Illegitimate African elections are worse than no elections

Analysis in brief: Africans’ desire for democracy continues to be challenged by autocrats, and much of the struggle centres on how to secure the legitimacy of the essential element that makes democracy work, and that necessity is a free election.

An election offering no choices is a danger to national security

Democracy is being undermined globally – and not just in Africa. Corrupt elections are one major encumbrance to democratisation, but illegitimate elections mounted by autocratic governments create a vicious circle. These choiceless elections are held in the name of ‘democracy’, and when they fail to deliver change, they are then used by autocrats as reasons why democracy is not an ideal mode of government. Elections, according to non-democratic forces, cannot express the will of the people, which is only truly known, they claim, by the benevolent autocrat himself. This is paradoxical because there is only one system that empowers a nation’s people with self-governance, and that is democracy (from the Greek word “demo,” meaning “the many”). Oligarchies are government of the few, and monarchies and dictatorships are government of the one (“mono”). It is not democracy that fails the people, it is people who fail democracy by not recognising and overcoming political power usurpers who rob them of self-governance. All governance is aimed at fulfilling self-interests. In democracies, the interests of the entire population are met through the collective use of state financial, security, judicial, administrative and legislative bodies. For non-democratic systems, these institutions serve to fulfil the self-interest of the ruling elite.

Elections exist to allow a nation’s people to choose individuals who wish to run on the people’s behalf. Candidates compete based on their ideologies, which guide how they would fashion policies to best serve the people who vote for them. People embrace the ideology they desire in their choice of candidate, who then represents them in the national legislature, local council, presidency and judiciary. Because there is power in a collective, and like-thinking minds are more effective than a bubble of individuals when competing to be heard, political parties are established. These are founded on their candidates’ particular ideology. During elections, voters can support those who promote their chosen ideology based on a candidate’s party affiliation. The division of labour during campaigning is that parties market their ideologies while their candidates market their qualifications for office. In order for elections to be free and fair, all qualified candidates must have equal freedom to campaign and access to the media. The state must not interfere with elections in any way. The body that conducts elections must be independent and transparent in the conduct of its business. Negative campaigning, in which candidates highlight the deficiencies of their opponents, is an unfortunate component of elections and is here to stay, even though it should not be needed in a free and fair election where it is the job of a robust independent media to dig up candidates’ disqualifying conduct. Campaign financing is a major problem facing modern elections, where special interest groups and businesses pay vast amounts of money to support candidates who will promote their ideologies and interests. In this way, elections are literally bought, and power is shifted to a small elite.

An election poll worker in Malawi explains the ballot to voters.

Despite elections’ deficiencies, they are the basis of democratic representational governance because the government is chosen by the people they represent. Reform is not possible in governance systems that cannot be reformed, such as dictatorships and oligarchies. When such elections in non-democratic states fail to choose representatives who advance the interests of the country’s people, the blame should not be put on elections, and yet, that is what is happening throughout the world. From the birthplace of modern democracy, the United States, where a powerful fascist political movement led by a former president proposes to abolish the constitution to reinstate him in power, to Africa, where cynical dictators continue to mount sham voting exercises and call them elections. These are not called out for what they are by an uncritical world media or by complacent organisations like the African Union.

How to rig an election

While Africa does have a few genuinely non-democratic people in control of their national governments – Cameroon’s Paul Biya, Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang and Eswatini’s King Mswati have all been in power since 1982, 1979 and 1986 respectively – many incumbent elected heads of government act like dictators when it comes to re-election. They use tools of power to redraw constituency maps to expand areas where their supporters reside while fragmenting voting blocs that favour their opponents. They monopolise state media and exclude other candidates from the airwaves. As insurance, they jail opponents on fabricated charges or create election laws designed to constrain their opponents.

This playbook was followed in 2021’s Ugandan election, when Yoweri Museveni, commanding power since 1986, jailed and tortured his youthful opponent, singer Bobbi Wine. One of the detriments of fake elections that perpetuate the rule of Presidents for Life is that they exclude a new generation from gaining political experience. As a ruling party calcifies, a nation is robbed of new ideas and important solutions, while the emotion of idealism is stifled, and the notion of civic duty is mocked by national leadership. While the election that returned Museveni to power was documented to be the most violent and unfair in Uganda’s history, it galvanised the country’s youth demographic, who proved the illegitimacy of their governing regime that can only retain power through tricks and violence.

Africa’s most closely watched election in 2022 saw Teodoro Obiang’s ruling Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea win all 100 seats in the National Assembly, all 55 seats in the Senate and all 588 municipal seats. Obiang also gave himself a victory of 95% of the vote – a total nearly as fanciful as his 97% victory in 2008. Obiang’s party had allied itself with 14 other parties who could not refuse the alliance if they wished to participate in ruling. Although the state arrested opposition candidates, the election was legitimised by monitors from the African Union – for whom Obiang has hosted expensive heads of states summits – who declared it was conducted “in accordance with international standards.” Obiang is now 80 years old; at the end of his new seven-year term, he will have been in power for 50 years and will turn power over to his son, Teodorin – now, his vice president. During the half-century looting of Equatorial Guinea’s oil wealth to fund their extravagant lifestyle, the Obiang family has created what has become Africa’s most enduring and richest kleptocracies.

