String of tense elections tests Africa’s democracies

String of tense elections tests Africa’s democracies

By Gabriele Steinhauser

A sequence of elections throughout Africa threaten to roll back democracy on the continent and destabilize some of the few economies around the world still projected to grow this year.

Within the mineral-rich West African nation of Guinea, the military has been deployed towards opposition supporters who accuse the federal government of having rigged an Oct. 18 election that handed President Alpha Condé a controversial third term.

Before the year ends, voters in six extra nations in sub-Saharan Africa will head to the polls, testing establishments in regional powerhouses, including Tanzania, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Niger and the Central African Republic.

Whereas most of those nations haven’t seen the ballooning coronavirus infections witnessed within in the West, disruptions brought on by unsure election outcomes may compound the extreme financial injury wrought by government-mandated lockdowns.

The elections may reinforce the regimes of African incumbents’ working to cement their rule by overhauling constitutions and passing legal guidelines aimed at silencing dissent.

“Democracy has declined. There are actually fewer democracies in Africa than 20 years ago,” Christopher Fomunyoh, a Cameroonian tutorial with the Washington-based Nationwide Democratic Institute, said in a September submission to the US Congress Overseas Affairs Committee. “Many nations in Africa are failing in their efforts to consolidate constitutional rule, in regard to respecting presidential time period limits.”

Took up arms

Guinea’s electoral agency said the octogenarian Condé acquired almost 60 percent of the vote in the presidential election, a win that opposition chief Cellou Diallo, a former prime minister who has failed twice to unseat the president, disputes; Diallo says he is the rightful winner. He has called on his supporters “to fight” to protect his self-declared victory. At least 21 people have died as a result. 

Observers from the African Union—typically seen as reluctant to call out fellow African leaders—expressed its satisfaction with the poll. The AU and the United Nations have been trying to mediate peace talks.

Celebrated in 2010 as Guinea’s first democratically elected president, Condé pushed through a constitutional amendment in March that allowed him to stay in power until 2032—when he will be 94 years.

In neighbouring Ivory Coast, the world’s biggest cocoa producer and one of the fastest-growing economies on the continent, President Alassane Ouattara can now seek a 3rd term, which his opponents say is unconstitutional. Ouattara argues that a new structure, crafted in 2016, reset the clock on an authorized two-term period—a view that has been sanctioned by the nation’s highest court.

Two of Ouattara’s most formidable challengers—Guillaume Soro, a former insurgent chief and speaker of parliament, and former President Laurent Gbagbo, not too long ago acquitted of crimes towards humanity by the International Criminal Court—were barred from the October 31 ballot. The pair, who enjoy massive followings, called for civil disobedience, with the rest of the opposition threatening
to boycott the poll. 

Clashes between protesters and security agents have already left more than 30 people useless, with the violence bringing to mind recollections of the civil conflict that preceded Ouattara’s 2010 victory over Gbagbo, during which more than 3,000 Ivorians died.

The elections taking place during the pandemic are happening without the presence and actions of international observers, and Western governments are preoccupied with escalating virus outbreaks at home.

“The coronavirus has allowed many governments to be extra centred on issues of their nations and not be involved with international affairs,” stated Thierno Diallo, a Guinean opposition politician and adviser to Cellou Diallo, with whom he shares a surname.

The European Union, often one of the most important stakeholders in African elections, is dispatching several specialists as observers to the election in Ivory Coast, down from a typical mission of round 100 observers. In the meantime, observers from the Carter Centre—the US-based human-rights and pro-democracy group—met with civil society and different actors through video calls.


In Tanzania, incumbent John Magufuli looked set to win after the country blocked social media applications ahead of the election, days after the state issued a directive restricting text messaging within the country. This builds on earlier legislation outlawing international press from covering developments in the country without local media partnerships.

Heavy-handed tactics by Tanzania’s government to silence opponents, the media and civil society threaten to undermine the legitimacy of the presidential election — and the country’s reputation for political stability.

Western diplomats, opposition leaders and human rights groups accuse President John Magufuli of trying to fend off his main challenger, Tundu Lissu, by cracking down on political activity, restricting and barring journalists, and passing laws that tighten his grip on the country. 

Despite these alarming developments, the image is far from uniform in the continent. Last year in Sudan, the 30-year dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir was brought to an end by peaceful protests spearheaded by girls and civil-society activists. In Malawi, the opposition in June gained a rerun of a 2019 election after the nation’s supreme court docket nullified the vote for irregularities.

Ken Opalo, an assistant professor at Georgetown College’s Faculty of Overseas Service, said the absence of Western observers can inspire the civil-society and opposition teams to work together for the realization of more transparent polls, as it did in Malawi. Nevertheless, he warns, voters bogged down by widespread corruption and lack of financial alternatives may also be drawn by the promise of a powerful tribal chief.

In Tanzania, Magufuli—nicknamed the Bulldozer—used his first term to go head-to-head with multinational corporations, pledging to win a much bigger share of the nation’s mineral wealth for its 56 million citizens.

In June, the World Bank upgraded Tanzania’s economic status, which eschewed a strict coronavirus lockdown to move from low to lower-middle income status. But the Bulldozer used the pandemic to hand himself extra judicial powers that made it possible for him to shut down media houses and arrest opposition politicians for attending routine social gathering occasions.

“In a lot of countries, the state’s capability to shore up the guarantees of democracy didn’t pan out,” says Opalo. ( 

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