Democracy in Africa was long regarded as an oxymoron. In 1990, there were just eight formal democracies out of the (then) 53 nations on the continent. Six years later, in 1996, 18 countries were classified as formal democracies. Democracy is now on the march throughout the continent with 23 countries holding elections at various levels in 2019 — and that presents unique challenges to a range of state and non-state agencies.
It’s a busy year for democracy in Africa, with 23 presidential, parliamentary and 2019 council elections. This reflects that elections have become an integral part of the continent’s democratisation process since the “Third Wave of Democratisation” in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
There have already been three elections — in Nigeria (general), Senegal (presidential) and Guinea-Bissau (legislative). The challenge to ensure elections are characterised by inclusiveness, transparency, accountability, and competitiveness will be further shaped by the remaining 20 elections, including South Africa, Malawi, Senegal, Mali, Ghana and Tunisia. Moreover, the organisation and administration of these multi-party democratic elections will be closely watched by political parties, the media, and international election observers.
The continent’s political landscape has changed dramatically since the 1990s, with many, if not all, countries on the continent now in support of multi-party and competitive elections. However, it is clear from Africa’s first general election of the year — Nigeria – that elections still take place under very difficult conditions. The delayed election held on February 23 2019 revealed that election management continues to be a very complex administrative operation which has to be implemented within a very volatile political and security atmosphere. Contributing to this state of affairs are the actions of rogue domestic and foreign actors with self-seeking motivations, trying to discredit the process. This has led to a lack of credibility and public confidence in both the electoral process and the outcomes.
The contested political and security character of elections in Africa varies widely depending on the phase of the country’s political development. For example, South Africa since 1994 is touted as one of the few African countries that hold legitimate, free and fair municipal, provincial and national elections. Post-election, it is rare for the losing political parties to challenge the conduct of the election or its outcomes.
The Independent Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) has high levels of integrity to ensure fair and equitable access to all contesting parties and candidates, whereas in other African countries, election rigging, violence and annulment remain common practices. This is because unlike South Africa, there is a lack of public confidence and integrity in the electoral management bodies. The lack of autonomy of some of these organisations from government influence and control continues to be one of the major challenges.
However, we are beginning to observe the role of the constitutional courts in validating the processes and outcomes. Despite these developments, the supreme or constitutional court rulings on accusations of election fraud call for the recounting of ballot outcomes are often dismissed by opposition parties. The issue of election management bodies’ independence has become a central focus in Africa. However, the issue is not with these organisations, or how they conduct the election or the existing electoral system, but the electoral process.
The terms “election”, “electoral system” and “electoral process” are often communicated as synonymous, but these concepts/terms/phrases do not mean or refer precisely to the same phenomenon. Election refers to a single activity or event, which often occurs on a particular day(s) and time(s), involving the selection of particular parties or candidates by millions of citizens in different areas across the country. Although there are different organisational approaches to the design and conduct of elections on the continent, there are many common themes and issues faced by all African countries, which is electoral administration. In many cases, this originates from the electoral system and process.
The electoral system is a set of rules or laws that govern how elections are to be conducted and how results are to be determined, whereas an electoral process involves a series of activities spread over days, weeks, months and years prior to and post-elections. The electoral process is a multi-level, multi-dimensional, multi-faceted, top — and bottom-up process which is anchored on the agency and inventiveness of many state and non-state stakeholders at local and national governance levels.
All the challenges associated with the management of the largest single activity that span across the length and breadth of a country in both rural and metropolitan areas involving millions of citizens going to the polls emanate from the electoral process.
Elections are part of an ongoing, long-term and multi-stakeholder (eg CSOs, political parties, and NGO) commitment to establish interdependent, interconnected and inclusive democratic institutions.
And part of these democratic systems is the development of an ethical, competent and autonomous electoral management body mandated and protected by the constitution with the freedom of action to create institutions, foster norms, attitudes, values, beliefs and behaviours that accept equal political participation and tolerate multi-party competition. This is a long and multi-dimensional process that involves political will from all political parties and civil society organisations.
At present, there is a growing international consensus that there is no universal and perfect model for conducting elections and many countries, including the United States, are calling for electoral reforms. However, there are universally accepted “norms” and “principles” that have to be met in order for an election to be regarded as credible and transparent.
As a result of the dissimilarity in electoral laws, rules, regulations and procedures across the African continent, the electoral processes will not be the same. They should be seen as a continuous process of “learning by doing” as a country discovers what works within their national environment. African countries’ diverse and distinctive changing social environments requires that they (re)think and (re)imagine context-sensitive electoral reforms. The electoral process should be seen as a process of experimentation, learning and correction rather than an exporting of a Western ‘size-fits-all’ process of design, planning and implementation. All electoral process developments have gone through different phases with political changes, and Africa should not be an exception.
Irrespective of elections not being the only defining feature of liberal democracies, their success or absence primarily determines and defines the legitimacy (or lack) of the political authority. At present, there are irregularities in the management of elections in some African countries that require reform. African countries have to acknowledge the complexity of the electoral process endeavour. There should be a holistic understanding of the electoral process where different parts of the process need to be articulated in a complementary manner.
Election management bodies are constitutionally mandated to administer electoral activities such as polling, counting of votes, registration of political parties, campaign finance, a design of the ballot papers, drawing of electoral boundaries, resolution of electoral disputes, civic and voter education, and media monitoring.
However, the “electoral process” is an ongoing, long-term, multi-stakeholder, bottom-up and top-down commitment by the diverse community of state and non-state actors to engage in collaborative problem-solving and dialogue on electoral design, planning and implementation.