Elections have come to be a constant feature of Africa’s democratic experiments. With 2021 throwing in several attempted coups, ‘pseudo-coups’, coups and prolonged and new armed conflicts in some countries on the continent, some have argued that this year’s elections in various countries on the continent will be a “response” to this “derailment of democratic processes”, that it is “to right the democratic ship of state on the continent”.
Elections have come to be such a focus that little else is seen as providing legitimacy to those in power with little appreciation to context. After all, the “derailment” in some of the countries is caused by the very same democratic processes taking a detour, with the civilians in charge hiding behind elections, saying they have popular support to (mis)rule their countries.
The countries which are expected to hold elections this year can be roughly grouped into three categories.
The first category are those countries which have been dealing with long term instabilities and armed conflicts. Libya, a country in the midst of a never ending civil war after Western powers achieved their regime change goal by overthrowing then long time ruler Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, has been trying to hold elections for years. The argument being that these elections will prevent Libya from sliding back into the hands of another autocrat.
Somalia (or what is left of it) has been without any effective central government for more than quarter of a century. No elections have been able to fix the many challenges that country is facing ever since. Political leaders have constantly bickered over trivial matters as their government is propped up by foreign armies under various umbrellas.
The second category are countries where soldiers came for state power in 2021 after years of civilian misrule, characterised by insecurities. Mali, a country where soldiers are in charge was sanctioned by the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), a regional grouping for shifting the goal posts on returning the country to civilian rule. The country was expected to hold elections in February but the junta in charge has other ideas which will keep them in office until 2026. Civilians were in charge of a country where a large chunk of it was beyond their control for many years as armed groups and terrorists roamed freely in the desert and declared a new country.
Chad, another country with ongoing security challenges is expected to hold elections if the soldiers in charge hold up the end of their deal. 2021 saw rebels coming close to overthrowing the government in N’Djamena. In this country as well, the issue is ‘returning’ the country to civilian rule even though the man who was in charge before his demise on the battlefield was a soldier.
Guinea saw a president toppled by soldiers in 2021 after a decade of civilian rule which was preceded by two long serving presidents but that decade did not improve things much paving the way for the soldiers to be welcomed by jubilating crowds when they swept they toppled the government.
It is difficult to see how elections will provide the answers for the many challenges these countries are facing. In fact, elections do not even confer the legitimacy sought by those who end up being elected, as the processes are bitterly disputed or circumstances prevent any credible elections to be held. After all, because of the underlying issues some of these countries will certainly miss another deadline for holding elections.
The third category has Kenya and Angola. Of all the countries expected to hold elections on the continent this year, these two are the only sure bets for very different reasons. Kenya can still explode because of the outcome of elections but will certainly near melt down if no elections are held without credible grounds after politicians there have spent years campaigning for them. In Angola, the long ruling party there, MPLA, will retain power and elections are a way of ensuring continued state control in a country still scarred by a bloody past.
Elections in Africa have never been a magic wand or panacea to solve the many governance challenges individual countries on the continent face. Chances are, the majority of countries expected to hold elections this year will never get to that point, and in some of them, that will be a better outcome. More efforts should be channeled into answering the more pressing issue of stability and local-driven governance processes to make elections more meaningful.
Wasting more resources in holding nominal elections is doing injustice to the people who have other pressing matters than picking among squabbling politicians.