While each non-democratic leader and incumbent determined to hold on to power has their own techniques to manipulate elections, after studying the experience of The Gambia’s dictator Yahya Jammeh, who allowed a national election in 2018, confident that he would win, and was shocked when he lost. Senegalese troops had to physically remove him. Today’s incumbents leave nothing to chance. Unlike Jammeh, they won’t be blindsided by an election they do not wholly control.

A second commonality displayed by Africa’s incumbents and dictators is their misuse of the fact that democracy comes in various forms. Some democracies have parliaments, and voters select political parties on ideological grounds. The winning party then selects from its leadership to head the government. In other democracies, people directly elect a president, whose power is kept in check by a separately elected legislature. Voting processes also vary. Some democracies have term limits to stop power from residing in the same hands for lengths of time and to encourage fresh ideas and the participation of younger generations in governance. Some democracies include their monarchies in governance by making their kings and queens ceremonial heads of state.

A voter in Sierra Leone drops her yellow ballot for the parliamentary election
and her blue ballot for the presidential election.

These differences do not change the nature of the governance system, which allow citizens to run their own country using proxies – their fellow citizens they elect to do the tasks of governance on their behalf. However, these variations in democratic governance are invariably used by Africa’s dictators to demand that their own ways of exerting power are just another manifestation of democracy. By calling a country ‘democratic’, they assert that their government is indeed so. Throughout Africa, countries are officially labelled as democracies when they are ruled by dictators, elections are meaningless and the word ‘democracy’ functions as scaffolding to support non-democratic systems.

Recognising encumbrances to free elections and how to overcome these

Election interference is a perpetual problem in even the world’s oldest democracies. Elections are subject to manipulation by a country’s incumbent leader because an election board is subject to his control, unless it is unusually independent. Elections are delegitimised by fraud and bribery and through the power of moneyed interests to finance campaigns (and even purchase candidates). Foreign interference in African elections was once extensively conducted by Western and Eastern powers as they competed to install regimes favourable to their side. In 2022, Russia was the only foreign power overtly working to subvert elections, either to install its chosen candidate who would pursue pro-Moscow policies or simply to undermine the legitimacy of an election. By sewing chaos and causing the public to lose faith in elections as the underpinning of democracy, Russia can point to ‘proof’ that democracy is a failed system and only autocratic regimes like its own offer viable governance.

Foreign interference is a relatively easy ill to overcome. Once it is recognised and publicised, it can be neutralised. Citizens resent when outsiders manipulate them like puppets. However, overcoming that same manipulation when conducted by a domestic source like an incumbent ruler is more complicated.

One advocate for transparent governance suggested that the problems of democracy can only be solved through more and better democracy. This can be accomplished with higher education standards that result in more discerning voters, who are less easily manipulated and better able to make informed choices. Economic equality that results in higher standards of living can also make vote selling less desirable to a poor person willing to trade a vote for a meal.

Loss of confidence in democratic institutions – from government’s ability to provide basic services and improve the economy and honest courts to armies and police that are a source of comfortable security rather than intimidation and fear – can be remedied by improving these institutions. National media must also be strengthened as an essential pillar of democracy to eliminate fake news and hate mongering. All these reforms go against the workings of autocracies, who thrive on fake news, hate and division.

A 2022 Afrobarometer survey found that 69% of Africans support democracy. Tired of perpetual rulers, an even larger 70%, feel there should be term limits. This is a solid foundation to motivate the strengthening of democratic institutions. True, there has been some backsliding during the 20th century, with most African countries registering lower on political freedom scales by groups such as Transparency International. Yet the slide is not irreversible – and probably cannot be irreversible. During colonialism, Africans never knew democracy. With national independence, which was fuelled by cries for freedom, most of the continent has experienced periods when they knew true democracies. For some countries, these experiences were fleeting, but they proved indelible. As has been proved time and time again, dictators seize power but are eventually ousted by popular will. Once people taste freedom or see their neighbours living as they would like to, they view this type of life not as an unobtainable ideal but as a norm that is being denied to them.

The critical points:

  • Though differing in specifics, democracies are all the same: self-governance by the people. Autocrats staging fake elections and labelling their countries as ‘democracies’ do not disguise their statuses as dictatorships
  • By more than two-thirds, African people desire to live in democracies
  • The best solution to the problems of democracy is more democracy: legitimate elections; honest courts; legislatures and executives that competently conduct their mandates from the people who elected them; apolitical security forces; and a critical, informative and unbiased media