Eight sub-Saharan African elections within nine weeks highlights region’s fragile democracy


In the next three months, eight sub-Saharan African countries will go to the polls to elect a new president and/or parliament, a relative blitz that will not only highlight the region’s growing, if fragile, democratic institutions, but will call attention to many unique issues facing sub-Saharan Africa: unequal and unsteady growth rates, the role of Islamic jihad and security, improving health outcomes, the rule of law and governance standards, and further development of vital infrastructure.african union

Between July 21 and September 30, voters in countries with an aggregate population of around 100 million are scheduled to cast ballots, though of course not all elections are created equal — or conducted on incredibly equal ground.  In some countries, such as Guinea and Togo, it will be a success if the elections actually take place as planned; in other countries, such as Swaziland and Cameroon, elections will be essentially a sideshow of powerlessness.  In  Zimbabwe, where longtime president Robert Mugabe (pictured above) is seeking yet another term after 33 years in power, and in Madagascar, where voters will choose a new president and legislature after a problematic 2009 coup and a four-year interim government, the vote could herald once-in-a-generation leadership transitions.


Here’s the rundown, in brief:

Togo: July 25togo

Togo, a small west African nation of 7.15 million people, is scheduled to vote for a new parliament, despite the fact that elections have been cancelled twice — first in October 2012 and again in March 2013.  There’s no guarantee that elections this month will actually go forward, either.  While the government and opposition have apparently now reached a deal to hold elections later this month, the composition of the electoral commission remains a major open issue.

Togo’s president, Faure Gnassingbé, took office in 2005 with the support of the country’s military following the death of his father, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, who had served as Togo’s president since 1967.  Despite winning election in presidential votes in 2005 and 2010, he’s seen as somewhat of an authoritarian leader and his party, the Rassemblement du Peuple Togolais (RPT, Rally for the Togolese People) dominates the unicameral Assemblée nationale, holding 50 out of 81 seats.  Unlike its neighbors, there’s neither a Christian nor Muslim majority in Togo — out of every two Togolese adheres to indigenous beliefs, though one-third of its residents are Muslim and one-fifth are Christian.

Mali: July 28 (and August 11)Mali Flag Icon

If all goes according to plan for Mali, it will conduct presidential and parliamentary elections at the end of the month, drawing a line under the past 15 months of coup, tumult and war in the predominantly Muslim west African state of 16 million people.

The presidential election has been postponed since April 2012, when a military coup in March 2012 ousted Amadou Toumani Touré in an attempt to mount a stronger resistance to the Tuareg rebels waging a military campaign against the central government.  Over a year later, Mali seems set to return to the fragile, if steady, democratic course that it was on prior to last year’s coup.  Last year’s military takeover ultimately hastened a north-south war that led an alliance of Tuareg separatists and Islamic fundamentalists to take power over much of northern Mali, and the government in Mali’s capital, Bamako, eventually required a French military intervention to keep from losing power entirely.  The French military effectively ended the war, and French troops remain in Mali as a peacekeeping force for the time being.  French and U.S. officials are pushing for a speedy election so that an elected government can negotiate a lasting settlement with Tuareg separatists.

Touré (known by his initials, ‘ATT’) had planned to step down in 2012 after a decade in office — he wasn’t running for reelection in 2012, and he’s not running now.  Neither is acting president Dioncounda Traoré, a previous frontrunner in the prior 2012 campaign.

Among the frontrunners to succeed him are the other three frontrunners from the 2012 campaign:

  • Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (also known by his initials, ‘IBK’), a former Malian prime minister from 1994 to 2000 and president of Mali’s Assemblée nationale from 2002 to 2007.
  • Soumaila Cissé, who was born in Timbuktu in northern Mali, and who was the runner-up in the 2002 presidential election against ATT, a former president of the commission of the West African Monetary Union.
  • Modibo Sidibé, a former prime minister, foreign minister and an ATT loyalist.

The race also features Yeah Samaké who, as in 2012, is receiving disproportionately strong U.S. media interest because of his conversion to Mormonism as a student at Brigham Young University.  Haïdara Aïchata Cissé, currently an independent member of parliament, is the sole female presidential candidate.  Cheick Modibo Diarra, who was appointed prime minister in April 2012 by coup leaders, is the son-in-law of Moussa Traoré, the former military leader of Mali from 1968 to 1991.  Finally, Dramane Dembélé is the candidate of Mali’s largest pan-democratic party, the Alliance pour la Démocratie au Mali (ADEMA, Alliance for Democracy in Mali), and he’s seen as a protégé of outgoing acting president Dioncounda Traoré.

Zimbabwe: July 31

zimbabwe new icon

Under Zimbabwe’s new constitution, approved overwhelmingly in a March referendum earlier this year, voters will select both a new president and a new parliament.  President Robert Mugabe and his governing party, the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF) is seeking reelection, and he’s held power in Zimbabwe as president or prime minister since the country’s independence in 1980 from the United Kingdom.

