Elections in Africa – a Challenge of Democracy

“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” (Aristotle)


“In 1995, while posted as a diplomat at the Royal Netherlands Embassy, I was an International Observer in the Tanzania general election. It was the first multi-party elections for president and parliament. Early in the morning of 29th October I first went with a colleague to a petrol station, where election materials were being distributed to election officials of several polling stations. As the process seemed to take forever, after more than an hour and a half we went ahead to the University of Dar es Salaam, where we had to monitor.
Suddenly we found ourselves in the middle of, perhaps a few hundred, angry young men and women. They were clearly upset and our car with NL Embassy registration and our Observer T-shirts were the first sign of elections they saw after waiting for almost two hours. Luckily their respect for diplomats and my explanation in basic Swahili calmed them down and avoided disturbance and perhaps even violence.

Later it became clear that the elections in the capital Dar es Salaam had failed and a rerun took place on 29th November.

Benjamin Mkapa won the Presidential election and the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi maintained an almost 60% majority in parliament.”

‘Miracles will not happen on Election Day anywhere in Africa’
Yves Niyiragira in Pambazuka – www.pambazuka.org/governance

Talks about elections in Africa almost always attract a sceptical reaction, hardly ever the benefit of doubt. Predictability of the outcome mostly accompanies the scepticism, even if little is known about the situation in the country being subject of the talks.

In 2018 almost two dozen African elections have or will still take place in around twenty different countries. The circumstances are as different as the countries are from each other. In some the well-established ruling party“ needs” to extend its grip on the country and sitting president“ has to get” elected for yet another term and both most likely will get what they want.

In others the electoral process is flawed as voter registration is seldom complete country wide and with lack of voter education and information gives those with more means and the bigger and louder trumpet a better chance on Election Day.

In again others the government machinery supports the ruling party’s election campaign, which is no match for the smaller competing parties.

The above are all examples of fundamental unequal playing fields and lack of democratic structure of elections.

Can organizing elections be improved?

This depends on a number of key elements, but mostly on the political will of those in power, the ruling elite or increase of democratic maturity to do so.

Let’s look at some of these key factors.

Independence of the Electoral Board and Commission
Although no absolute guarantee, the degree of independence of an Electoral Board and Commission is of vital importance to the success of elections.

Take the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) of Kenya, which is an independent regulatory agency founded in 2011 by the Constitution of Kenya. It conducted the 2013 and 2017 elections recently.

The IEBC with offices in every constituency and county in the country, has no small mandate:”the continuous registration of voters and revision of the voter’s roll, the delimitation of constituencies and wards, the regulation of political parties process, the settlement of electoral disputes, the registration of candidates for elections, voter education, the facilitation of the observation, monitoring and evaluation of elections,the regulation of money spent by a candidate or party in respect of any election, the development of a code of conduct for candidates and parties, the monitoring of compliance with legislation on nomination of candidates by parties.”

Kenya’s IEBC heroically attempted to stand up to the task, but could not help preventing having its declared results contested in court. Challenging elections results in court or calling ‘fraud, fraud’ is an almost automatic reaction of minority and opposition parties and is indirectly a vote of no confidence in a country’s electoral body.

Independence of the Judiciary

“Judicial independence is a requirement demanded by the Constitution, not in the personal interests of the judiciary, but in the public interest, for without that protection judges may not be, or be seen by the public to be, able to perform their duties without fear or favour.”
It does not need further explanation that an independent judiciary is of vital importance in case of disputes about results of elections. Nevertheless there are countries where the judiciary is in the pocket of the ruling elite. There are hardly any elections in Africa where the results are not challenged in court usually by the opposition. This can often be put down as poor losers and are mostly, but not always thrown out as invalid or lack of evidence.
A case in point was the annulment of the presidential elections in Kenya in 2017 by the Supreme Court. While the incumbent President Kenyatta showed and voiced anger, he accepted the ruling ordering a rerun in 60 days. This was a clear sign of maturity of the candidate and of course Kenyan democracy.

Voter information and education as part of civic education

In its broadest definition, “civic education” means all the processes that affect people’s beliefs, commitments, capabilities, and actions as members or prospective members of communities. Civic education need not be intentional or deliberate; institutions and communities transmit values and norms without meaning to. It may not be beneficial: sometimes people are civically educated in ways that dis-empower them or impart harmful values and goals. It is certainly not limited to schooling and the education of children and youth. Families, governments, religions, and mass media are just some of the institutions involved in civic education, understood as a lifelong process. A rightly famous example is Tocqueville’s often quoted observation that local political engagement is a form of civic education: “Town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach, they teach men how to use and how to enjoy it.”

Voter education and information is often lacking and results in voters only following slogans and not getting involved or informed about the political issues that matter. Do voters only matter on Election Day and not for the next four or five years following the results of their votes? They need to be aware of their civic rights and duties.


The totally unexpected changes brought about by the new Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed like, to end the conflict with neighbour Eritrea and the signing a declaration of Peace and Friendship certainly is a drastic change in the engrained Ethiopian politics. However Eritrea has been postponing its elections for more than thirty years, would that change now?

How credible will elections be in Cameroon, when the Anglophone region is in turmoil and literally ‘up in arms’ against the Central Government’s paramilitary occupation and atrocities inflicted on their own citizens?

Free and fair elections are a true challenge to democracy in Africa.

Elections and democracy are closely interlinked. It is at the holding of elections that the extent of the rights of citizens to exercise their e.g. freedom of speech, media, access to information, government services, to move about, travel abroad and live anywhere in the country becomes clear.

There are of course other issues like manipulation, financing of elections, foreign interference, and ethnic domination, while last but certainly not least, the sly foe corruption spoils anything it touches.

*Ato Bob is a former Dutch Diplomat who now consults with various NGO’s on African issues. He lives in Rotterdam and may be reached on atobobhensen@hotmail.com