Upcoming African Elections Reveal that Democracy is in Peril

A woman votes at a polling station in West Freetown, Sierra Leone (Source: Travis Lupick)

In recent weeks, Mali made headlines as President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was ousted by a military junta on August 18, following weeks of protests calling for his resignation. Disputed elections, Islamist violence, corruption, and a struggling economy hard-it by insurgency and the COVID-19 pandemic were the reasons behind the turmoil in Mali, which eventually led to the coup d’état. As negotiations continue between ECOWAS and the military junta about the transition process, the question that is on everyone’s mind is when elections will take place to ensure the fragile country makes a peaceful transition to democracy.

Mali is not the only one preparing to hold decisive elections. In the next few months, 10 African countries are set to hold their presidential and parliamentary elections, and the stakes for ensuring the establishment of democratic governments are high. Among the countries set to hold their presidential elections are Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Tanzania, and Burkina Faso. These countries showcase the diverse challenges leaders and their repressive regimes pose on the conduction of free and fair elections. In Côte d’Ivoire, President Alassane Outtara has announced that he will be seeking a third term, reigniting protests, which in recent weeks have turned violent. President Alpha Conde of Guinea has also announced his bid for a third term, despite protests from thousands of Guineans. The strong grip on power and the refusal to make room for others to lead is a phenomenon observed time and time again across Africa. Even when the opportunity to run against a diverse group of contenders arises, challenges to free and fair elections still remain. For instance, in Tanzania, President John Magufuli’s government is accused of repression of opposition parties, non-governmental organizations, and the media ahead of the country’s general elections on October 28. While it is encouraging that 14 candidates are challenging President Magufuli for the presidency, it is worrisome that there are allegations that the government has unfairly disqualified some candidates. There is also a worry among the opposition they might be locked out of the October elections and that their chance at running in a free and fair election could be jeopardized. Opposition parties and activists are not the only ones facing repression from governments looking to consolidate their power. Even citizens are now being robbed of the opportunity to make their vote count, as rising security concerns hinder their movement and their ability to travel to vote.

In countries like Burkina Faso, the spillover of jihadist violence from neighboring Mali is wreaking havoc in communities, especially in rural ones, where many citizens struggle to go to vote due to safety concerns. Burkina Faso’s government has already announced that whatever the voter turnout might be, its result will be valid — stripping citizens of their ability to have equal representation. All the countries mentioned above reflect how little progress has been across Africa in building democratic institutions that safeguard the rights of citizens and hold leaders accountable for their abuse of power.

For many Africans, elections present hope for a new era under a government that can provide economic and political stability. Unfortunately, many African countries are yet to see a government that can adequately address their social, economic, and political grievances. But African countries are not alone in having to face threats that undermine democratic progress and any hope of having free and fair elections. Even the U.S., a country which once touted itself as the freest and most democratic country in the world, is facing a historic crisis. In the past four years, the U.S. under President Donald Trump has experienced democratic backsliding. Gross neglect of the Coronavirus response, police crackdown on peaceful protesters condemning police killings of innocent African Americans, divisive rhetoric that fuels hate crimes and nationalistic views, and relentless attack on mail-in-voting, are just a few examples of how the Trump administration has undermined democracy and the wellbeing of American citizens. As the U.S. prepares for the November elections, many are wondering how the damage that President Trump’s administration has done to undermine the integrity of democratic institutions and to back domestic and foreign policies that are detrimental to peace and security, can be undone.

From Africa to the U.S., democracy is in peril. If there is anything the upcoming elections across the African continent and the presidential election in the U.S. indicate, it is that safeguarding democracy and building strong democratic institutions will take much more than an election to achieve. To truly safeguard and nurture democracy, citizens must actively participate in politics and civic life, and demand accountability from their governments. Governments in turn should respect and protect human rights and build strong and transparent institutions.

Nani Detti,

Communications Intern,

Africa Program

The Center for International Policy Africa Program analyzes U.S. foreign policy toward the nations of Africa to promote greater positive U.S. engagement

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