The fragile state of electoral democracy in Africa

ELECTIONS are a critical component of liberal democracy, serving as a means for peaceful leadership transition and a mechanism for political legitimacy.

However, the absence or failure of elections often leads to political dictatorships and personalised rule in Africa.

The recent surge in democratic enthusiasm has led to competitive and multiparty elections, providing an opportunity for civil society organisations to engage politically with the State. Despite this, the organisation and conduct of elections remain deeply flawed.

Issues such as election rigging, violence and the annulment of results are common. This trend is moving towards a return to autocratic governance under the guise of civilian rule.

Consequently, elections in many African countries are becoming a diminishing reflection of democracy, threatening the already fragile democratic process.

The death of electoral democracy in Africa is a concerning phenomenon, characterised by the erosion of free, credible and transparent elections.

For example, it is often said that the ballot box does not decide the outcome of elections, but rather the gun does, highlighting the influence of violence and coercion in the electoral process.

Similarly, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, contentious election results have eroded public trust in the electoral machinery, further undermining the legitimacy of the democratic process.

These issues are symptomatic of a broader pattern across the continent, where the electoral landscape is marred by rigging, violence and the annulment of results.

This trend threatens to reverse the progress made toward democratic governance, with elections becoming a mere facade and failing to reflect the will of the people.

The persistent challenges faced by electoral democracy in Africa not only impede the attainment of desired outcomes, but also impinge on the legitimacy of elected governments, casting a long shadow over the future of democracy on the continent.

Elections in Africa have at times been accompanied by wanton violence, inflicting immense anguish and suffering upon the citizenry. Grave issues, including fraud, disputes, and violence, have marred the electoral process, resulting in loss of life and violations of the sacrosanct liberties of speech and expression.

Incumbent parties frequently prioritise the preservation of their hold on to power over fostering substantive economic progress, thereby exacerbating disillusionment among the electorate.

The recent 2023 elections in the DRC serve as a stark example of the turmoil that can accompany electoral processes. According to reports from the United Nations, protests triggered by the disputed election results led to tragic consequences, with no fewer than 34 individuals losing their lives and an additional 59 suffering grievous injuries. There is a noticeable lack of widespread respect for the rule of law in some regions.

A notable example is the case of Yoweri Museveni, the President of Uganda. Andrew Mwenda, a political commentator, has pointed out that: “Museveni has historically been able to manipulate elections in his favor because he controls Uganda’s military, judiciary and electoral commission with an iron fist.”

This situation is a significant deviation from democratic principles, where power should be vested in the people rather than concentrated in the hands of a single individual.

However, the current state of affairs represents the complete opposite, with power being centralised and controlled by one person.

The case of Alpha Conde in Guinea Conakry serves as a poignant example of the challenges facing electoral democracy in Africa. Conde manipulated the constitution to favour his bid for a third term, raising questions about the integrity of the electoral process.

One might wonder why elections are held in Africa when they are often marred by irregularities such as illegal votes and electoral manipulations by party workers.

The increasing presence of regimes that exhibit despotic, tyrannical, and dictatorial characteristics while professing to be democratic is further aggravating the situation.

This discrepancy severely undermines the legitimacy of the electoral process, casting doubt on the integrity of democratic institutions and the fairness of elections.

In Zimbabwe, elections held since 1980 have been marred by controversy amid allegations of rigging, vote buying, intimidation and violence.

To achieve true democracy in Africa, it is crucial to consider the socio-political and economic context of African societies rather than relying solely on borrowed liberal democratic principles.

Africa must develop its own approach to democracy, emphasising power sharing and ensuring that no individual holds presidential power indefinitely.

The bottom line is that when citizens cannot exercise their rights, the very purpose of holding elections is called into question.

However, there is a glimmer of hope as several African countries have successfully undergone democratic transitions.

Countries like Botswana, Malawi, and Zambia have achieved full democratisation, exemplifying seamless transfers of power from ruling parties to opposition formations. These countries have become models of economic advancement, instilling optimism that other states, such as Zimbabwe, DRC, Uganda and Ghana, can follow their path towards prosperity through democratisation.

  •  Mautuka and Gomo are studying towards a BSC Honors Degree in International Relations and Diplomacy at Africa University. They write here in their capacities. 

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