More Unfair Elections in Africa, More Unrest: An Avoidable Cycle

Over the past three months, successive African elections have resulted in deep skepticism from both citizens and international observers. More distressing is the fact that the occasionally violent fallouts, namely in Benin and Malawi, are taking place in environments where relatively resilient democratic foundations have cracked under authoritarian pressures. Last month, in the case of Mauritania, the country’s first ever “peaceful transition of power” has been overshadowed by a number of legal challenges and the mass arrest of dissidents in the post-election tumult.

These examples add to the evidence of a widening fissure between Africa’s often entrenched anti-democratic leaders – whether elected or imposed – and the hopes and demands of the citizens over which they rule. Overall, African citizens continue to support the virtues of democracy, preferring to choose their leaders through open and honest elections (and in accordance with regional and international standards). These firmly held beliefs inevitably undergird a now simmering social tension with national leaders. The breaking points have become all too evident but are also avoidable.

In Benin, the country continues to reel from an April election in which the political opposition was essentially barred from participating. The resultant shockwaves have also caused a respected former president to flee the country under a cloud of secrecy. Unsurprisingly, voter turnout in the election suffered considerably, with a record low 23% of those eligible casting a ballot.

In Malawi, countrywide strikes are ongoing. Protesters and disgruntled opposition supporters have called for the annulment of the May 22 electoral outcome, as well as the resignation of the now embattled electoral commissioner. The election result has come under intense scrutiny because of fraud allegations, including the belief that vote tally sheets were altered using typewriter correction fluid. Several incidents of violence have since occurred around the country, including in major cities and in the capital Lilongwe.

In Mauritania, violent demonstrations have also been frequent in the aftermath of that country’s disputed June 22 poll. To date, an estimated 100 people, including opposition members and critics of the regime, have reportedly been detained. A top spokesman for the country’s political opposition stated that “[we] reject the results of the election and consider that they in no way express the will of the Mauritanian people,” vowing to use “every legal means” to challenge them. In another troubling sign, scores of journalists in the country are being arrested and locked up on seemingly spurious charges.

All three of these situations – in Benin, Malawi and Mauritania – pose the risk of further unrest as each newly ascendant government seeks to consolidate its authority, while trampling over the valid concerns and democratic aspirations of its citizens. This potential trajectory represents a new norm, as well as a self-defeating and counterproductive cycle. Overwhelming data points to the fact that most Africans support democratic elections as the best way to choose their leaders. Across Africa, in fact, citizens are increasingly demanding democracy and its dividends – it is the supply side that remains woefully lacking, with only 4/10 saying that they are currently “satisfied or very satisfied” with democracy in their home countries.

Across the continent, Africans are bravely demanding democracy, and in particular free and fair elections, against the negative headwinds that confront them. It is time for Africa’s current and future leaders to both acknowledge and to protect these demands. Enjoying free and fair elections, for instance, is not a privilege to be granted by a benevolent leader but are instead the rights to which all of us — in Africa and elsewhere — are entitled simply by virtue of being human. To deny these political rights, or to make or to otherwise infer that “Africans are not ready for democracy,” is the extreme height of delusion and discrimination. Overcoming this soft and unacceptable bigotry of low expectations is indeed of paramount importance today.

At the same time, it is similarly overdue for the donor world, and international development groups, to support these democratic aspirations, which have been astoundingly resilient across Africa relative to other regions. A primary way in which donors and relevant organizations can accomplish this end would be to add democracy promotion to their respective portfolios. This idea, long ignored or otherwise scoffed at by the global development community, has actually become increasingly resonant over the past few years.

In short, it is simply not enough to address the manifest symptoms of failed leadership and governance, whether in the form of struggling health and education systems, or the inability to create employment or protect property rights. The symptoms of anti-democratic rule undoubtedly run the gamut. But together, we must audaciously address their root causes – and that begins with investing in democratic leadership and working with citizens to secure truly free and fair elections in their home countries.

As the gap between citizens’ demands for democracy, and the actions (and inactions) of self-interested leaders continues to grow, so too does the volatility of an already young and restive region. The sooner we collectively undertake this necessary re-think, the better for all of us.

Jeffrey Smith is the Founding Director of Vanguard Africa and the Vanguard Africa Foundation, both of which prioritize ethical, pro-democracy leadership and free and fair elections across Africa.