Africa’s legitimate elections offer the change African people desire

Analysis in brief: 2024 sees an unusually substantial number of elections throughout Africa. Whenever African people may vote in free and fair elections, they choose their own interests. However, depending on the African country’s leadership, many Africans are not given a genuine opportunity to achieve change.

Determining real from stage-managed elections

National elections have the potential to change governments and usher in new policies that allow national, economic and social growth. The significant elections of 2024 are all national in scope:

CountryElection typeAnticipated date
Comoros Presidential January 14
Mali Presidential February 4 (Postponed)
Senegal Presidential February 25
Chad Presidential and Legislative May 6
South Africa General National May 29
Mauritania Presidential June 22
Burkina Faso Presidential July (Postponed)
Rwanda Presidential and Legislative July 15
Algeria Presidential September 7
Mozambique Presidential and Legislative October 9
Botswana General National October (Various Dates)
Tunisia Presidential November 24
Mauritius General National November 30
Namibia Presidential November (Various Dates)
Guinea Presidential and Legislative December (Various Dates)
Guinea-Bissau Presidential December (Various Dates)
South Sudan Presidential and Legislative December (Various Dates)
Ghana Presidential and Legislative December 7

Which of these elections will be free and fair? Which will bring the legitimate means for a country’s people to choose their representational leadership, which will carry their will by forging a path forward through the policies the electorate desires? And which will be show elections, stage-managed by leaders and elites who have no interest in yielding power?

Incumbent leaders possess built-in advantages, controlling national security apparatuses and the state media. Then there are outright autocrats, who control courts, and thus can jail opposition leaders and shutter critical news media. Under Africa’s autocrats, elections are performances designed to give the pre-ordained winner a semblance of legitimacy in the eyes of the world. ‘The people have spoken,’ they proclaim, having manipulated the process towards its inevitable outcome in their favour.

Some autocrats are so insular in their office and so delusional about their popularity that they allow free and fair elections to take place, confident of their victory. However, given the chance, African people will vote out their oppressors. Such was the astonishment of The Gambia’s dictator Yahya Jammeh at having lost his election in 2013, who then refused to vacate the Presidential Palace until forcibly evicted by Senegalese troops. Others, like King Mswati III of Eswatini, ban political parties or any organised political activity against their rule, leaving European Union election observers to conclude the kingdom’s elections in particular are ‘free, fair and pointless’ because they offer no choices or ways for the people to achieve governance change.

When determining which of the 2024 elections are legitimate and which are show elections, the authorities are the international election observers. Teams of observers are dispatched to African national elections by the African Union and the European Union. Elections are also observed by officials of the foreign embassies in African countries. From them and civil society observers, it is possible to make some determinate forecasts of the way 2024’s elections will shape up in terms of legitimacy.

Election assessments show mixed scores for elections’ legitimacies

The warning signs that an election cannot be a normal affair include leaders who have changed national constitutions to stay in power or who came to power undemocratically. The first election of 2024, in Comoros, was won by a president who raised both those red flags. Colonel Azali Assoumani came to power in a 1999 coup d’état, and with no desire to relinquish that power, he had the national constitution changed to drop its regulation on term limits. His manner of campaigning prior to his election win was to have his military intimidate the press, chase opposition leaders into exile and spread fear amongst the populace. Assoumani wants a dynasty, and he is grooming his son to assume power. Other coup leaders are equally hesitant to give up what they took by force of arms. The juntas that took over Burkina Faso and Mali have both postponed their 2024 elections that they promised would transition their governance from military to civilian rule.

