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Tough economic conditions are fuelling demands for change but authoritarian leaders are thwarting the popular vote
This year's combination of the international commodity price crash and the Chinese economic slowdown, alongside a bumper political season with 16 elections in just twelve months, is proving harrowing for Africa's democracy activists.
Although opposition parties have made breakthroughs in Cape Verde and Nigeria, recent elections in Congo-Brazzaville, Niger, Uganda and Zanzibar, Tanzania, point to three trends that are harmful to political institutions and stability: (1) incumbents are circumventing electoral technology; (2) the rise of 'illiberal democracy' and 'authoritarian developmentalism'; and (3) more marginalised opposition parties are boycotting elections.
Africa votes in 2016
|Yoweri Museveni repressed opposition and fixed vote
|Presidential & legislative
|Sporadic organisational problems
|Presidential & legislative
|Mahamadou Issoufou won presidential vote in 2nd round after fixes
|Widely seen as credible
|Over 30 contenders and credible poll
|Denis Sassou-Nguesso pushed constitutional changes, fixed election
|Zanzibar election rerun widely condemned
|Credible vote after hesitation on reforms
|Constitutional court to decide on 2nd round vote
|Referendum on Darfur
|Omer el Beshir repressed opposition, fixed vote, threatens new offensive
|Teodoro Obiang repressed opposition and fixed vote
|Idriss Déby Itno repressed opposition and fixed vote
|Ismaïl Omar Guelleh repressed opposition and fixed vote
|Ali Ben Bongo in tight race, history of fixing
|Edgar Lungu in tight race; his supporters threaten opposition
|Shootings raise tension
|Critical test of Jacob Zuma’s leadership. Good record of credible post-apartheid elections
|Presidential & legislative
|Joseph Kabila tries to prolong grip on power
|Presidential & legislative
|History of very close but credible elections
|Highly repressive regime
|Alassane Ouattara’s 2015 presidential victory boosts his alliance
Taken together, these developments are likely to undermine confidence in the ballot box among losing candidates and communities. They increase the prospects that growing numbers of disenchanted activists will try other strategies – such as force – to gain power.
Firstly, faith in technology as a means to prevent election rigging is proving misplaced, partly because the technology does not always function as intended. In the Kenyan elections of 2013, over 50% of the electronic kits designed to verify the registered voters at polling stations and so prevent multiple voting, failed.
Later in the process, a mobile telephone transmission system that was intended to prevent rigging during tallying embarrassingly failed due to a server error. No one was held to account for those failures, which could have prompted a repeat of the violent clashes that followed the 2007 elections (AC Vol 57 No 8, Justice in question). Certainly, independent monitors and opposition politicians were convinced that these technological failures were contrived by the well-financed Jubilee coalition of President Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto and their allies in the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (AC Vol 54 No 6, Credibility of the IEBC under fire).
High technology can help the cheaters to disguise their rigging tactics. The general rule is that when the two main parties are pegging level, as they were after a day of results in Kenya in 2013, and the electoral commission suddenly announces a massive technology breakdown, then that is when the fix goes in. In Kenya, after the breakdown was announced and the elections went from digital to analogue, as the tech-savvy local observers described it, the Kenyatta-Ruto alliance began streaking ahead.
Even when the technology does work, it may not prevent electoral manipulation. In Uganda's elections in February, the Electoral Commission used several different pieces of technology, presumably to encourage the electors' confidence. This included the biometric verification of voters and an electronic vote transmission system. Unlike in Kenya, the technology worked fairly well, according to European Union (EU) election observers.
Although the equipment was distributed later, training was described as 'exemplary', even in some remote areas. On the day, there were few of the hitches that marred voting in Kenya. Yet the elections were clearly manipulated (AC Vol 57 No 5, Spender takes all). One big difference with electoral technology is that the rigging starts later in the cycle of campaigning, voting, counting, collation and the announcement of results.
Uganda's veteran opposition leader, Kizza Besigye, pointed to several implausible results in the ruling party's homelands. In Kiruhura District in the Western Region, a key stronghold of President Yoweri Museveni, a striking 67 polling stations recorded a 100% turnout and 43 saw 100% of voters back the President. Such numbers are practically impossible: they mean that not a single person could have died, got sick or left the area since electoral registration. Although these results point to ballot box stuffing, the opposition cannot use such figures to overturn the result of the elections. That's because 100% turnout does not constitute an electoral offence while a 101% turnout does.
