrobarometer concludes therefore that military coups show a loss of confidence in institutions of democracy. This therefore emphasises the importance of African states holding elections that are free, fair and credible. The outcomes of elections in the coup belt of Africa will significantly influence the governance trajectory of the region and its response to growing security challenges.

Senegal elections as a victory for democracy in Africa

The developments that happened in Senegal as a leading democratic state in West Africa and the Ecowas region, which is also seen as the coup belt of Africa, are key. When then-President Macky Sall tried to postpone the elections from February 2024 to December 2024 in order to give time to his preferred candidate to gain ground ahead of elections, many characterised this as a constitutional coup.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Senegalese lawmakers vote to postpone presidential election to 15 December

Senegal had joined the coup nations of West Africa and the Sahel region, away from its image as a model of democracy. This was particularly sad given that Senegal had consolidated its position not just as a democracy, but as a democracy enforcer when it defended the votes of the people of Gambia after the authoritarian leader Yahya Jammeh had tried to retain power despite losing an election.

Thankfully, the Judiciary of Senegal intervened, overturned the President’s decision to postpone elections and ordered that the elections be held within the constitutionally mandated timeframe. Elections were consequently held in March 2024.

Senegal reaffirmed its position as a leading constitutional democracy in West Africa with a peaceful transition of power from a ruling/governing party to an opposition party at the presidential level following democratic elections. It is hoped that the rest of West African and Sahel nations, especially in the coup belt, will emulate this development in Senegal and put Africa back on a path of sustainable democratisation and away from the legacies of military rule, whether direct or indirect.

Senegal and importance of robust election dispute resolution

When then-President Macky Sall postponed elections, Senegal was thrust into potential conflict with violent demonstrations taking place. Remarkably, the key stakeholders in Senegal remained, with confidence and faith in the ability of the judiciary to intervene to resolve electoral disputes. A number of countries in Africa have had opposition parties that have chosen not to subject electoral disputes to judicial electoral dispute resolution, ostensibly because of losing confidence in the independence of the judiciary. In West Africa, Sierra Leone is one of them.

The intervention of the judiciary in Senegal helped to prevent potential prolonged conflict in Senegal, as well as the dangers of a government whose legitimacy is questioned, remaining in power to the detriment of sustainable peace and development of the country. Elections are a threat multiplier to judicial independence, yet judicial independence guarantees that election stakeholders can resort to the courts when faced with significant disagreements and conflicts in the election cycle.

Obstacles to free and fair elections in Africa

Some of the issues that will characterise or need navigation in the 2024 super election year in Africa include tackling the notion or mode of power as an end in itself and therefore at any cost.

With this operating mode, elections become a mere instrument to acquire and retain power. Elections are orchestrated exercises and not genuinely competitive processes. The focus is on outcome certainty as opposed to procedural certainty.

Outcome certainty is a situation where those who organise elections do so with a clear winner in mind. With a focus on the certainty of the outcome, election legal framework and procedures are made to be vague, Electoral Management Bodies (EMBs) do not set up a clear election calendar, civic space is made toxic and dangerous for voters and other key election stakeholders such as opposition and pro-democracy activists.

There is no incentive created to encourage civic participation and engagement in governance. The new emerging threat that will continue to escalate is information pollution before, during and after elections driven by AI-generated information that is disseminated through social media.  Failing to address these issues risks further diminishing the standards of electoral integrity in Africa and creating conditions fertile for military coups. DM

Read Part 2 here 

David Mburu is a Human Rights Lawyer and Activist, attached to Africa Judges and Jurists Forum      and is currently a NOREC Fellow based in Johannesburg.      

Arnold Tsunga is a human rights lawyer and the Managing Partner at Tsunga Law International. Arnold is the Rule of Law and Elections Expert at Africa Judges and Jurists Forum.


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