Contrast that with Senegal’s election: Incumbent President Macky Sall’s postponement of the 4 February election to 24 March was seen as an attempt to disrupt the opposition and sew national chaos, which would enable him to play the role of the calm, experienced leader and win at the polls. The Senegalese people were not buying the ruse though, and they elected the underdog candidate, 44-year-old opposition leader Bassirou Diomaye Faye, as Africa’s youngest president. Faye immediately rewarded the electorate by freezing all government contracts involving natural resources to review them to fulfil his anti-corruption campaign pledge. Voters fed up with corruption are one reason South Africa’s ruling African National Congress, in power since the country’s democratisation in 1994, faces serious competition for its May bid to retain its governing status. Also in power since 1994 has been Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame. Accused not of corruption but political autocracy, he has managed overwhelming presidential election wins through laws targeting opposition candidates and the independent media, as well as intimidation of opponents both local and living abroad. There is no doubt amongst political observers that Kagame will ensure a decisive win in July for his ruling party.

Just as Algeria’s leadership will also likely win the election, the state is closely managing the election, manipulating the process in favour of the presidency according to government transparency groups. The same result seems assured in Mozambique. In power since national independence in 1975, the former liberation party Frente de Libertação de Moçambique has come to consider itself Mozambique’s only legitimate ruler of the country and views opponents as traitors. The raid in February of the opposition party’s headquarters, which saw four deaths and dozens of arrests of opposition officials, is a hallmark of the government’s electioneering technique. No country that disallows actual choice in elections can be considered democratic.

By contrast, Botswana’s October election is showing itself to be the most competitive in the nation’s history. Formed in 2019, the opposition coalition Umbrella for Democratic Change has matured to give the Botswana Democratic Party, in power since national independence in 1966, its most formidable challenge ever. Similarly, Mauritius will also assert its status as one of Africa’s strongest democracies in November with a lively, closely contested election. Also in November, Namibia will choose an election that may well see the retirement from power of the South West Africa People’s Organisation, the liberation organisation that has ruled since independence in 1990. Multiple candidates are on the ballot, and half of these are women who have the strongest backings and voter bases. Ghana is expected to cement its democratic bona fides with another peaceful transition of power, following its December elections. Such a transition has been standard since 1992. The signs are showing such a transition is also possible in Guinea in November as the country works its way back to political normalcy from the 2021 coup d’état. Mauritania has seen genuine progress toward democracy, and now has an impartial National Independent Elections Commission supervising its June polling.

A map of World Freedom in 2024, showing Ghana led in democratic stability, while the rest of the continent shows difficult conditions for electoral integrity
Source: Freedom House

Where elections are foregone conclusions

Among the autocrats expected to manipulate the election processes in their countries to ensure that they remain in power is Chad’s General Mahamat Déby. His promise to allow a transitional government was exposed as a sham when his loyalists dominated pre-election political debates orchestrated so that Déby would remain in power.

As 2024 draws to a close, Tunisia will stage a non-choice election. President Kais Saied has destroyed the democracy fought for during the 2011 Tunisia Uprising, having dissolved parliament in 2021 and having ruled by decree from that time. After suppressing civil society and giving himself the power to dismiss magistrates, Saied has no fear of any consequences for abusing election laws and exiling opponents.

Tunisia’s President Kais Saied, who undermined his country’s democracy to become the latest African autocrat to manipulate an election to extend his rule
Source: Voice of America

Striving toward the goal of empowering populations through the vote

This review of 2024’s African elections shows a considerable latitude in election credibility. On one hand are the legitimate contests where citizens are free to receive uncensored information about their candidates, who will be expected to function as the citizens’ representatives when elected. By contrast, there are the sham contests where citizens must participate in election exercises that serve only to allow leadership to claim legitimacy by having won elections.

Democracy has waxed and waned since colonialism made way for self-governing nations. This is reflected in the number of elections that are free and fair, whose numbers rise and fall unpredictably. However, the desire for legitimate elections is expressed by African voters who, when given the chance, have put their interests ahead of the governing elites’.

The critical points:

  • In 2024, Africa will see an unusually elevated number of national elections – all of which are watershed events in their nations’ developments
  • Distinguishing free and legitimate elections from pre-determined contests stage-managed by autocrats is vitally important
  • Countries that have free elections constantly vary in number year by year as autocrats gain power, are replaced by democracies, and when they fluctuate their nations’ freedoms