By: Carien du Plessis/, South Africa

AT least 12 African countries are headed to the polls for executive challenges this year. But civil unrest, violent extremism and the ‘big men’ who cling to power make the deepening of democracy on the continent a demanding task, writes Carien du Plessis*.

The Sahel

Elections are set to stress-test the restive Sahel region, where some of the countries going to elections this year have experienced deadly jihadist violence and civil unrest. Legislative elections are scheduled for Mali, Chad and Cameroon (long postponed due to logistic and security issues), and various presidential polls are in the offing.

Cote d’Ivoire’s October presidential ballot will be the first since a contested 2010 result dragged the country into its second civil war. President Alassane Ouattara, 78, has said he will run again if his predecessors return, as they seem set to. His bitter rival, former president Laurent Gbagbo, has hinted at presidential ambitions since the International Criminal Court last year acquitted him of crimes against humanity — charges arising from post-election violence in 2010.

For now, he remains in the Netherlands pending an appeal against his acquittal.

An increase in violent extremist attacks in Niger could directly affect the presidential election in December. Late last month the work of a voter registration team was interrupted when 14 members of its security escort were killed by terrorists.

President Mahamadou Issoufou, who has stood in each election since 1993, has indicated he will step down, having served two five-year terms, but opposition parties are concerned about

being sidelined.

Burkina Faso’s November election will be only the second competitive vote after long-serving president Blaise Compaoré was ousted in a popular uprising in 2015.

Under the leadership of Compaoré’s successor, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, the country has faced a surge of attacks by Al-Qaeda affiliates. The March 2019 constitutional referendum to decide term limits was postponed because of security concerns, which means the presidential election will take place without a solid constitutional framework.

Kaboré has indicated he will run again, and former prime minister Kadré Désiré Ouédraogo also plans to stand.

Scheduled elections in Sudan are on hold — a transitional government has been in place since the toppling of strongman Omar al-Bashir last year — but ongoing protests make for an unpredictable situation.

West Africa

In Guinea, the optimism that surrounded Alpha Condé’s rise has waned, with the country’s first freely elected president and his son implicated in corruption scandals and accusations of election-rigging.

Mass protests were triggered last October, when Condé, 81, announced that he intends to change the constitution. The opposition fears he is planning to run for a third term in the October presidential poll. Legislative elections postponed a year ago, are set for February.

Term limits will also be in focus in Togo, where President Faure Gnassingbé is set to seek a fourth five-year mandate from voters in February (a constitutional amendment has allowed him to run for a further two terms). But opposition parties and civil society leaders have called for the election to be suspended to allow for a reorganisation of the constitutional court, the voters roll and the electoral commission.

In Ghana’s more consolidated democratic space, December’s election could be a close race between President Nana Akufo-Addo and former president John Mahama.

Mahama beat Akufo-Addo in 2012, but the tables were turned in 2016.

Central Africa

Burundi’s president, Pierre Nkurunziza, won a third term with a landslide victory in 2015 when opposition parties boycotted the presidential poll — but the country spiralled into violence, and the AU initially refused to acknowledge the result. This year’s vote is set to be more competitive; the main opposition in exile, the National Council for Compliance with the Arusha Agreement, has announced its intention to compete.

Though Nkurunziza is allowed to serve until 2034 — a 2018 constitutional amendment paved the way for this — he has said he won’t run again. But his party has yet to announce an alternative candidate for the May poll.

The Central African Republic fell into severe crisis in 2012, when the Seleka rebel group began its march through the country, eventually unseating president François Bozizé in 2013 and sparking deadly communal violence between Christians and Muslims. December’s presidential and legislative elections will be the second poll since then.

Bozizé has made a surprise return from exile to challenge the incumbent, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, despite facing an international arrest warrant for crimes against humanity and

incitement to genocide.

In a report, the Institute for Security Studies says a 2019 peace agreement between the government and 14 armed groups “seems at serious risk, and elections will undoubtedly usher in a period of increased tensions, or even destabilisation”.

Horn of Africa

Since taking office in 2018, Ethiopia’s Nobel laureate, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, has instituted widespread reforms, including the release of thousands of political prisoners and the holding of peace talks with Eritrea. But the country’s elections, due in May, will be an important yardstick of his success.

The political opening that Abiy’s leadership provided has been filled, in part, with protests and ethnic violence, and 1,200 people were killed last year. Media mogul Jawar Mohammed, who has joined the race for prime minister, blames Abiy for that violence.

Though Ethiopians are accustomed to one-party rule, these elections are set to be the most competitive since violent polls in 2005. Abiy has said a postponement is not an option, as it

would ‘bring a lot of problems’.

Neighbouring Somalia is set for a pivotal year, with its third one-person, one-vote election in six decades set for December. Previous elections were indirect and clan-based and compromised by corruption and vote-buying.

Last month’s car bomb in Mogadishu, which killed almost 80 people, underscores the challenges of violent extremism, armed conflict, political instability and corruption. Another obstacle to successful elections is the breakdown of co-operation between the central government and the states.

It’s still uncertain whether South Sudan, which has experienced no period of peace since civil war broke out in the country in 2013, will go to elections this year.

The Southern African Development Community

Since coming to power in 2015, President John Pombe Magufuli has ruled Tanzania with an iron fist — and his grip on power remains substantial, despite international criticism of his human rights record.

Magufuli’s Chama Cha Mapinduzi is the second-longest ruling party in Africa (after SA’s apartheid-era National Party). Opinion polls are unreliable, but opposition presidential candidate Edward Lowassa could put up a strong challenge. He secured 40% of the vote in the last presidential election.

Only two of 12 registered political parties on the 115 islands that comprise Seychelles have indicated that they will take part in the upcoming presidential election, which will pit incumbent Danny Faure against opposition leader Wavel Ramkalawan.

Funding the ballot: yet another challenge

While violent extremism, protest and intransigent leaders constitute some of the biggest concerns in Africa’s electoral landscape, a lack of development is also an important factor.

The seven countries at the bottom of the 2019 UN human development index — Burkina Faso, Mali, Burundi, South Sudan, Chad, the Central African Republic and Niger — are planning either legislative or executive elections this year.

Grant Masterson, of the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa, says

elections are a ‘massive logistical and human operation in the best of circumstances’ and come with a big price tag in less-developed countries.

He explains: ‘Electoral commissions have to provide more basic services to their staff directly, for example, light [that is needed] for counting, food and water, and means of communication.’

While Masterson adds that competent and ‘broadly credible elections’ are possible, Terry Tselane, chair and founder of the Institute of Election Management Services in Africa and former deputy chair of SA’s electoral commission sounds a word of caution.

‘Countries that are less developed depend entirely on international agencies for their funding,’ he says. ‘This can compromise certain key projects that are critical for the delivery of elections.’

In 2015, for example, international agencies refused to allocate resources to Burundi’s presidential poll after President Pierre Nkurunziza ran for a third term, in violation of the 2000 Arusha Accord that ended the civil war in that country.

‘This seriously hampered the capacity of the electoral commission in Burundi to plan for the election,’ says Tselane.

To cover the 2020 election bill — the 2015 poll cost $60 million, though the government says this year’s poll will be cheaper — the commission is deducting money from civil servants’ salaries.

Carien du Plessis is a Johannesburg-based author and journalist

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