African democracy in the spotlight (part 2)
8 Aug 2017|

Democratic elections, through history, have never been perfect in function or outcome. The August polls in Kenya, Rwanda and Angola are sure to be imperfect, in their own ways.

Much ink will be spilled on the state of democracy in Africa based on what takes place, but the important stuff that will affect democratic outcomes, or not, has already happened in the months, even years, leading up to these elections.

Popular demands that elections reflect the people’s will are growing louder in Africa. But significant political will at multiple levels is needed to overcome abuses, blatant and subtle, that have impaired electoral progress. Longer-term failings in civil education and engagement require even deeper commitment.

Key steps to improve African elections and restore the ‘power of the vote’ to citizens might include the following:

  • The playing field between incumbents and the opposition should be levelled. Incumbency is hard to overcome even in strong democracies. Abuses by democratically elected governments in Africa—of the public purse, security services, media, courts, electoral commissions—require specific remedies.
  • Electoral commissions must be strictly independent and professional, not politically appointed.
  • Campaign funding needs to be brought under control. Western models and formulas for placing all parties on a more equal footing and exposing financial flows to scrutiny could be adapted.
  • In the face of likely electoral malfeasance, strong collaboration between opposition parties is essential. Zambia’s disputed election is instructive. Had the main opposition party (whose leader is imprisoned on trumped-up treason charges, at the time of writing) formed coalitions with other parties, might the government have been more constrained in its abuse of judicial and security processes? In 2015, Nigeria’s main opposition party would not have overcome a determined incumbent had it not joined with like-minded groups.
  • The role of the security services in safeguarding constitutions (not regimes) needs to be reinforced. This is impossible when the state and party have become one. Legitimate political opposition is then portrayed by governments in the grammar of security (‘enemies of the state’). That usually transforms into a grammar of violence around election time, as Zimbabweans and others know well.

All elections are local and there are limits to what regional or global actors can do. Except in cases of widespread bloodshed and violence, the international community rarely sanctions governments or opposition parties (when they’re at fault). A crude ethos has developed on African elections that if there was no violence, then basically it was a ’good’ election.

No one wants bad leaders. But we need to care more about how elections are won, not just who wins. Many, if not most, African elections still lie in an ambiguous grey area, neither totally ‘free and fair’ nor explicitly rigged, and observation missions have not found an effective vocabulary or the means of responding. ‘Free and fair election’ tells us little about its quality or how things have changed over time. A grading system (1–10) could give assessments more weight, and more teeth, should elections be declared invalid. This could entail real political consequences for abusers.

Africa’s been a global pioneer in the use of election technology. It was first used in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2006 and about half of national elections now involve digital equipment. Deployed effectively, technology such as biometric voter registration can ensure there are accurate lists of voters and reduce the scope for rigging.

Many governments and segments of the international development community have deified new technology as a panacea for all that ails African elections. But technology can’t fix broken institutions or replace political will. Nor is it a substitute for doing the basics—such as developing reliable government records of national populations (deaths, births, marriages). Until the conditions giving rise to politicisation and manipulation are addressed, Africa shouldn’t waste resources on expensive gadgets.

More money should be spent on civil education, which is vital to formulating ideas about elections, not as events but as embedded parts of democracy. Knowing your rights and responsibilities as citizens doesn’t happen naturally. Africa’s colonial history is an unhelpful guide to understanding what a good election and well-functioning democracy look like. Many elections still do more to entrench the winner-takes-all mentality than loosen it. The rewards of victory are too great, the costs of failure too severe.

Public indifference expedites authoritarian behaviour. Education and dialogue on democracy are the best antidotes to voter apathy. In states affected by war, young people who succumb to election ennui require urgent attention, lest they see violence as a route to better lives.

South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission is Africa’s current standard-bearer. Doubtless it will face its sternest test of the post-apartheid era in 2019 if the African National Congress, which has run the country since 1994, adopts undemocratic means to shore up its waning popularity. Many fear a dramatic amplification of previously used tactics in an effort to win an election of unprecedented competitiveness. In the past, the ANC has been accused of distributing food parcels to buy votes, using government resources to boost electioneering, and issuing tenders to raise campaign funds. And no one reading about the alleged activities of the State Security Agency could be assured of its neutrality. Maintenance of the IEC’s professionalism and independence is sacrosanct.

If past elections in democratic South Africa are a reliable guide, the incumbent in the Union Buildings deserves the benefit of the doubt. It’s a proud history. What has happened in Zambia, Zimbabwe and elsewhere at election time is not fated to happen here. But South Africans must nevertheless be prepared. The better angels of the ANC have not been seen for a while.