Rather than defeating the riggers, new technology may be damaging elections. When such technology is introduced, civil society groups, opposition parties and international organisations invest less in other anti-rigging strategies: those include the training of more effective domestic election monitors, so that every polling station is critically observed, as well as the mobilisation of communities to protect their vote.
Such labour-intensive strategies, which have seen bigger and more effective teams of local monitors, have pushed back against the riggers in Nigeria. Elections there point to the complex relationship between the leadership of the Independent National Electoral Commission, the strength of independent civic groups and the selective use of new technology.
In principle, the Nigerian practice of restricting the number of voters in a queue to 500, then publicly counting the number of votes cast for each candidate, has boosted the credibility of the poll. Yet even in last year's widely praised elections, such checks were swiftly abandoned in the major parties' strongholds in the Niger Delta and in the north-west (AC Vol 56 No 22, The cauldron boils again).
Technology which boosts the power of the monitors, such as mobile phone cameras and text messages to record both the results at each polling station and any shenanigans during voting and counting, definitely helps the anti-riggers. Democracy activists are getting far better organised in producing parallel vote counts, which provide an important check on the national electoral commissions: cellphones and cameras are key tools for that.
However, those opposition parties demanding the use of biometric and electronic voting, as well as biometric electoral registration, will have to assess carefully whether it will help or obstruct accountability. Much of the technology now used in African elections is far more sophisticated and costly than that used in Western polls.
Some of the electronic voting systems marketed in Africa could be used to manipulate results and turnout figures but also to destroy the evidence of their having done so. A couple of Israeli data companies – SuperTech Limited (STL) in Ghana and Nikuv in Zambia and Zimbabwe – have been accused by opposition parties of mismanaging electoral data but they deny any wrongdoing (AC Vol 39 No 6, Moses in the wilderness & Vol 54 No 21, Banda's fortunes turn).
The forward march of African democrats has been halted in many cases. From the mid-1990s onwards, civic activists, journalists and opposition parties managed to secure substantially more freedoms and rights, helped by better communications and more pluralist political systems. Some governments are determinedly pushing back: detaining oppositionists, shutting down social media and, in the case of Congo-Brazzaville, turning off the internet as well as mobiles or in Uganda and many other states, ordering companies to block text messages (short message service). The aim is to stop independent reports of the elections and the tallying of results.
Usually, Western and Asian governments refrain from criticising such tactics or even pronouncing on the legitimacy of elections. Although the EU was a key funder of Kenya's 2013 elections, there was a deafening silence about the credibility of the vote once the technology had failed or been shut down. Significantly, EU officials struggled to reply to questions about just how much they had spent.
Western officials have developed a strangulated lexicon for vote-rigging. One recent confidential appraisal argued that '…despite some isolated malpractices, our assessment is that the announced results generally reflected the political preferences of the electorate.' Roughly translated that means, 'We have no interest in publicly berating this regime for stealing elections.' Such officials find remarks about electoral legitimacy particularly awkward: incumbents usually bat away critical comments as 'neo-colonial' but activists see Western officials' failure to criticise blatant fraud as complicity in electoral theft.
One African writer contrasted the vocabulary used by Western diplomats about the growing authoritarianism of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (whose cooperation over migration is much needed by the EU) with the stock critiques of repression in Uganda and Zimbabwe.
Given the massive cost of elections in Africa – Kenya's 2013 elections cost over US$230 million and Congo-Kinshasa's in 2006 cost over $450 mn. – there are big questions about value for money. Those questions have a diplomatic weight when foreign governments and organisations are paying the bills. Frequently, the procurement of election materials is last-minute and the choice of contractors and suppliers opaque. Some activists argue that any Western involvement in African elections is intrinsically suspect. Some oppositionists want international groups to provide finance to update electoral registers to counter the argument of some incumbent governments that they haven't got the resources to do so.
