“Challenged”, “under threat”, “under attack”, “in danger”, “in crisis”. Over the past few years, the progress of democracy across world regions has caused concern, as the repression of dissent, infringements on media freedoms, ballot tampering, and other anti-democratic trends went on the rise. Then the pandemic came, and it did not seem to make things any better. But how is sub-Saharan Africa – a difficult but not impregnable ground for democratic advances – coping with this evolving situation in the year 2020? How are the region’s fragile electoral practices doing in the time of the pandemic?
Africa opened up its politics in the early 1990s, as several previously closed and often highly-personalised regimes introduced multiparty voting. Progresses were certainly very uneven (with a number of countries remaining under the same ruling cliques, if under an electoral maquillage) and continuities were found everywhere (as was often the case with the persistence of corruption and ethnic discrimination). Yet a whole new season for the continent’s politics had been ushered in. In many places across the region, universal suffrage, voting for different parties, elected assemblies, new media, and rulers’ replacement went from being rarities to becoming common components of the political scenario.
The continental momentum, however, largely stopped after the first fifteen years. Whatever democratic progress had been made – already clearly incomplete – it then came to a standstill. Over the next fifteen years or so, fewer steps forward could be observed, with things remaining stable at best on a regional level (see Figure 1), and backsliding taking place in a number of individual cases, including Benin, Cape Verde, Mali, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, and Zambia.
Figure 1 – Electoral democracy and liberal democracy in sub-Saharan Africa.
Source: Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem, https://www.v-dem.net/en/). Note: Both the Electoral Democracy Index and the Liberal Democracy Index vary on a 0-1 scale. The regional average levels of these indexes are reported.
From a long-term perspective, Africa’s road towards democracy was always bound to be an extended struggle, as it was elsewhere on the globe. Amid the ups and downs, further improvements such as a better consolidation of the constitutional constraints on the maximum number of presidential mandates will require time.
Yet part of current and future obstacles will be of a different nature, somewhat more related to conjunctural developments. The unpredictable advent of the COVID-19 pandemic represents one such obstacle – even in a region where, so far, neither diffusion nor victims have apparently reached the dramatic levels recorded elsewhere – causing a double challenge to the protection and promotion of democracy in Africa. On the one hand, the pandemic is bound to produce an indirect political impact via its economic consequences. The economic recession it is causing – expected to fall somewhere between -2.1% and -5.1% – is something most of the region’s young population has not previously experienced in their lifetime. As economic insecurity broadens, it will not spare the ruling groups, as popular frustration and dissent will likely grow and may prove destabilising in some places.
On the other hand – and this is what we are focusing on here – the virus has a more direct impact on electoral processes across the region. Social distancing measures and democracy are not incompatible, but they are not easy bedfellows either. Difficult choices often have to be made with regard to collective activities, from political rallies to voting processes. Even in the United States, many states expanded by-mail voting to confront the new situation. This is hardly an option in Africa. As a result, some sub-Saharan countries opted for postponing local, regional or national votes. The most prominent case is by far Ethiopia’s, where a delicate political transition was meant to face the voters’ judgement last August, but the scheduled poll has been postponed to next year. The legitimate criticisms raised by the opposition clash with the equally legitimate health concerns on the side of the authorities: holding an election in a country of some 115 million people necessarily implies large-scale movements and gatherings.
Many other countries, however, went ahead with holding their votes. Togo just managed to anticipate the arrival of COVID-19 in the region when it had president Faure Gnassingbé re-elected for a fourth mandate, back in February. Three months later, on the other hand, Burundians cast their votes in the midst of a virus outbreak (probably the cause of outgoing president Pierre Nkurunziza’s death, just days after the poll). But it is the last quarter of the year that will see a veritable concentration of elections for the executive in the area. In October, incumbent presidents are seeking re-election in Cote d’Ivoire, Seychelles, Guinea and Tanzania. They shall be followed by Burkina Faso and the Central African Republic in November, and by Ghana and Niger (this last actually an open-seat poll) later in December.
While COVID-19 is and must be a concern, the interruption of electoral processes should be too, and more so in Africa than in other world regions. In challenging times, young and fragile democracies need to prioritize the consolidation of the progresses made so far, even if this merely consists of carrying on the “routine” of elections. If African countries will be able to do so, thus avoiding steps back and derailments, the still long and bumpy road to fuller democratization could more easily resume when more favourable circumstances will be restored.