Efem Nkam Ubi, Senior Research Fellow, Nigerian Institute of International Affairs

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Elections don't mean democracy is flourishing in Africa 08 Mar 2019

A scene of voting in an African election

Generally speaking, elections are central to the practice of liberal democracy all over the world. The electoral process offers a way by which the people can freely decide who governs them. Elections are, therefore, an expression of the will of the people and the basis for the authority and legitimacy of government. However, this is not saying that elections are the only component of democracy; there is more to the democratic process than periodic elections.  
Records of elections in Africa and other developing countries are, for the most part, not encouraging. For example, after more than two decades of Africa’s recent wave of democratisation, many countries in the continent have experienced many episodic political crises, especially during or in the aftermath of elections. From tensions within political parties to conflicts between rival parties, there is often disagreements over any number of issues, particularly the outcome of the elections.

In 2019, 14 African countries; Nigeria, Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, Madagascar, Algeria, Benin, South Africa, Malawi, Chad, Botswana, Mozambique, Tunisia, Namibia, and Mauritania will hold elections. These elections will either lead to a change of government or the continuation of the incumbents in these countries. The fears still remain as to whether or not the outcomes of these elections would truly depict the wishes of the people. What is certain, however, is that the elections will be the true test of democracy in these African countries.

In 2014, Foreign Policy magazine observed that, even though most countries are formal electoral democracies, only a small number of democracies that have emerged over the past decades have actually imbibed true democratic canons and best practices. In a lot of countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, the only claim to democracy is anchored on the regular conduct of elections. However, institutions that could further give impetus to democratic consolidation are not nurtured and developed. In Africa, too much emphasis is laid on multiparty elections, whereas not much effort is put into practicing the basic tenets of liberal governance.

Many elections in Africa are not free and fair. Therefore, it becomes impossible to remove underperforming leaders. Under such scenarios, the outcomes of the elections do not represent the voice and the aspirations of the people. Members of many African parliaments are often predominantly members of the ruling parties.

American scholars, Robert H. Jackson and Carl G. Rosberg, noted in 1982 that, constitutional and institutional offices that ought to be independent of the personal authority of rulers do not operate as such in many African countries. Instead, pseudo-democracies hold sway on the continent. As a result, a number of African leaders perpetuate themselves in power and consistently marginalise minority groups. A few instances include Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, who has perpetuated himself in office since 1996 when the first elections under his government were held. Cameroon’s President Paul Biya, won his 7th term in office last October, having being in power since 1982. In Rwanda, President Paul Kagame has ruled the country since 2000.

Evidence across Africa shows that while multiparty elections and universal suffrage are important formal criteria in determining who should govern they have not ushered sufficient democratic dividends to societies. In fact, periodic elections have not provided any cure to the myriads of political and social problems facing many states in Africa.

Conducting elections is a minimalist element of democracy. Therefore, using elections alone to maintain power does not give the political leadership in that context democratic legitimacy, especially when the elections are flawed.

Moreover, because elections in many cases have never portrayed the people’s wishes, the process is often characterized by opposition boycotts, low voter turnouts, massive fraud, including vote-rigging and falsification of election results, and violence. Deriving from that, it is pertinent to contend that, while elections have the potentials to deepen the quality of democratic governance of a country, they can also potentially distort and mar the democratic system.

Conflicts and violence that have taken place on the heels of elections have perpetuated strife between religious and ethnic groups of people in various African countries. In some extreme cases, election-induced violence can instigate military putsches. For instance, the history of Nigerian elections since independence has been characterized by chaos and crisis. Every election has been greeted with violence, unwanted destruction of properties and deaths.

In a nutshell, while all democracies hold elections, not all elections are democratic. Undemocratic elections are those elections in which there is only one person with no alternative choices. Such elections may also offer several candidates for elective posts, but the government in power would ensure, through intimidation or rigging, that only the anointed candidates are chosen.

For instance, in a study in 2017, Vincent Ibonye and I observed that since 1999, elections in Nigeria have taken a dimension that can be described, at best, as ‘selection’ rather than elections, giving rise to what we labelled as ‘Selectoral Democracy’ instead of ‘Electoral Democracy’. To illustrate further, after Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980, Robert Mugabe established his personal control and got rid of the Senate. In fact, elections in Zimbabwe, under Mugabe, were far from being competitive. The elections were marred by violence and intimidation, coupled with electoral fraud.

In some other African countries, the constitutions are altered to allow many sitting presidents stand for re-election, contrary to the people’s wishes. However, when this tactic was attempted in some other African countries, such as Nigeria, Senegal and Burkina Faso, it was resisted by the people and failed.

In summation, the African political scenario is clear about the fact that elections are a relatively blunt instrument of political representation. Hence, the nature of elections in Africa cannot be the standard measurement of democracy. Many elections in Africa have been adjudged to be filled with irregularities and often rigged in favour of the incumbent. In other words, we can conclude that the disillusionment with the practice of democracy on the African continent today can be attributed to election failures.