Trials of Democracy: African Elections and the Perils of Corruption

Photo: Voice of America

By Joel Moffat – Contributor

The last year has seen a series of controversial elections across sub-Saharan Africa that have emphasised the volatile position of democracy. The continent’s upcoming elections for 2021 will be reflective of these political shifts. Despotic politics and violent instability characterise these recent politics. Critically the recent elections of the Central African Republic, Uganda, and Cote D’Ivoire foreshadow instability for those upcoming. The democratic institutions of Africa continue their trial for survival.

Central African Republic

The elections for the Central African Republic last December saw President Fausin-Archange Touadera seize an incumbent victory amidst significant pressure from rebel groups. The Francophone Republic of 5 million people contains considerable economic potential, found in lucrative mineral deposits, but 2/3 of the territory outside the capital of Bangui remain independent of government control. The security situation means that voting did not occur in 29 out of 71 of the country’s prefectures, and many in the country’s remotest areas did not even receive voting cards.

The Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC), provides the primary opposition to Touadera’s new government. This is an unlikely rebel alliance of northern Muslims, including Chadian and Sudanese fighters, and various Christian militia groups. Francois Bozize, president of the republic from 2003 to 2013, is believed to be closely connected to the coalition. Following a period of exile, Bozize’s return to the republic in 2019 poses a significant threat to the newly elected government. The initial flaring of violence came from the barring of Bozize from candidacy due to not meeting the ‘good morality’ requirements. The ex-president has multiple accusations of human’s rights abuses, including the incitement of genocide, with a withstanding arrest warrant for murder and torture.

The lack of security during the election restricted critical food and medical supplies from reaching the most vulnerable regions, prompting a sharp increase in commodity prices. The CPC cut off important trade routes connected to Bangui,  including the critical road connecting the capital to Cameroon. The price of a bag of flour tripled within two months. The violence surrounding the election has also created a national displacement crisis. All 6 neighbouring countries have taken in refugees over the voting  period, with more than 100,000 being displaced overall. January 13th alone saw 10,000 flee across the Ubangi river to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Ultimately the violence of the election should be placed in the context of the intermittent civil war that has impaired the country since the fall of Bokassa in the late 1970s. Despite the preservation of the democratic system, there is no clear answer as to the long-term potential of Touadera’s new government. With assistance from Russian and Rwandan troops, the rebel siege of Bangui was ultimately unsuccessful, yet much of the republic remains outside the government’s hand, possibly more than before the election. The reclamation of the rule of law across the national territory will prove decisive in breaking the cycle of violence.   

Uganda

The Ugandan elections of late 2020 are also of significance here, highlighting prevailing disparities and despotism within African democracy. The election granted Yoweri Museveni his 5th decade of presidency, securing 58.6% of the vote. Museveni has held a tight grip on the country since the fall of Idi Amin, with ¾ of Uganda’s proportionally youthful voting population having never experienced another leading statesman. Older voters have enjoyed the stability Museveni has built following the ruthless authoritarianism of the Amin years. His recent success in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic has further entrenched this support, with only 335 deaths in a country of over 40 million.

This victory arose out of one of the bloodiest elections in modern Uganda. A series of protests in November saw the deaths of 54 people. Bobi Wine, the famous musician and favoured opposition candidate, concluded his campaign in early December 2020, concerned over growing levels of violence. This announcement followed a clash in which Wine’s car was shot at, and key members of his campaigning team were severely injured. Despite the premature end to his election campaign, support for Wine remains strong, gaining 34.8% of the vote. Repressive actions taken by Museveni’s government, such as ordering an internet shut-down the day before voting and restricting media access to Wine have seemingly benefitted him. The repeated arrests of Wine have increased his popular support, despite not being his explicit strategy.

Museveni remains one of the world’s longest-serving leaders. Amendments to the Ugandan constitution have removed limits on the maximum number of presidential terms and the age of candidates. It was only in 2006 that the first multi-party elections were held in Uganda. This February, Bobi Wine filed a petition against Museveni at the country’s highest court, accusing the military of several incursions of democracy, such as casting ballots in peoples name and hounding voters away from voting stations. The potential success of this is doubtful, with the court’s bias for Museveni, but shows the hope for a more democratic future in one of the continent’s most influential countries.  

Cote D’Ivoire

The fragility of democracy is also evident in Cote D’Ivoire. The elections of October 2020 saw President Alassane Ouattara secure a victory amidst rising political tensions. Ouattara’s running for office has been deemed unconstitutional, breaking statutes limiting a president to running for two terms. A series of deadly protests across the country saw an estimated 85 deaths across the election season, the worst violence the country has seen since the Civil War of the early 2010s. This conflict was the product of a controversial election that saw Ouattara’s original rise to presidency.   

Ouattara’s victory, winning 94% of the vote, was quickly denounced by opposition parties. The subsequent parliamentary elections that occurred last month may prove decisive in preventing the outbreak conflict. These were carried out peacefully, with the conflict that saw thousands die still fresh in the mind of many Ivorians. Despite still retaining a majority, it highlighted declining support for Ouattara, with his party obtaining 137 out of 255 seats in the national assembly. The democratic institutions of Cote D’Ivoire have been seemingly maintained, but Ouattara remains an unconstitutional president. Any further attempt to undermine democratic values could provoke a national crisis.    

2021 will see several high-profile elections in African countries of great political influence. It will remain to be seen whether the level of violence and controversy of the previous year will continue. In Zambia,  President Edgar Lungu’s once strong grip on power remains uncertain coming into the election. The country’s economy is projected to shrink by 4.8% next year, mainly due to the falling international commodity price of copper. The most significant African election in 2021 will be held in Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous country. This will be closely watched, following Abiy Ahmed’s controversial role managing the conflict in the Tigray region. Despite beginning his presidential term with optimism, Ahmed’s handling of the Tigray conflict has received an overwhelmingly negative commentary. It will constitute the important narrative to the election campaign. A victory for Ahmed could prove controversial.

With the recent African elections discussed here, it is clear that democratic institutions are being placed under increasing pressure. Long serving statesmen continue to bend constitutions to their will, a ticking time bomb. Incumbents in Uganda and Cote D’Ivoire have comfortably extended their rule, but in the context growing popular resentment. The political instability and humanitarian challenges that can erupt from these elections present a threat to already vulnerable state. Those of the Central African Republic provided the impetus to exploit such instability, resulting in one of the world’s current political tragedies. For a country as influential as Ethiopia, there will be a greater incentive to run a free and fair election to manage these rising hostilities. A great burden has been placed on the upcoming elections of 2021 to run with honesty and efficiency, as the future of democratic freedom for continent remains at a precarious crossroad.   

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