The high-stakes democratic choices facing Africa in 2022

IN 2022, national polls will be held in Somalia, Mali, Guinea, and Chad, after being delayed or disrupted, according to the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies (ACSS).

Millions of people will also be heading to polling booths in Kenya, Angola, Somaliland and Libya in some of the continent’s most decisive polls.

Additionally, nine legislative elections have been scheduled in Libya (February 15), the Gambia (April 22), Somaliland (May 31), Republic of the Congo (July), Senegal (July), Lesotho (September), São Tomé and Principe (October), Equatorial Guinea (November) and Tunisia (December 17).

The ACSS warns that in this busy election year, some of these polls could turn out to be a charade, serving only leaders desperate to add a fig leaf of legitimacy to their authoritarian rule.

But analysts posit that despite the many existential threats to democracy in Africa, elections are of themselves agents of change and will eventually alter the political destiny of Africa.

According to political analyst and attorney Kissinger Kakai, voting is the basic building block for democracy that gives people the power to control their government.

“A country must be designed under a rule of law, that will include three arms of government or politics…the executive, the judiciary and the legislature, hence you’re validating the very fundamentals of human rights, that every citizen of any country has a right of choice, to elect a leader that they want,” he told bird.

“So election and rule of law are twin cousins, you cannot have a rule of law without elections, and you cannot have elections without the rule of law. That also makes a country buy into the international community, because the international framework, observers, donors and so forth, want to invest in a country for purposes of development, whether political, economic, cultural, or social, when there is rule of law, and we can only have a country, which has a rule of law when they carry out elections.”

He argues that voting then becomes “an avenue that leads to rule of law,” sentiments that were echoed by Associate Fellow at the HORN International Institute for Strategic Studies, Professor Macharia Munene.

Macharia told bird that elections may be flawed but they give people confidence that they are participants in the governance process.

“Leaders who may be crooked…, should not be an excuse for not holding or giving people an opportunity to feel as if they are participating in governance,” he said, suggesting that democracy was something that Africa would continue to aspire to.

“The issue then becomes one of ensuring that the process and the conduct of those elections are as acceptable as they can be,” he explained.

“In terms of practice, no country in the world practices textbook democracy because you always find shortcomings everywhere. So they adjust it to the environment in which they find themselves,” Macharia said.

On the other hand, the ACSS believes that elections slated for this year will have wider political implications than usual in Africa.

“There is little that is ordinary about the African elections slated for 2022. With multiple elections intended to restart democratic processes and resume constitutional governance, Africa’s elections in 2022 will be unlike anything the continent has seen in recent years,” it said in a report.

The growing impact of elections in Africa comes on the back of massive growth in mobile penetration and the access to social media that comes with that, poll technology, a raging pandemic and an outspoken youthful demographic that is changing the order of political courtship.

Increasingly, politicians in elective positions in Africa are building their campaigns around social media and other forms of digital messaging.

At the same time, Africa’s youth, informed and galvanised by a unity of purpose, are not just flexing their demographic muscle at the ballot but also demanding that there is a ballot after each electoral cycle. They are also demanding more political hygiene, where tainted politicians are forced to resign.

The result is that politicians, including wannabe authoritarians, are being forced to hold elections and live up to their campaign pledges.

Those in power are also being forced to change tack, engaging more with the youth more intimately and ensuring their voices are heard, even if it means dressing like them.

Social media has become instrumental in Africa’s political struggles where the youth mobilised and led revolutions that toppled dictatorship and ageing leaders. This occurred famously during the Arab Spring that swept across Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt and Libya – and more recently, in Sudan – or influenced the outcome, as in Nigeria’s 2015 poll that brought Muhammadu Buhari to power and more recently in Zambia, where Hakainde Hichelema famously, and to many, surprisingly, overcame incumbent Edgar Lungu at the country’s 2021 poll, thanks to a powerful youth engagement on social media.

In the example of the Arab Spring countries, however, as the youth took the streets, the army seized power, often on the pretext of ensuring stability.