When Zimbabwe last held a presidential election in March 2008, Mugabe lost the first round to Morgan Tsvangirai by a small margin — 47.9% to 43.2%, though Tsvangirai withdrew from the runoff in the week prior to the vote in protest of violence against his supporters.  Tsvangirai ultimately emerged as Zimbabwe’s prime minister in what’s become a fraught power-sharing arrangement, and Tsvangirai leads the largest opposition group in Zimbabwe, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

In the lower house of Zimbabwe’s parliament, the House of Assembly, the MDC controls 100 seats, ZANU-PF controls 99 seats, and a breakaway opposition faction (the schism dates back to the 2005 Zimbabwean Senate election), an alternative Movement for Democratic Change currently led by Welshman Ncube, controls 10 seats.  So the parliamentary election could well determine who holds legislative power in Zimbabwe, which under Zimbabwe’s new constitution will become even more powerful vis-à-vis the president.

In the presidential vote, Mugabe is facing four opponents, including Tsvangirai and Ncube (who’s currently the minister of industry and commerce in Tsvangirai’s government).  But there has been wide speculation that the opposition will ultimately unite behind one candidate, likely Tsvangirai, in a ‘grand coalition’ to oust Mugabe before the vote at the end of July or, perhaps more likely, in the event of a likely Mugabe-Tsvangirai runoff if neither candidate wins over 50% of the vote.

Though the 2008 elections were hardly conducted according to best practices, Tsvangirai and the MDC emerged as the top vote-winners even in the face of intimidation, violence and fraud.  So it remains an open question the extent to which Mugabe will permit free and fair elections this time around, notwithstanding the new constitution or the recent praise from U.S. and other Western governments.  The 89-year-old Mugabe, who is permitted to run for two more terms in office despite the new constitution’s two-term limitation, is reported to have built a parallel reelection effort based less on ZANU-PF party efforts and more on personal support within the military.  That will only add to fears that Mugabe will employ intimidation or even violence as campaign tactics.

Zimbabwe, a landlocked country of 12.6 million people in southern Africa, has achieved strong GDP growth in recent years after its economy collapsed in 2007 and 2008 when hyperinflation and other economic woes caused a broader public health crisis that brought, among other hardships, widespread hunger and a cholera outbreak.  The ensuing years of (relative) improvement mean that Mugabe is more popular than he was five years ago; the MDC’s participation in Mugabe’s government, however, has dampened enthusiasm for Tsvangirai since 2008.

Madagascar: August 23


Following a coup in early 2009, opposition leader Andry Rajoelina, then the mayor of Madagascar’s capital of Antananarivo, came to power as an interim president following a political crisis that ended with Rajoelina pushing his opponent, Marc Ravalomanana (president since 2002), out of office in what’s been seen as a largely illegal coup.

With a new constitution to usher in the country’s Fourth Republic promulgated in 2013, the elections that Rajoelina promised four years ago are now set to take place, though not without controversy.  Originally scheduled for July 24, they were postponed yet again by Rajoelina’s government to August 23, though the electoral commission will have the final word after Madagascar’s constitutional court made it clear that the commission — and not the president — has the final word on setting the date.

Rajoelina and Ravalomanana both originally pledged not to stand in the long-delayed elections, but the decision by former first lady Lalao Ravalomanana to stand instead caused Rajoelina to rethink his decision.  Another longtime former president, Didier Ratsiraka, who lost the 2001 presidential election to Marc Ravalomanana, and who spent much of 2002 trying to take back power with military force, is also running.  All three candidacies are controversial, not least among the European Union and other international observers that have attempted to bring about a democratic transition to the island country.

The country, a former French colony, has marked very weak GDP growth in recent years, partly due to years of a socialist, planned economy.  Although over 90% of the country is Malagasy, the country is divided into sub-ethnic groups — both Rajoelina and Ravalomanana belong to the Merina group, which constitutes about one-fourth of Madagascar’s 22 million population.

Rwanda: September 16 – 18


Rwanda, by virtue of the fact that it’s still only just within two decades of the brutal massacre that left up to a million Rwandan Tutsis dead, has since 1994 been a unique country within sub-Saharan Africa.

On the one hand, Paul Kagame — president since 2000 and de facto leader of the country since 1994 — has won global plaudits for his stewardship of the Rwandan economy and he’s worked to rebuild Rwanda’s infrastructure, boost its education and health care system, and make the country friendly to foreign investment, a strategy that’s reaped an average GDP growth rate of 8.1% between 2000 and 2012, and its estimated 7.7% growth in 2012 makes it the highest-performing of the eight countries profiled here.

