Since the third wave of democratisation swept through the continent in the 1990s, the majority of African states have replaced military dictatorships and one-party-dominant systems with more democratic forms of governance. Today, 61 percent of sub-Saharan countries are “free” or “partly free” according to Freedom House’s 2018 survey – although this is down from a high of 71 percent in 2008.
By adopting representative democracies founded on multiparty elections, the African electorate was promised, finally, responsive and accountable governments, for the people and by the people.
In a comparative study of electoral governance, Shaheen Mozaffar and Andreas Schedler (2002) posit that “competitive elections are the hallmark of modern representative democracy. As the institutionalized means by which large numbers of people participate peacefully in selecting and removing governments, they are the primary, albeit not the only, source of democratic legitimacy”.
This, they argue, is predicated on two conditions. First, there must be “institutional certainty” to ensure unbiased rules and procedures. Such institutional impartiality results in the second condition: “substantive uncertainty” about the outcome. The prospect of defeat keeps politicians on their toes and places the balance of power with the electorate.
The idea that an institutional architecture of multiparty democracy would lead to more responsive and accountable governments in Africa remains in question. In numerous countries, institutional certainty has yet to establish itself, rendering elections a hollow ritual. The corrupting influence of money has taken its toll, as it has elsewhere in the world. And even where electoral governance has become relatively entrenched, it may have little sway when political parties serve as proxies for deep ethnic cleavages or for the ambitions of powerful individuals. In countries like South Africa, a perceived absence of alternatives to the governing party makes abstention and disengagement seem more meaningful options than engaging in elections.
In such contexts, what do elections contribute to accountability? What additional paths to accountability can be discerned? This edition of Perspectives seeks to deliberate on such questions, unpacking limitations and exploring how actors in the state, political parties, and civil society have been able to make those in government less certain about the future balance of power.
Although these change agents have not always reached their stated objectives, they have protected important democratic gains, opened up political possibilities, and initiated reforms that seemed inconceivable until they happened.
In Zimbabwe, a new leader took power in November 2017. While Robert Mugabe’s departure after 37 years was widely welcomed, he was replaced by his former vice president in what was no less than a military coup. That Emmerson Mnangagwa has long been a member of the political establishment clearly raises doubts about his desire for meaningful political reform. Sharing these reservations, McDonald Lewanika nonetheless concludes that “the coup has opened a crack in the authoritarian wall, allowing people to reimagine what they can accomplish to widen that crack”.
Leaders in other countries managed to cling to power in 2017. Kenya’s Supreme Court declared the August 8 presidential elections invalid due to irregularities and ordered a new vote. The period that followed was marred by political contempt for the constitution, violence, and a boycott by the main opposition leader, Raila Odinga, all of which undermined the credibility of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s 98 percent victory in October. Constitutional expert Yash Ghai unpacks how this episode highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of the judiciary in consolidating constitutionalism and political accountability.
In neighbouring Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled since 1986, was re-elected in 2016 after polls characterised by violence and intimidation. In her article, Lydia Namubiru outlines how individual activists like academic Stella Nyanzi and musician Bobi Wine have, despite the general repression of dissent, been able to challenge power both from within and without the ballot box. The challenge that lies ahead, she concludes, is to translate the power individual activists hold into effective political movements.
In South Africa, Jacob Zuma’s presidency posed the most difficult test yet to the country’s young democracy. However, as unending corruption scandals inflicted significant damage on democratic institutions, and the public’s trust in them, the foundations held and may even have been strengthened. This is not least thanks to brave individuals inside the state machinery.
Filmmaker Shameela Seedat offers a powerful portrait of the country’s public protector, Thuli Madonsela, who fearlessly “whispered truth to power” throughout the Zuma era. Electoral competition also increased significantly in the 2016 local government polls, with the opposition, led by the Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters, wresting power from the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and taking over the large metros. It would be hard to argue that the 2016 results did not also have a bearing on the internal power struggles in the ANC. Sithembile Mbete considers whether the opposition’s momentum can be maintained against a revived ANC under President Cyril Ramaphosa and whether indications of more responsive and accountable administration can be detected as power changes hands.
Our interview with Patrick O. Okigbo III, a political campaigner from Nigeria, shows that opposition politics can also be a dead end. Osita Chidoka ran a spirited, people driven campaign for Anambra State governor in 2017, but his results were less than encouraging. Even after the 2015 elections supposedly marked a democratic consolidation in Nigeria, a toxic mix of voter apathy, identity politics and money eliminates “substantive uncertainty” for voters and undermines the “institutional certainty” of the elections, thus raising questions about the necessary reforms that would instill their credibility.
The political events in the Gambia provide a ray of hope that change is possible even in the most difficult circumstances. After more than two decades of authoritarian rule under President Yahya Jammeh, the people and opposition parties, with the help of the diaspora and the regional body ECOWAS, leapt into a new era in January 2017 when opposition candidate Adama Barrow was inaugurated as their new president. Sheriff Bojang Jr unpacks how it all became possible and reflects on the democratic gains achieved one year later as well as the challenges ahead.
In a time when democracy worldwide is facing the strongest headwinds since the end of the Cold War, we hope that the collection of articles gathered here gives inspiration to those committed to continuing the fight for democratic ideals, such as free and fair elections, free speech, the rule of law, and political accountability.
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