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Recent African Elections – a briefing paper

Recent African Elections – a briefing paper

Peter-John Pearson and Mike Pothier


Multi-party democracies with truly free and fair elections are still unfortunately a comparative rarity in Africa. Since the wave of independence began nearly 50 years ago, our societies have struggled to entrench the notion that voters are entitled to choose their leaders regularly, in an atmosphere free from manipulation and violence. Some recent elections confirm this state of affairs. However, happily, other countries are heading in a more positive direction. This briefing paper examines African elections over the last two years in an attempt to draw attention to the advancements as well as the roadblocks to democracy across the continent.


Multi-party elections have become the litmus test for assessing the state of democracy in African countries. This is all the more so given the fact that, despite welcome moves towards  consolidating democracy in many African states, the post-colonial trend of manipulating constitutions to stay in power continues. The President of Chad, Idris Deby, has been in power since 1991 and Ugandan President Museveni since 1985, to name but two. Another persevering post-colonial trend is that of military coups on the continent. In 2008-09 there were three. The first was in Mauritania, where the democratically elected president was overthrown by a detachment of military officers in August 2008. Then, in Guinea in December 2008, military captain Moussa Camara proclaimed himself President on the death of President Conte. A few short months later, in March 2009, a section of the Madagascar army forced President Marc Ravalomanana to resign, insisting that opposition leader, Andry Rajoelina, should take over.


The two most publicised African elections in the last two years were those in Kenya at the end of 2007 (whose violent aftermath spread into early 2008) and those in Zimbabwe in March and June 2008, the so called “stolen elections.” Both ended in compromise governments. Both were hugely controversial, not least because the voice of the voters was seemingly disregarded and a “unity government” was foisted upon them. Whether these compromises were the only feasible way forward after the violence and political uncertainty is an important question.


We begin, though, by considering two elections with legitimate and widely-welcomed outcomes – South Africa, followed by Ghana.


South Africa’s Fourth Election Experience

As expected, the ANC (African National Congress) emerged as the dominant party in the April 2009 elections. The robust political engagement in the country was seen in the following way:

1)     Higher voter turnout at the polls compared to the previous two elections.

2)     The slightly less than two-thirds majority by the ANC and the marginally lower number of votes cast for the party in eight of the nine provinces (by 10 percent less in four provinces), the exception being KwaZulu Natal.

3)     The higher than expected electoral fortunes of the official opposition party.

4)     The demise of some of the smaller parties.

5)     The courts ruled prior to the elections that registered voters living abroad were eligible to vote


The above demonstrate eloquently the (possibly renewed) interest of our population in participating in democratic exercises and contributing to the ongoing struggle for social transformation. They are positive signs of the health of our democracy, fifteen years into the new dispensation. The 77.3 percent voter turnout confirmed that a large number of South Africans believe that democracy is the way forward. They are willing to try to make it work and engage in a broad conversation to ensure better policies and politics for the future. This election marks another advancement in participatory democracy despite the anxiety generated in recent times. The elections may also represent the beginning of new trends:

·         The translation of dissatisfaction into votes.

·         A level of comfort with party pluralism in the struggle tradition.

·         A break in the hegemony of political discourse.

·         An exploration of other creative ways of viewing the political way forward for the country.


The organisation and integrity of elections are important components of a democratic culture. The Independent Electoral Commission carried out its Herculean task professionally and successfully, receiving only 13 objections or complaints countrywide. Some of these were quite local and beyond the reasonable expectations of the IEC’s foresight. None included charges of partisan behaviour by officials; the IEC was quick to dismiss workers who were guilty of such behaviour during their preparations leading up to the elections. The election process was marked by a high level of professionalism and the best technology. These minimised foul play and ensured that the elections represented, freely and fairly, the will of South Africans.


One of the most commented upon aspects of this election was the increase in votes for the official opposition coupled with the demise of smaller opposition parties, especially those based on sectional interests whether racial, cultural or religious. Future democratic processes will reveal whether this election marked the beginning of a new style of politics with opposition parties joining together to advocate around common issues and linking with other civil society organisations to do the same. Considering statements from various political parties, formal all-round coalitions are unlikely at present but a cooperative, issue-based model should be encouraged. A united opposition voice would strengthen the demand for richer public discussion and accountability from government.


