During 2016, the citizens of seventeen African nations voted for their government. Elections in 2016 have confirmed the mixed record of democratic progress, stagnation, and regression that characterises contemporary Africa. Several key states will hold elections in 2017, which is likely to represent another crucial year for the future of democracy in the sub-Saharan region.
Elections do not equal democracy. Voting, however, represent a fundamental ingredient for democracy and a driver of political change in a country. This is especially true in Africa. During the past twenty-five years, the continent has experienced a wave of political reforms, whose sole common denominator were elections and multipartyism. Elections and election-related events – such as the respect or violation of presidential term-limits, and leadership changes, from intra-party successions to turnovers – could thus represent milestones to track sub-Saharan regimes’ divergent trajectories. Elections in Africa have always catalysed the ongoing political dynamics, and are likely to continue to do so in the future, for better or for worse.
Democratisation in contemporary Africa displays quite diverging trends of progress, stagnation, and regression “by elections”. In several countries, the institutionalisation of elections has proved to be an ephemeral achievement, and an outright reversal of the process of democratisation can be observed. In about one-fifth of sub-Saharan states, for instance, old and new leaders have violated, removed or amended presidential term-limits and maintained their grip on power. Burundi, Rwanda and Congo-Brazzaville are the most recent cases. Significantly, these countries are among the “latecomers” of the African wave of democratic reform, having established electoral rule only in the 2000s. Elsewhere, political development is idling, elections after elections, although in countries such as Mozambique and Tanzania ruling elites show some respect for the rules of the game, at least favouring succession at the executive between members of the same party, once a term limit is met. In a third group of countries democracy advances, not without difficulties. Consolidation remains an ambitious goal, even for the oft-cited successful cases of Ghana, Benin and South Africa. In most of these and other countries, however, elections are now routine, rival elites generally comply with the rules and accept turnover in power not only in theory, but also in practice.
The mixed record of progress, stagnation, and backsliding has been confirmed in 2016. Countries such as Equatorial Guinea and Uganda remain at the mercy of their respective strongmen. Incumbent Denis Sassou Nguesso unsurprisingly won in Congo-Brazzaville, while elections have been postponed until 2018 in the neighbour Congo-Kinshasa, where President Joseph Kabila is increasingly likely to run for a third term. On the other hand, democracy is arguably in bad shape even in South Africa, under the longstanding but increasingly problematic hegemony of the ruling African National Congress. During the year, Jacob Zuma has survived a motion to impeach and a no-confidence vote. Calls to step down came even from some prominent members of the ANC, which has suffered a significant electoral setback in August. About two months later, finally, Ethiopia has declared the state of emergency to handle the Oromo’s revolt, quite strikingly highlighting the legitimacy deficit of a government coalition that in 2015 claimed 100 percent of parliamentary seats.
On the bright side, 2016 has begun with a January runoff that made the Central African Republic’s return to electoral rule official, following a few years of interruption. The country thus followed in the footsteps of the likes of Madagascar, Mali and Burkina-Faso. Good news also arrived from Benin, Ghana, Zambia and a few other countries that show an increasing attachment to political democracy. Ghana has taken the lead of this group of African democratic “frontrunners”, with a third executive turnover in fifteen years, the first in a non-open seat election, in particular. On the other hand, the future of Gambia remains highly uncertain. Incumbent Yahya Jammeh rejected the election’s results, after initially conceding defeat. If he will ultimately decide to step down in due time, on January 18th, the December election could represent a political turning point for the country, especially if the winner Adama Barrow will fulfil the promise of introducing term limits.
Whatever happens in tiny Gambia, no doubt the decision of a longstanding leader to abide by the rules of the game, or to challenge the constitutional order and the stability of the country, will weigh on the upcoming electoral rounds in the continent. 2017 is likely to represent another crucial year for democracy in Africa. Paul Kagame will most probably win his bid for a third mandate in Rwanda, which he rules since 1994. During the year, two other “latecomers” are voting their president. Unless Jose dos Santos will have second thoughts, his name will not appear in the candidate list and Angola, which he has governed since 1979, will have a new president next August. Another open-seat election will take place in Liberia, where Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has already served two consecutive terms. Opposition chances to win increase when the ruling party runs the election with a new candidate. For Liberia, it could be the first peaceful leadership change, after several years of civil war between 1989 and 2003. Kenya deserves a separate mention. The country is approaching its sixth electoral round and is among the few to have passed the so-called “double turnover” test. A country undergoes a key step in its democratic development when elections result in an incumbent accepting defeat and peacefully handing over power to an opposition leader, which subsequently does the same. A victory of incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta appears the most likely scenario, in this case, but the integrity of the electoral process is at stake, especially considering the flawed votes in 2007-2008 and 2013.
The results of these upcoming polls notwithstanding, electoral rule is rooting in sub-Saharan politics. Alternation in office is the exception, whereas irregularities remain the rule. Yet each electoral round opens a window of opportunity. The first episode of turnover in Nigeria in 2015, for instance, confirms that elections can trigger political change, even after years of apparent stagnation. While leadership change through elections is not evidence of successful democratisation, and certainly not a solution to all the economic, social and political problems of a country, it nonetheless represents an unequivocal sign that something is going on, and a potential springboard for further reform.
Andrea Cassani, Post-doc research Fellow, Università degli Studi di Milano
* An extended version of the article is forthcoming in the January issue of "Africa e Affari" (in Italian)