In the past decade alone, the military has taken advantage of political uprisings to seize power in Egypt, Zimbabwe, Guinea, Sudan and Mali.

In Guinea, the military led by Col Mamady Doumbouya deposed President Alpha Condé in a coup, citing rampant corruption, disregard for human rights and economic mismanagement under the 83-year-old leader.

In Egypt, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has been president since 2014, after he led the military’s overthrow of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi amid mass protests against his rule.

The script was the same in Zimbabwe after the army seized power and ended Robert Mugabe’s 37-year rule. He was 93 years old.

Kakai argues that countries can recover from coups and reform their politics, alluding to Ghana and Nigeria that are thriving democracies, despite previous coups d’états.

In Sudan, a deadly power play continues as the youth in that state continue to push for democratic rule after the military took control of the levers of power.

Between 2020 and 2021, Colonel Assimi Goïta seized power in Mali twice and overthrew two governments in a span of nine months in what was called a “coup within a coup”. He first deposed the former head of state Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, on 18 August 2020, then in May last year seized power again, detaining transitional President Bah Ndaw and Prime Minister Moctar Ouane, accusing them of failing in their mandate and trying to sabotage the West African state’s transition to democracy.

One result of these high-profile political uprisings and military power grabs is that African leaders are doing more and more to appease the populace through better political and economic governance. That includes holding elections, however flawed. And, argues the ACSS, the result can also be significant, even when the incumbent is not removed.

“Given the legitimizing authority that a credible electoral process can bring, it is the manner in which these elections are managed, more than the specific outcomes, that will be significant for shaping Africa’s governance and security environment,” the Centre stated in a recent publication.

ACSS noted that despite a myriad of challenges surrounding Libya’s electoral process, for example, millions of Libyans continue to aspire for a democratic government.

“They remember the authoritarianism, impunity, and human rights abuses of the Gaddafi era and are determined to prevent the re-emergence of a new despot,” it said.

“Therefore, while genuine democratic processes are novel, large numbers of Libyans have collected their ballot cards, thousands are planning to run for parliamentary seats, and many more are intent on participating and having their voices heard in Libya’s embryonic democratic enterprise.”

Initially slated for December 2020, Somalia’s electoral calendar has been repeatedly delayed, but will now be held February 25 (next month), where President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed alias Farmaajo is seeking a second term, in the state’s indirect presidential election.

According to ACSS, a “silver lining in the jostling between the President, Prime Minister, and FMS is that Somalia is forging, in fits and starts, a system of checks and balances on its executive branch and an open debate on what a free and fair electoral process entails.”

For Chad, the Centre said the state’s off-cycle 2022 elections are an attempt to move it to a civilian-led, democratic government following the demise of longtime authoritarian leader Idriss Déby in April 2021.

It is a similar situation for the anticipated elections in Mali and Guinea, which are largely under military control.

In Angola, the ruling Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) has not held local elections for over three years, denying the opposition momentum before the presidential elections.

Nonetheless, elections are scheduled to be held in August, a move welcomed by most pro-democracy crusaders in that state.

According to the Brookings Institute, Angola’s presidential elections will be a “test for an ambivalent reformer (João Lourenço)” who took power from Jose Eduardo dos Santos after a 38-year rule.

In Kenya, millions are hoping to entrench democracy as they head to the polls in August to elect the country’s fifth president, an election widely viewed by observers as its most divisive and competitive.

It pits deputy president William Ruto and his political nemesis former premier Raila Odinga.

Next door in Somaliland, the breakaway region from Somalia is set to hold presidential and legislative elections that have resulted in periodic alternations of power.

President Muse Bihi Abdi of the ruling Kulmiye party is seeking a second 5-year term.

According to ACSS, Somaliland “has navigated a positive democratic trajectory because of the strong democratic culture that has been embraced by its nearly 6 million residents.”

Kakai compared democracy to the growth of any human.

“I think elections are like a baby. You have to nurture democracy, elections, rule of law, governance and growth of an institution, the various stages that the baby will go through before they mature,” he said.

/bird story agency

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