voice for democracy

Elections in Africa will be seen as bellwethers for democracy – The Economist

by John McDermott: Chief Africa correspondent, The Economist, Johannesburg
THE 1990S were a good decade for African democracy. One after another, countries threw off one-party rule and embraced multi-party elections. By 2000 nearly every state had gone to the polls. Since then progress has been uneven. Peaceful transfers of power are more common, but these frequently reflect stitch-ups by ruling elites, not the will of the people. Incumbents often rig elections. Though large majorities in most countries say they want more democracy, around half of sub-Saharan Africans are dissatisfied with the democracy they have, up from about a quarter two decades ago.
African elections will be relatively scarce in 2022. But the few presidential elections that are due to take place will illustrate why Africans are frustrated by the gap between democracy’s promise and its reality.
In Mali elections are meant to mark a return to civilian rule after coups in August 2020 and May 2021. After the first coup the putschists said they would hold elections by the end of February 2022. After the second the new junta, led by Colonel Assimi Goita, affirmed that timeline. But Malians are wary of trusting someone who helped stage one palace coup and was so dissatisfied with the results that he led another one. The military men who run Mali seem mostly interested in exploiting the war economy which exploded as a result of the Western-backed battle against jihadists in the north of the country. If they delay the vote it will lead to yet more uncertainty and fragility.
In Angola elections will be the first real test of President João Lourenço’s popularity. He was appointed leader of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) in 2017, replacing José Eduardo dos Santos, whose 38 years in power enriched his family but did little for most Angolans. Mr Lourenço has selectively pursued those accused of graft under the old regime and proposed ways to diversify the economy of Africa’s second-largest oil producer. But low oil prices and the pandemic kept the country in recession, and ending electricity, water and transport subsidies as part of a deal with the IMF has further upset many Angolans.
Africans are frustrated by the gap between democracy’s promise and its reality
The MPLA will for the first time face a united opposition. A new coalition, known as the Patriotic Front, led by Adalberto da Costa Junior of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), will prove attractive to urban middle-class voters. But it is unlikely to win. The MPLA has run Angola since independence from Portugal in 1975, and is not about to loosen its grip: it has made it hard for the Patriotic Front to register candidates and has tweaked the electoral law to give the government more control over vote-counting.
Politics will be more competitive in Kenya. Uhuru Kenyatta is nearing the end of his second and final term as president. But it is unclear who will replace him. In 2018 Mr Kenyatta agreed on a rapprochement with Raila Odinga, his former opponent and fellow scion of a political family. The deal led to a set of constitutional changes under a banner known as the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI). Mr Kenyatta argued these would take the edge off the country’s winner-takes-all ethnicity-based politics. Critics said it was an elite pact that would ultimately see Mr Odinga become president, with Mr Kenyatta pulling strings in the background.
Whatever the truth, the bbi suffered a serious blow in May 2021 when the High Court said the changes were unlawful, a verdict later upheld on appeal. The ruling delighted Kenyan civil society, which sees the constitution agreed on in 2010 as a bulwark against abuses of power. It also pleased William Ruto, the deputy president, who said he thanked God (not the doughty judges) for deliverance from the BBI.
Mr Ruto, who was not known to have had a principled opposition to the constitutional changes, nevertheless benefited from the damage it has done to his rivals, Messrs Kenyatta and Odinga. It will help him make his argument for the top job—a pitch that self-made “hustlers” like him are better than members of political “dynasties”. Whether he would do much to end the corruption and patronage that plagues Kenyan politics is far less clear.
Africa’s most inspiring presidential election of 2022 may take place in a country that is not officially a state. The sovereignty of Somaliland, which claims independence from Somalia, is not recognised by any other country. Its politics are far from perfect: clan loyalty determines most people’s votes, and women find it hard to get elected. But its presidential race, which will see Musa Bihi Abdi run for re-election, should be a reminder that, despite its lack of statehood, Somaliland is more democratic than many other parts of Africa.
John McDermott: Chief Africa correspondent, The Economist, Johannesburg
This article appeared in the Africa section of the print edition of The World Ahead 2022 under the headline “The ballot boxes to watch”
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