The recent presidential election in Congo-Brazzaville typifies the dangerous tactics of long-stay leaders. The former United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, warned of the risks at the Fifth Tana Security Forum in Ethiopia on 25 April: 'If a leader doesn't want to leave office… and elections are seen as being gamed to suit a leader and he stays term after term after term, the tendency may be the only way to get him out is through a coup or people taking to the streets.'
As Annan was speaking in Ethiopia, home of the African Union, such a sequence of events was playing out in Brazzaville. President Denis Sassou-Nguesso won re-election on 20 March in a poll organised to ensure his success (AC Vol 57 No 7, Sassou makes it modest & Vol 57 No 8, Post-election gunfire). Beforehand, several constitutional changes were passed, including the removal of the 70-year age limit on a president (Sassou turned 70 in 2013) and the replacement of a two-term limit by a three-term one. Voting was brought forward from July to ensure that opposition parties did not have time to prepare. During voting, the government suspended mobile phone services and troops patrolled the streets. Within a couple of days, opposition militias started attacking security installations and some government-supporting areas. Sporadic clashes have ensued.
In Djibouti, President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh also presided over deeply flawed elections this month (AC Vol 57 No 8, Guelleh opts for landslide). With a port at the southern entrance to one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, the Red Sea, Guelleh maximises his bargaining power: his domestic political tactics attract little outside scrutiny and no criticism. Hosting military facilities for China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States, Guelleh is adept at playing one geo-political sponsor against another. In 2010, he simultaneously reduced the length of a presidential term (from six years to five) and abolished term-limits. This year, on 8 April, he was re-elected for a fourth term, announcing that he had won 87% of the vote in the first round. That's even more than the 80% he claimed in 2011.
Guelleh's victory reflected opposition divisions and worsening state repression, with the regime playing up the threat of Islamist attacks to justify arrests and detention. There were several reports of opposition supporters being beaten and being turned away from polling stations. During the elections, a team of fully accredited BBC journalists were interrogated for eight hours and then deported after they had had a brief conversation with an opposition politician. Djibouti ranks 170th of the 180 countries in the International Press Freedom Index. Some Djiboutians believe opposition militants could return to armed struggle.
Niger's elections have also run the risk of ramping up political tension. The opposition Coalition pour l'alternance (Copa 2016) told electors to stay at home for the second round of the presidential election on 20 March. Although its candidate, Hama Amadou, had prevented the incumbent, President Mahamadou Issoufou, from winning a first-round victory, he had been campaigning with one hand tied behind his back (AC Vol 57 No 7, Issoufou woos). Having spent election day in a Paris hospital receiving treatment for an unspecified illness, Amadou flew home only to be returned to his prison cell, where he awaits trial on charges of baby trafficking, which his supporters dismiss as trumped up.
Arrests and detentions also disrupted the opposition in Uganda. In the lead up to the polls, the government set up a new volunteer force, the Crime Preventers: they were recruited and managed by the police, itself under the control of General Kale Kayihura, a Museveni-loyalist (AC Vol 57 No 3, How the next election will be won). The ruling National Resistance Movement insisted the Crime Preventers' main task was to stop burglaries and rape. Nevertheless, they quickly took on political tasks, such as identifying and intimidating opposition supporters in the villages, said opposition parties and civil society organisations.
Although the Electoral Commission announced that Museveni had won almost 60% of the vote, the government did not want opposition parties to embarrass the President by taking their complaints about the election to the courts, media or international organisations. So it continued to harass and detain opposition activists and steal the documents that they claimed would prove fraud.
The leading opposition presidential candidate, Besigye, was arrested multiple times and and is now under indefinite house arrest. At the same time, his party offices were stormed by the security forces, who took away the very documents he needed to contest the result. Remarkably, EU election monitors didn't question the legitimacy of Museveni's victory, despite witnessing many of these events up close. At a press conference on 20 February, two days after polling, EU officials ducked the question of whether the election had been 'free and fair'. Instead, they asked the audience to read the report and draw its own conclusion.
Such equivocation had a policy logic. Uganda is a key ally in regional counter-terrorism operations. Election monitoring is inherently political: the verdicts announced reflect the relationship between the government and the West as much as they reflect events on the ground. Western officials quietly insisted that whatever the accompanying repression, Museveni might still have secured the most votes. EU monitors pulling their punches in this manner sends a dispiriting signal to opposition politicians and activists: when they are rigged out of elections, they should not expect much help from Western governments and civic organisations.
