Interrogating the credibility of elections in Africa: implications for democracy, good governance and peace?

Author:Afolabi, Samuel Olugbemiga


Elections remain the most acceptable means of choosing leaders and on it rest the concept and practice of democracy. On paper, elections are straightforward and simple. But in reality, various factors come to play and determine whether election is free, fair and/or credible. Since the replacement of direct democracy with representative democracy and its attendant benefits to those elected and obvious shortcomings to those being represented (electors/electorate)--as it is the aggregation of their opinions that the representative would defend,- more and more problems are becoming apparent with representative democratic elections. This is true of both developed and developing democracies/countries. But more acute is the problem of integrity and credibility of elections in Africa. The seemingly political economy of poverty resulting in sit tight syndrome, winning at all cost and do-or-die politics as well as the bogus allowances attached to representatives seats are all parts of the problem of credibility of elections. The huge salaries and allowances of the elected and non-elected officials relative to the low pay/salaries available to the generality of the people are part of why Africa is ranked low on electoral and governance scale (IIAG, 2016; Freedom House, 2015).

The different waves of democratization that has swept through Africa going past the third decade has not eradicated the problems of credibility of elections in Africa. Popular uprisings resulting in a 'more open' democratic and electoral process especially in North Africa and elsewhere in Africa, has not mitigated nor eradicated the problem of credibility of elections in Africa. Rather, more states are regressing into more problems and the electoral democratic space is getting constricted. Examples of such states include Burundi, Burkina Faso, Zambia and Uganda (Crisis Group Report, 2015). In each case/country sited, attacks on constitutionalism (lack of respect for the constitution), rule of law, restrictions on electoral choice and human/individual rights are rampart and without disguise. The high index of the problems of credibility of elections is what has been captured in literature and data and is raising serious concerns among scholars and policy makers within and outside the continent (Ham and Lindberg, 2015; Election Integrity Project, 2015; Norris, 2014).

It is certain that issues of credibility of elections has many implications including low participation of African people in the political process, resort to self-help and electoral violence, arbitrariness in the management of national resources and poignant absence of good governance as well as recourse to, in some instances, civil war between the warring parties. Thus, the presence of fraud and malpractices are certain to impinge on and raise questions about the credibility and integrity of elections. Of course, embedded in the credibility and integrity problems are moral, ethical and legal issues relating to elections. Inevitably, any empirical diagnosis of the conduct of elections and electoral performance/integrity would raise five basic questions. How free and fair have the electoral process and rules (electoral system) been in relation to how credible are the elections? Is the entire electoral process free and fair and is seen to be so?

Is the Election Management Body (EMB) impartial and independent? Are oppositions/opposing parties allowed in the process? Is the security and sanctity of the voter and the vote protected and guaranteed? These questions raise important theoretical and practical issues. It goes without saying that when electoral system and rules are cumbersome and restrictive, then the tendency is for low political and electoral participation with negative implication for peace and inclusion by various segments of the population.

This paper therefore, responds to these questions and issues by discussing and examining electoral movements in Africa, as well as the legal, moral and ethical issues of elections in terms of theoretical, philosophical and practical dimensions. This is followed by a discussion of the misconceptions about and realities of the meaning of elections in Africa, problems of measuring the credibility of elections in Africa in-terms of conceptual issues, data sources, and practical challenges. The paper then engages in a comparative analysis of African democratic and electoral situations, examines key facts and features of the African scene, data presentation and analysis, and conclude with an exposition on elections in Africa with an agenda for peace, democracy and good governance.

The Study of Electoral Movements In Africa

Elections remains part and parcel of many groups, and nations in the world from time immemorial. Human beings have always engaged in decision making as well as in the expression of choice about what they want. Pericles, (cited in Held, 1996), in his submission on Athenian democracy argued that "each man has the right to choose who to led them and present himself for elections". This position was also amplified by Plato who maintained that election has always been associated with people (Plato, 1974). Yet the issue and presence of choice and elections has not been problem free as is with all human endeavors. Choice in itself is influenced by many factors and is fundamental to the conception of individuality and expression of human rights. As has been argued elsewhere, choice and elections are part of African culture and not imported to Africa (Sarbah, 1968; Hayford, 1970; Afolabi, 2015). Elections in Africa at the initial stages, especially the pre-colonial era was based on various factors including family headship, social status, matured age groups, and adulthood. But instead of developing with time, elections and electoral process was distorted by the crude interventions by Europeans who colonized most of African countries. This led to the 'arrested development' of the continent in all spheres of life, especially in fostering identity crisis, distortion of memory, establishment and maintenance of puppet ruling class and docile serving class as well as introducing the economic basis of choice, vote and elections. For example in Nigeria, only adult males were allowed to vote on the basis of economic wealth with the possession of one pound and landed property (Crowder, 1970). This pattern was noticeable across Africa and was even worse in Franco countries with the policy of assimilation where France seek to make Black people whites. The electoral movements in Africa is captured with fig 1 showing the past, present and linking it with the future.

But the large presence of infractions in elections that was established and maintained since the colonial era as alluded to above, have not abated but rather on the increase. Attempts by Western observers and local collaborators to label most elections in Africa as "free and fair" is a one-size-fits-all formula for deciding who governs in Africa, is underpinned by liberal ideological reasoning and the need to maintain continuous dominance of the African countries, the continent, its economy and people. Even though infractions and infelicities occur in all elections in every country of the world, but the preponderance and large nature of infractions and fraud evident in African elections, no matter the labelling by Western election observers, could be traced to historical conditioning, moral, ethical and legal laxities within the continent.

It is necessary to trace the movements of electoral movements in Africa to understand why Africa have these laxities. In particular, Africa, three distinct periods marked the introduction of competitive elections based on universal adult suffrage. In the 1950s and 1960s, elections were held in a number of countries following decolonization, although many of them later gave in to military rule and authoritarianism as shown in Fig 1. The second period was in the 1970s when elections were introduced in a number of countries following the departure of the military in Ghana and Nigeria (West Africa) and other countries in Southern Africa due to the decolonization and full independence (Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Angola). The third phase began in 1990s after the end of the cold war and the inevitable reduction in economic and military aid from developed countries to sit-tight leaders, whether military or civilian. The third period marked and brought about increased democratization and competitive elections in most African countries including South Africa, Benin, Zambia and Mali, among others (Diamond 1993, Joseph, 1990).

Thus, electoral movements across the African continent was not all at once nor was it sudden. Most often, it was from place to place, with peoples' demand for incorporation and prodding by Western patrons, the driving force for these movements. But towards the end of 1990s, the optimism earlier expressed gave way to skepticism and the future of peace, credible elections and electoral democracy in Africa appeared bleak (Joseph, 1998; Kieh, 1996; Chole and Ibrahim ed., 1995). What was common and remain arguably so, is the little credibility of these elections in Africa. Of course, these credibility problems have negative implications for peace, democratic sustainability and good governance.

Elections: Theoretical, Philosophical and Practical Dimensions

Human choice, which is the basis of elections, has always been the focus of philosophers and individuals from medieval times. The right of individuals to choose, choice and determine what they want is the basis of the best form of government and how to achieve it. Received literature from Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Machiavelli to Weber, shows that seeking the best form of government for their society and humankind was their main concern. Even though these philosophers agreed that the best form of government may be in the realm of utopia; but necessary for its...

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