But it has a long way to go with respect to political development, and even Kagame’s international polish has worn thin in light of his alleged support for M23 rebels in eastern Congo and growing concerns about the authoritarian nature of his regime.  Reelected in August 2010 with 93% of the vote against weak opposition, there’s no doubt that Kagame wields significant support from not only his own Tutsi base, but also from among Hutus who make up around 85% of Rwanda’s 11.7 million people — perhaps unsurprising in light of the stability and economic growth he’s presided over.

In accordance with the term limitations in the country’s new constitution, Kagame has pledged to step down when his term ends in 2017.  That makes September’s elections especially important — Kagame’s gains won’t be secured unless he leaves office with a stable political marketplace in effect.  But on that metric, there’s already been some disappointment, given that Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) dominates politics in Rwanda.  It controls a majority of the 80 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the Rwandan parliament, and that seems likely to continue after this year’s parliamentary elections as well.  While there are nearly a dozen political parties in Rwanda, most of them are allies of the ruling RPF.  Moreover, political speech is highly regulated in Rwanda, and political groups must register five days in advance with the government prior to holding any public meeting.

Swaziland: September 20Swaziland

Swaziland, a tiny country surrounded by South Africa and Mozambique, is one of the world’s remaining absolute monarchies, and though it has moved to at least some degree toward a constitutional monarchy, true power lies with King Mswati III, who’s held the Swazi monarchy since 1986.

With just 1.1 million people, the country has the world’s highest HIV/AIDS rate (over 26%), which presents an ongoing challenge to the country’s future.  Overall life expectancy is just 50 years (eight years lower than in South Africa, which has also faced its own demographic challenges from HIV/AIDS) — only the war-torn Sierra Leone, Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of the Congo have lower life expectancies.

It shares very close economic, infrastructure and cultural ties to South Africa, and its currency is tied to the South African rand.  The Swazi Libandla (parliament) consists of a 30-member Senate and a 65-member House of Assembly.  The September election will choose 55 deputies in the House of Assembly, and the other 10 are appointed directly by the monarch.  The Senate is composed entirely of appointed members — 20 by the monarch and 10 by the House of Assembly.  The country’s prime minister is selected by the monarch, and the monarch has absolute veto power over any laws passed by the Libandla.

As political parties are illegal under the Swazi constitution, only ‘independent’ candidates can contest the elections.  Parliamentary elections will be conducted throughout August and September pursuant to a tinkhundla system that attempts to provide representation to each of 55 smaller districts within the country.  Though this provides some amount of local accountability, the votes will not necessarily meet what we normally think of as international standards for elections.

Guinea: September 30


Guinea holds the record, among these eight countries at least, for the planned election that has been postponed the longest — since 2007.  Although parliamentary elections for Guinea’s Assemblée nationale were supposed to be held earlier in June, election day came and went like so many others in the past, without a single ballot cast.  Earlier this month, however, opposition and government forces agreed to a tentative deal to hold elections later in September under the guidance of a United Nations envoy.

A small west African nation of around 10.25 million, Guinea faces the same issue as in Togo, whereby the opposition has threatened to boycott elections rather than participate in a vote they believe will otherwise be skewed against them.  Guinea’s president Alpha Condé was narrowly elected in a 2010 vote that broke largely on ethnic lines (the country is around 85% Muslim), and while it wasn’t without flaws, Condé can say with a straight face that he has at least a weak democratic mandate to rule after decades of Soviet-aligned, one-party rule under Ahmed Sékou Touré following independence from France in 1958, and under Lansana Conté from 1984 until 2008.  So if and when Guinea finally holds elections, it will be a bellwether test as to whether the country can build a truly multi-party parliamentary system.

Cameroon: September 30cameroon

Though elections are planned for the end of September, they’ve been postponed three times since July 2012, so there’s not incredible confidence that they will actually go forward, and there’s even less confidence that the elections will be free of irregularities.

But where Gnassingbé in Togo has at least indicated a willingness to move toward greater democracy and where Conté in Guinea is himself the winner of a relatively fair presidential election, Cameroon’s authoritarian  president Paul Biya shows absolutely no sign of sharing power with anyone.  Biya himself came to power in 1982 after shoving Cameroon’s first post-independence strongman Ahmadou Ahidjo out of office and into exile, and he most recently ‘won’ reelection in October 2011 with nearly 80% of the vote through what amounted to major fraud.  Even if Cameroon’s opposition agrees to go through with parliamentary elections, expect them to be the least free and fair of the eight African elections in the next eight months — the ruling Rassemblement démocratique du Peuple Camerounais (RPC Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement) holds 153 out of 180 seats in the Assemblée nationale.

With around 20 million people, ample coastline, a degree of oil wealth and relatively stable economic growth, Cameroon is positioned to become the leading economy of central Africa.

Photo credit to Flickr / Pan-African News Wire File Photo.

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