The ANC still remains solidly the party of choice, far beyond its official members, for the bulk of South African voters, especially the poor and black South Africans. This signals a credibility in the party’s past, in their present direction and in their role as custodians of the future. Any party that wishes to sway these constituencies would have to espouse similar values, connecting with the past struggle while offering visions of future policies to better the lives of all South Africans. The ANC still has the edge on other parties in these spheres. The party emerged victorious despite the wider choice of parties; the ANC’s publicly-analysed pathologies and limitations; vigorous opposition party campaigns especially around Jacob Zuma’s corruption charges and his moral suitability for leadership; and even in the aftermath of the recent, often acrimonious split in the ANC.


The IEC is already hard at work preparing for the 2011 local elections to ensure that the same high standards are maintained. This is edifying. Still, democracy does not rest alone on one’s participation in free and fair elections. It is also strengthened by the institutional arrangements to ensure that a democratic ethos and the spirit of representation is sustained and principles of good governance maintained. Democracy is about people having a meaningful say in the way they live together. A vigilant eye must watch over these subtler but no less important safeguards of democracy.



This West-African country has a chequered political record. Since independence in 1957, Ghana has suffered four military coups, including one which deposed its first president, Kwame Nkrumah, who was an ardent promoter of pan-Africanism. In April 1992, it regained its standing as a multi-party democracy after a long period of military dictatorship.


President John Agyekum Kufuor, of the New Patriotic Party (NPP) stood down after completing the maximum two terms. His chosen successor was Nana Akufo-Addo. The candidate of the opposition National Democratic Congress was Professor John Atta Mills, who had previously run against Kufuor in 2000 and 2004. In an extremely close run-off election, Atta Mills defeated Akufo-Addo by 50.23 percent to 49.77 percent.


Before and during the elections, reports of violence and intimidation, along with complaints by the opposition of electoral irregularities, were relatively few and not deemed to have undermined the election outcome. All parties agreed that the Ghanaian Electoral Commission performed credibly. Overall, the security forces acted with restraint and impartiality. The Chief of the Defence Force was at pains on several occasions to assure the public of the military’s neutrality and disinterest in political contests. The Africa Faith and Justice Network spoke of the elections as setting a high bar for future democratic processes in Africa, while the European Union Election Observation Mission concluded that, despite incidents of violence and disruptions of the polling in a limited number of cases, the second round of the elections had been conducted in an open, transparent and competitive environment.

An important aspect of both the first election on December 8, and the run-off election on December 28, was the use of information technology, especially cellphones. Observers commented on the importance of SMS text messages for election monitoring, especially after the incidents of fraud and violence experienced in previous months in Kenya, Zimbabwe and Nigeria. Monitors could report immediately on conduct at individual polls, helping to “prevent rumours, and [provide] an independent and reliable indicator of the quality of the election process.”

According to Louis Michel, EU Commissioner for Development:

“The peaceful and orderly conduct of this second round of the presidential elections in Ghana confirms the strength of the Ghanaian democratic system and the resolve of Ghanaians to remain a shining example of democracy in Africa.”


In 2008, in the months before the Angolan parliamentary elections, Human Rights Watch raised doubts about prospects for free and fair polls: The oversight body, the National Electoral Commission (CNE) lacked impartiality as it was dominated by the ruling party; the media environment was unfavourable to the opposition and freedom of expression was restricted; unchecked intimidation and political violence by ruling party supporters prevented opposition parties from campaigning freely throughout the country; and a climate of repression prevailed in the enclave of Cabinda, where armed conflict has continued despite a 2006 peace agreement.

During the one-month official election campaign period, which opened on August 5, Human Rights Watch witnessed some improvement. Unlike during the pre-campaign period, the police provided protection to opposition parties, allowing them to campaign freely. Still, the playing field remained considerably slanted in favour of the ruling party.

The CNE failed in its role as oversight body, doing little to prevent or respond to major violations of election laws during the campaign, such as unequal access to state funds and state media. It also obstructed accreditation for national election observers from civil society organisations. On polling day important safeguards against manipulation, such as the use of voter's rolls, were breached, and the CNE obstructed independent monitoring of the tabulation process.

Opposition parties and observers have not presented evidence of deliberate government manipulation of the polls. Political parties have accepted the election results after their formal complaints were rejected by the constitutional court. Nevertheless, the scope of the shortcomings and the uncertainty of their impact affected the credibility of the election process. The government announced an independent inquiry into the verified irregularities, but the inquiry that purportedly took place was not independent and no report was published.

