Africa did well at the ballot in 2017. 2018 promises to be a different kettle of fish. Just consider the countries where elections are lined up

By Bob Wekesa

Five presidential elections defined the African political map in 2017: Somalia (February), Rwanda (August), Kenya (August/October), Angola (September), Liberia (October/December 26). Collectively, these elections tell a mixed bag-of-fortunes tale regarding the state of democracy on the continent. The Gambia may be added to the five given that ramifications of the December 2016 spilled over into 2017. Although not recognized by the UN, elections in the self-governing Somaliland (November) can also be thrown into the mix, bringing the number of presidential plebiscites to seven in 2017.

Elections, anywhere and everywhere in the world, regardless of political systems are knotty, messy and emotive affairs. Just think back to the 2016 Donald Trump-Hillary Clinton duel in 2016! There is a distinction though. In contrast to so-called “stable democracies” such as France, Germany and Netherlands which all held elections in 2017, African elections are precarious as they can potentially touch off civil strife. There are examples galore.

The first Nigerian General Elections in 1964 fed the glowing ambers of ethnicity leading to the 1966 coup d’etat and ultimately the Biafra War. In Uganda, a claim of the rigging at the December 1980 elections is one of the factors that drove Yoweri Museveni to the “bush” in a deadly guerrilla war that claimed thousands. In Burkina Faso, attempts by dictator Blaise Campaore to hang onto power beyond 2014 triggered a chain of events popular uprisings, coups and counter coups. In 2007-2008, Kenya nearly went up in flames on account of an election dispute.

Using a loose rating approach, the Angolans elections were the most controversy-free. The September elections were crucial as they doubled up as transition of power from long-serving (reportedly ailing) Jose Eduardo dos Santos (president since 1979) to Joao Lourenco, seen as dos Santos’ protégé in the ruling MPLA. Although the opposition, National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) went to court to contest the election, many an analyst concluded that MPLA was genuinely more popular in the rapidly growing oil-rich country (save for an economic slump 2015-early 2017 due to depressed oil prices). Although the MPLA won the popular vote, it saw a decline in fortunes from the 2012 tally. Given Angola’s civil war (1975-2002), the transitory elections were a huge step in the democratization of the nation and to cap it all, they were peaceful. Uppermost in the new President’s agenda should be more equitable distribution of the natural resources windfall and the bursting of an oligarchic network at the highest echelons of state power.

An ironic reversal in 2017 was the Somalia elections where Mohamed Abdullahi, affably known as “Farmajo” triumphed over 20 other candidates including then incumbent Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. A former prime minister (2010-2011), Farmajo is a Somalia diaspora returnee from the US. This was a reversal because many a doomsayer had predicted complete collapse of the electioneering fed by the toxic cocktail of terrorism, clannism, Islamic sectarianism, weak institutions and international proxy interests. Along with the elections in Somaliland, the Somali elections come across as one of the most peaceful notwithstanding the failed-state nature of Somalia. Never mind too, that only 329 hand-picked members of parliament voted at a corner of the airport in Mogadishu, fortified by foreign and local forces. Essentially the circumstantially tranquil Somalia elections were a selection, but an important step in view of the Somalia context.

In Rwanda, the triumph of Paul Kagame was not unexpected. After all, his stranglehold on power is such that the opposition is in a self-imposed silence, incarcerated or exiled. Still, the peaceful elections had a pinch of incredulity – Kagame re-elected with a 99 percent of the vote! Yes, just 1 percent short of a fully perfect win! In preparation for the elections, Rwandan parliamentarians had voted to extend Kagame’s seven-year-two-term limit to allow a third term. Pundits were divided on the Kagame’s re-election. On the one hand are pro-peace, developmental state advocates who praise the lanky leader as a visionary who should stay on for another seven years. In 2024, when his third term comes to an end, he would have been in power for 24 years (same as Kenya’s former President Daniel Moi) and Rwanda would be a shining star on the continent. The pervasive motivation for Kagame’s continued stay in power is the 1994 genocide, a repeat of which is considered a no-no, by all means necessary.

On the other hand, an outflanked group of “liberal” commentators reckon Kagame does not shy from unleashing strong-arm tactics and may end up fomenting the genocidal situation he and others are keen to torpedo. Tinkering with the constitution to extend term limits is seen shifting of democratic goal posts while the insistence on Kagame as the leader is dismissed as lack of succession management within the Rwanda Patriotic Front Party. Many hold that Rwanda is essentially a one-party state. Be the pros and cons of the Rwanda elections as they may, it is clear that the country went through a violence-free process. Kagame and Rwanda will have to get used to the intense global focus on the country for at least two reasons: the 1990s genocide and the prominent role that Kagame plays on the continent and globally.

The elections in Kenya and Liberia share a similarity: both ended up with a “repeat”. It is worth noting that runoffs are becoming a stable feature in African politics. In 2016 for instance, there were runoffs in Central Africa Republic, Benin, Niger and the semi-autonomous Zanzibar. Variances can be read in the Kenyan and Liberians “repeats”. In the case of Kenya, the repeat election was the result of court nullification while in the Liberian case; the runoff was occasioned by the failure of any contestant to gar more than 50 percent. Ultimately, President Uhuru Kenyatta won in Kenya, over Raila Odinga while soccer star George Weah defeated former vice president, Joseph Boakai, the former having been a favourite of outgoing president Ellen Johnsone Johnson. Of the two African “repeat” elections of 2017, the Liberian one is particularly edifying as it is peaceful transfer of power in recent times in the hitherto troubled West Africa nation. The elections in Kenya constitute an interesting case of progress and retrogression. Progress because it was the first election in Africa to be nullified by the judiciary; retrogressive on account of the violence immediately after the first election in August and the repeat election in October. Indeed, the ramifications of the Kenyan electioneering 2017 may reverberate well into 2018. Thus, we have a paradox here: Liberia’s runoff anchors democracy; Kenya’s repeat election speaks to a country divided down the middle politically.

In The Gambia former president, Yahya Jammeh initially conceded defeat to Adama Barrow in the December 2016 elections, then turned around and dismissed the outcome in an attempt to cling to power. Barrow was inaugurated at the Gambian embassy in Dakar, Senegal, January 20! It would take not only a popular revolt by fatigued Gambians, but the threat of armed intervention by Economic Commission of West African States led by Nigeria and Senegal, for Jammeh to accede to ceding power. Shortly, the idiosyncratic leader would flee The Gambia to start life as an exile in Equatorial Guinea, after 22 years in power.

To the extent that no election ended up in full-blown civil strife, Africa did well at the ballot in 2017. 2018 promises to be a different kettle of fish. Just consider the countries where elections are lined up: Cameroon, DRC, Egypt, Madagascar, Mali, Sierra Leone, South Sudan and Zimbabwe.

  • Dr Wekesa is senior lecturer at University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa