1 January 2016

Africa's Election Year 2015 - a Long Way to Democracy?

The year 2015 will go down in history as one of elections in Africa. Overall there were thirteen of them. According to observers, eligible voters realized the importance and civic duty to take part in the elections.

For the first time in Nigeria's history, a sitting president was defeated and accepted the outcome of the election. He later willingly handed over power to his main rival. In this case it was Goodluck Jonathan handing over power to Muhammadu Buhari.

Six months later it was Burkina Faso's turn to elect its new leader. Voters endured long queues at polling stations to elect a new leader, knowing that this time their vote counted, unlike in the past three decades under Blaise Compaore's rule when the results were long certain.

Elsewhere in Burundi violence erupted over President Pierre Nkuruziza's third term bid in office. Like was the case in 2014 in Burkina Faso, citizens and human rights activists protested in Burundi against their president's thirst for power as he, with the help of the state apparatus went ahead and run for a third term. His government violently crushed the protests and systematically embarked on a crackdown of the opposition and rights activists. Nkuruziza was again elected in July - many of his critics have since fled the country.

In the constitutions of many African countries, the presidential term is restricted to two, like in Burundi. This does not always hold. "So this contradiction between leaders seeking their third term and protesters and voters standing against that, is certainly an interesting new trend in African politics," said Jakkie Cilliers, executive director of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria.

However Cilliers also told DW that this varies from one country to another. "Previously voters accepted that leaders have an inevitable right to stay in power for almost as long as they want to. And that certainly is changing," he said. Elections are no longer an easy way for the government to secure its power. Voters have become activists.

Voters' choice

The most thrilling election according Ulf Engel, a professor of African Studies at the University of Leipzig, was the one held in Tanzania. Unlike Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and Uganda's Yoweri Museveni who are still clinging on to power, President Jakaya Kikwete did not run for presidency after the end of his two terms. He made way for a new president.

Observers had predicted a neck-and-neck race between the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party and the opposition. But the results in the end did not quite turn out as expected. "The ruling party was worried that would sail through smoothly," said Engel. Nevertheless John Magufuli - the ruling party's candidate - won the election. Cilliers agrees that Tanzania is a good example, of increasing pressure on the rulers. "For the first time there was a relative sense of unease amongst the ruling CCM-party, that it may really face a challenge."

Hard times for election fraud

For Sudan, Togo, Guinea-Conakry and Ivory Coast, leaders remained in power. In Ethiopia the ruling government obtained 100 percent according to official results. Every country has its own dynamics and its own political traditions. But developments like in Burkina Faso or in Tanzania show that voters are becoming increasingly critical and want to make themselves heard.

The advancement in technology has also eased the voting exercise. For example in Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Tanzania voters were issued with biometric cards that contained all data from finger prints and personal details.

"It's no longer as easy as it was in the past to manipulate elections and to staff ballot boxes. The electronic voting and the standards that the international community have brought to bear on elections have changed practices and reduced the ability of governing parties and leaders to manipulate the results," said Cilliers.

A technology that prevents misuse of power has not yet been invented. The New Year therefore, compared to the year 2015, is not promising much. In the Democratic Republic of Congo and in neighboring Congo-Brazzaville voters will head to the polls to elect new leaders.

President Sassou-Nguesso lately set the course for his re-election. He changed the constitution making it possible for him to run for a third term. This was then passed in a disputed referendum. There were protests against the referendum which led to deaths and casualties.

In the DRC, a lot suggests that President Joseph Kabila will not abide by the constitution and step down after his two terms. Recently he fired seven politicians in his coalition, after they asked him to abide by the constitution. Rwanda's leader Paul Kagame should also leave office in 2017, but has announced his intention to get re-elected for a third term after parliament amended the constitution.

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