President José Eduardo dos Santos has already declared that a presidential election will take place in 2009. The actual date has not been named, however, and there is a danger that – as with the 2008 parliamentary elections - he will not announce a date until the very last minute. Moreover, in November 2008, dos Santos announced that a new constitution would be approved prior to the presidential election, mentioning that constitutional changes could lead to the presidential elections by parliament rather than through a direct poll. This has raised uncertainty as to whether the presidential election will take place in 2009, or at all.

If there is a presidential election, and if its result is to be credible, the government will have to correct the shortcomings observed during the parliamentary election process. It would also need to introduce reforms to ensure that future electoral processes fully meet international standards, such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections. Public space must be expanded for opposition parties, independent civil society, and a free media. Since the 2008 elections no signs of improvement can be seen in this regard. Nevertheless, the 2008 parliamentary elections were widely regarded as the most free and fair in Angola’s history. Most observers were satisfied that the result broadly reflected the will of the electorate. Therefore, these elections provide a foundation upon which to build; greater media freedom and the creation of a truly independent electoral commission would go a long way to providing acceptable conditions for future elections.


Kenyans turned out peacefully, and in greater numbers that ever before, in parliamentary and presidential elections on 27 December 2007. In the parliamentary elections, the opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) won 99 of the 210 seats. Vice-President Moody Awori, along with 14 of President Mwai Kibaki's top ministers lost their seats.

The presidential vote count appeared to follow the same pattern, with ODM leader Raila Odinga leading the count. However, in an abrupt turnaround, the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) announced that Kibaki led in the polls. The government ignored concerns over poll numbers raised by ODM and international election observers. As protests mounted, the electricity was turned off in the ECK election headquarters and ECK commissioners were escorted by police from the building. Immediately afterwards, ECK Chair Samuel Kivuitu declared Kibaki the presidential winner with approximately 230,000 more votes than Odinga. The government then broadcast a television clip showing Kibaki being sworn in at State House close to midnight in a hurried private ceremony.

The ECK chair was subsequently quoted in the media as saying that he did not know whether Kibaki won the elections. He said he was "under pressure" to announce a result quickly despite appeals by election monitors to delay until apparent irregularities were investigated. Four of his ECK colleagues also said they were "uneasy" with the presidential outcome and admitted to "weighty" concerns about the process.

The European Union Electoral Mission expressed grave doubts about the legitimacy of the presidential results. Immediately following the election, it stated "the tallying process lacks credibility and ... the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) has not fulfilled its responsibilities to create such a process." The EU mission reported "some irregularities that cast a doubt on the accuracy of the final results that were announced." It cited Molo constituency, where 25,000 votes were fraudulently added to the tally sheet in favor of Kibaki. Others also reported fraud, including an elections officer who admitted that election sheet returns were doctored to favor Kibaki. Other contentious issues included abnormal voter turnouts in the strongholds of both Kibaki and Odinga, and the lack of EU observer access to some tallying centres, especially in central Kenya, Kibaki's stronghold.

The Kibaki government has so far dismissed calls for an investigation, telling the ODM to lodge any complaints with the courts. However, the Kenyan judiciary is widely perceived as favouring the ruling party. In his previous term, Kibaki removed a number of senior judges – including the chief justice – and replaced them with individuals viewed as less independent.

Post-election violence broke out in Nairobi, Mombasa, Eldoret in the Rift Valley and Kisumu in Nyanza, among other areas. Media reports cited up to 350 deaths. Vigilante groups targeted and attacked members of Kibaki’s Kikuyu ethnic group. There were a number of horrific incidents, including the burning of a church in western Kenya containing dozens of Kikuyu, including women and children who had sought refuge there.

In response, security forces cracked down on opposition supporters. Many protests, which included violence and looting, were met with excessive force by the police and military. The United Nations now officially estimates the number of Kenyans internally displaced by post-election violence at 180,000. To date, no independent and impartial investigation into the violence has been conducted. Currently, a power-sharing government is in place with Kibaki remaining as President and Odinga as Prime Minister.