In Chad, Niger and Zanzibar, the combination of government repression and the failure of international organisations to back local democrats has seriously further undermined the electoral process. So, oppositions boycotted the elections altogether (AC Vol 57 No 8, Union at all costs). Such a desperate strategy makes sense to opposition leaders if they believe they have no hope of winning the presidency or a good number of legislative seats.
The problem with boycotts is that they rarely convince regimes to stop repression or get international organisations to intervene. When parties do not contest polls, they leave a vacuum that entrenches the ruling party's hold on power. This is particularly true in legislative elections, when an opposition boycott allows the ruling party to effectively create a one-party state, passing repressive constitutional amendments and other laws.
Zanzibar's current crisis demonstrates this point. Opposition parties boycotted the rerun presidential election last month, arguing that they had won the original polls and that a fresh election was illegitimate. The boycott attracted international attention: the USA announced that it was cutting foreign aid in protest at the repression of political rights and civil liberties. Yet the boycott also allowed Zanzibar's incumbent, President Ali Mohamed Shein, to keep power, with 91% of the vote, and the ruling party to take all 54 seats in Unguja and Pemba islands for the first time in the multiparty era.
In Chad, the main opposition parties also boycotted the 10 April vote in protest at the rigging of parliamentary elections in February by the ruling Mouvement patriotique du salut (Patriotic Salvation Movement; AC Vol 56 No 10, Winning battles, losing wars). With the opposition out of the picture, President Idriss Déby Itno, in power for 26 years, won with 89% of the vote. Turnout was at 64%; the government stands accused of involvement in the 'disappearance' of around 60 soldiers who were accused of failing to vote for Déby. The ballot was not secret, said Pyrrhus Banadji, President of the human rights group Association pour la promotion des libertés fondamentales au Tchad and Spokesman for an alliance of six rights organisations. 'There are openings that allow one to observe and if you vote for another candidate, you are identified and you are arrested on the way out'.
In Niger, Copa 2016 is in a stronger position than some oppositions as it did not boycott the general elections and won 53 of 171 seats in Parliament. Yet, its leaders' decision not to take up their seats has given President Issoufou free rein in the legislature.
The combined impact of these three trends is weakening political pluralism and stability. Ruling parties such as those in Kenya and Uganda are getting increasingly skilful in managing or undermining efforts to improve elections with new technology. Incumbents are also even less constrained in using authoritarian methods to restrict opposition parties. International organisations and Western governments, looking over their shoulders at China's growing economic influence and its claimed policy of non-interference, keep shtum in the face of some outrageous abuses.
Accordingly, opposition parties are losing faith in electoral politics and boycott polls. A consequence of this is that authoritarian ruling parties are winning more and more, with oversized majorities. History in Côte d'Ivoire and Kenya over the past 15 years points to the risks of extreme electoral fraud and political exclusion: murderous violence in the aftermath of Kenya's disputed 2007 elections and the devastating Ivorian civil war of 2002-07.
In Chad, Déby's exclusionary politics seem to have prompted several attempts to overthrow him, including two attempted coups between 2011 and the most recent polls. Many countries where opposition parties are repressed have histories of ethnic tension and instability. There were military coups in Niger in 1996, 1999 and 2010; Uganda has had two extended periods of civil unrest; successive Zanzibari elections have been marked by electoral violence. When faith in the possibility of democratic change wanes, some groups start to plan direct action on the streets; others may organise their own campaigns of political violence.
Pre-election surveys in Uganda suggested that around half of the electorate did not believe that elections could deliver political change. That was before the democratic process was publicly undermined in February. Opposition leaders have yet to announce that they will boycott the political process, as they have in Niger and Zanzibar, but this moment is coming closer. When the opposition starts operating outside formal political institutions, mass action is the next step. In Congo-B, opposition leaders have responded to the electoral fixing by calling for civil disobedience and a national strike. Now prospects for unrest and instability are increasing in several countries. More rigged elections in two of Africa's most repressive states in the past two weeks – the referendum in Darfur in Sudan and a presidential election in Equatorial Guinea – have reinforced those negative trends (AC Vol 57 No 7, Darfur votes under fire).
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