By Olusugun Obasanjo and Greg Mills.
How to ensure Africa’s elections are free and fair’A free and fair election involves more than what happens on the day itself. It relates to what happens between elections
The Zambian government has recently jailed the leader of the opposition, Hakainde Hichilema, on treason charges. The catalyst was a traffic incident involving rival motorcades. The stage to this extreme action was however set earlier with a contested election result in August 2016. And this reflects a wider, regional pattern, not least in the repetition of flawed Zimbabwean elections, contested outcomes in Mozambique and Lesotho, and the ongoing ‘non-election’ in the ‘Democratic’ Republic of Congo.
These specific events also indicate a deeper malaise in the absence of a system of government which encourages a loyal opposition, a system of government whereby oppositions can oppose the actions of an executive even though their loyalty to the source of the government’s power is unquestioned. This fundamentally reflects perceptions of the legitimacy of governments. This, in turn, relates to the strength of local and international institutions, and the health of electoral processes.
A free and fair election involves more than what happens on the day itself. It relates to what happens between elections, and reflects the health of institutions, and conditions of transparency
During the Cold War, much of Africa was locked into systems of single-party or authoritarian rule, which by their very nature suppressed competition of ideas and systems.
Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, only two countries had what could be considered democratic systems: Botswana and Mauritius. As superpower competition fell away, along with the military and economic aid that had sustained many African dictators, between 1990 and 2005 the number of countries that held regular, competitive multi-party elections increased dramatically to over 40.
Since 1991 there have been nearly 40 peaceful transfers of power from incumbents at the ballot box in sub-Saharan Africa.
At the same time there was also a nearly fourfold increase – to 11 – in the number of African countries judged as ‘free’ by US think tank Freedom House. The bigger shift was marked by countries labelled ‘not free’, which represented 70% of the continent in 1990 but only 33% by 2005.
However, since 2005, there has been regression in political reform. After a decade-long decline in civil liberties in sub-Saharan Africa, just 12% of the continent’s one billion people live in countries classified as ‘free’, 49% in those ‘partly free’ and 39% which are deemed ‘unfree’.
Aside from questions of openness and liberty, the record shows that democracies, at least in Africa, do much better than their authoritarian counterparts when it comes to economic growth and development. Not only do democratic regimes improve accountability, but the great asset of democracy is that it also enables a test of philosophies at the marketplace of the political consumer. They are also more peaceful, which improves the prospect of compounding growth.
The contemporary regression reflects in part the election environment and its mechanisms.
An Afrobarometer report of 2016 showed that just 40% of Africans in 36 countries believed that the last elections in their country were completely free and fair, or two-thirds if one includes those who saw them as ‘free and fair, but with minor problems’. Just 25% said that they trusted their national election commissions ‘a lot’. Just one-third of those polled believe that their vote is counted fairly. Many described elections with rampant bribery, media bias and threats of violence.
But a free and fair election involves more than what happens on the day itself. It relates to what happens between elections, and reflects the health of institutions, and conditions of transparency, especially around funding.
Even though crude ballot paper dumping, vote buying, bribery and wholesale fraud still happens, the nature of election rigging is increasingly sophisticated
For example, Freedom House’s current downward rating of Zambia ‘reflects the restrictive environment for the political opposition in the run-up to general elections’ both in the media (after the main opposition paper was closed down) and the use of the Public Order Act to ban opposition rallies. The election is regarded a step-back from Zambia’s democratic trajectory since the re-establishment of multi-party rule in 1991, not least in the way in which the opposition’s petition around its legality was dealt with; to the point, now, with HH’s arrest, that the Zambian Catholic Bishop’s Conference has said that the country is now all, except in designation, ‘a dictatorship’.
Elections cost money, increasingly so with the deployment of technology. Running the 1999 Nigerian elections, all six of them, cost the winner just $7 million. The following round, in 2003, cost no more than $9 million. Fast forward to 2015, and the opposition spent ten times this amount to win the presidential election alone, while the incumbent astonishingly spent more than $2 billion.
Nigeria is not alone. The general guideline for African election spending is $1 million per 1 million of population. This reflects the cost of buying favours, and of external assistance, as it does the extent of the looting of Treasury resources, that habit encouraged by a conflation of state and party.