Any informed observer recognised the limited prospect of a free and fair election in Zimbabwe in 2008. As with numerous previous elections in that country, President Robert Mugabe and his ruling ZANU-PF party ensured that they would hold on to power regardless of the wishes of the Zimbabwean people. As Human Rights Watch pointed out in a report released before the March 29 election, vote-buying, intimidating the opposition and restricting freedom of association and assembly were the order of the day, orchestrated by the government. Human Rights Watch also pointed to biased election coverage in the state media and the use of violence by state agents against human rights activists and opposition supporters.

Despite this, the atmosphere in the 2008 campaign was described by many Zimbabweans as far less repressive than in other polls since 2000. This was verified by the Catholic Commission for Justice & Peace Commission and other NGOs. Mugabe’s main challengers, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and former finance minister Simba Makoni were, for example, able to campaign in ruling party strongholds.

Flawed as they were, the election delivered a decisive defeat for ZANU-PF, and gave the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) a parliamentary majority. Yet, almost four weeks later, the ZANU-PF-appointed Zimbabwean Electoral Commission (ZEC) had failed to announce the results of the presidential poll that took place at the same time. When it eventually announced the “official” outcome, over one month later, the vote was so close that a run-off presidential election was required. Many Zimbabweans questioned the legitimacy of ZEC’s tallying of the presidential votes.  In the run-up to this second poll, state-sponsored violence against opposition supporters reached such levels that Morgan Tsvangirai – who stood every chance of defeating Mugabe – withdrew from the race in order to spare the lives of his followers.

Nearly a year later, the rival parties signed an accord in which Mugabe would continue as President and Tsvangirai would become Prime Minister, with cabinet posts divided equally between the two parties. This arrangement continues today and, although Mugabe’s commitment is anything but sure, Zimbabweans seem willing to accept the compromise as the only feasible way forward. As with the situation in Kenya, this represents a subversion of the popular will, and a forced compromise that fails to respect the wishes of the majority.


Only three elections in the period under review delivered credible results. Still, all three of the countries – Ghana, South Africa and Angola – were also not too long ago pariahs, regarded as military dictatorships, one party states or repressive racial regimes. Their transformation came about through the courageous, relentless work of civil society.  This underlines one aspect of the theological virtue of hope and that is that things can change. These countries challenge us to see their free and fair elections as triumphs for democracy as well as encouragement to keep on working for the change we want. Even the most seemingly immutable situation can be transformed.

Credible elections are more than just the absence of intolerance or mal-administered elections, they are the progress towards a set of values which ultimately shapes consciences and ensures an environment in which justice can flourish and peace can last for many ages. Furthermore, elections are always about more than just votes; they are about the work of civil society holding the political domain accountable, engaging in political education and linking votes to the critical issues of the day to build a truly participatory culture. The triumph of free and fair elections is also, in some sense, code for free speech, open participation in the public domain,accountable institutions, freedom of association and other aspects of human rights culture. In Catholic Social Teaching (CST) these stand as solid indicators of the common good.

To the degree that lacunae exist in the systems or, worse still, where exclusion is more marked than participation, we must engage in acts of solidarity to alter political realities. The icons of people’s power on the bridges of Selma in the 60’s, on the township roads of Soweto in the 70’s, in the streets of Manila in the 80’s and atop the Berlin wall in the early 90’s are all testimonies to the fact that people’s power, shaped into strategic political action is, in fact, the threshold of the voting station; and those earlier moments are best secured by solidarity. A trans-continental solidarity is connected to the dawn of democracy.

We would do well to ponder again the words attributed to St. Augustine: that “a government without justice is no better than a gang of thieves.” The real significance of the free and fair ballot box ultimately lies in establishing the opposite sentiment to this Augustinian insight

 ‘a version of this paper inspired by the AFCAST meeting was published as a briefing paper by the CPLO’  or words to that effect.


Much of the information and analysis in this paper has been drawn from a variety of press and on-line sources. These include various country reports by Human Rights Watch and country profiles on Wikipedia, as well as IRIN news and the UNHCR allAfrica reports. For Angola, information was taken from the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa (EISA) Angola elections archive. For Ghana, www.ghanaelectionswatch, the BBC news website, thinkghana.com and various newspaper reports on the internet were used. For Zimbabwe, www.sokwanele.com was consulted. It has not been possible to cite each and every source individually in the text; accordingly, we apologise to any author who may feel that his or her work has been left unacknowledged.