There is too another shift. Whereas, in the past, membership funded political parties, today parties are expected to give members money. Elections are an opportunity, especially among smaller parties, for income, an industry in itself.
How might this be improved?
In the long-term, this depends on domestic institutional reform, on the type of checks and balances on government. The likelihood of this happening however depends on the prospects for four main areas of reform:
The first is through the widespread use of sophisticated method and technology, including Biometric Voting Registration, which can help to reduce fraud (even though it creates other problems of hacking), and Parallel Voter Tabulation, whereby official results are tracked or even pre-empted, as in the case of Nigeria, by the opposition. With few exceptions, such as the successful 2015 Buhari campaign in Nigeria, oppositions have lacked the wherewithal, financial or cerebral, to get ahead of incumbents and their unquestionable ability to adopt new technologies and techniques in circumventing transparency and due process. Authoritarian regimes have proven quick learners in this regard.
The second area of reform is in the manner in which international observers respond. They have a difficult path to walk, hamstrung by the shortage of both resources and political will. Too tough and they are automatically suspected of seeking to upend the incumbent. Too quiet and they stand accused of complicity in a government cover-up. Of course they should aim, at the minimum, to do no harm, and they also have to focus on democratic conditions between the elections. Doing no harm includes realising that the presence of an observer group can have a legitimating effect on an election process. It also involves calling out those elections which are patently unfree and unfair, and ensuring that there are consequences to such malfeasance.
Even though crude ballot paper dumping, vote buying, bribery and wholesale fraud still happens, the nature of election rigging is increasingly sophisticated. The triggers for the international community calling an election foul (and acting on this) should thus include whether the media, including Facebook and the internet, is closed down, the prevalence of violence, the upending of legal processes, intimidation and arrest, the partiality of the election commission, vetting and sanction of international observer participants, and the closing down of funding for civil society watchdogs. Remembering the cost of the erosion of election processes, the threshold for international condemnation should also avoid crude measures, notably the extent (or not) of violence, and should be consistent. If criticism of processes in the Gambia, Senegal and the Ivory Coast, for example, and the intervention of mediators, why not others?
Africa does not have the worst elections in the world. That ‘honour’ falls to the Middle East and parts of Asia. But analysis shows that if you exclude a candidate from elections in Africa, there is a 20% less likelihood of donor censure than other regions.
Bad elections should have consequences. And observers should only set off it they have the willingness at the outset to call the election truthfully. Outsiders have to make insiders do their job better, and easier, but it is not up to them to fund elections or to ensure that Africa gets it house in order.
Third, funding transparency of political parties is a further, absolutely imperative area of reform. Those who donate risk both being accused of seeking political favours, or upsetting their relationship with the incumbents. The only way round this conundrum seems to be shining an even brighter light on financial flows. One means to do so is through the establishment of an independent body to which donors transparently channel funds and which openly distributes these resources. It is only those who seek favours who will in the circumstances choose, by definition, alternative and opaque avenues.
But, fourth, deepening democracy fundamentally depends not on what the international community does, but on what African democrats do for themselves. They are not passive bystanders in this process. They need to develop their own narrative, connect with voters, seek to unify opposition movements, and adopt best practice when it comes to writing a playbook for democrats. This has not only to involve voter registration drives and targeted advertising based on polling outcomes, but includes the more mundane training (and funding) of polling agents, the assiduous checking of voter’s rolls (especially in killing off dead voters), and the mobilisation of democrats across regions. Democrats have to work hard, too, to ensure election fraud is criminalised.
Locals, not others, have to win the vote between elections.
With 24 elections this year alone, now is not the time for election apathy in Africa. While oppositions must be loyal to the goodness of the country and common values, if elections are simply a means for endorsing the status quo, they will be less a source of change than conflict.
With a youthful, expectant population, it is necessary to instil faith in electoral process, otherwise there will be temptation to resort to redress and seek relief through extra-judicial means. And this will likely set the stage for violence and beget less confidence and capacity in government as in Africa’s future prosperity.
President Obasanjo and Dr Mills are with the Brenthurst Foundation, and are co-authors of ‘Making Africa Work: A Handbook for Economic Success’ which is being launched in South Africa this month.