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Elections are a Threat to Fledgling Democracies in Africa

The last two decades have been a period of unprecedented democratization processes in African countries. Whereas various state fragilities abound, certain countries have been able to develop democratic norms and provide the expertise to strengthen institutions of democratic governance, at least through constitutional reforms and regularization of election. Kenya is an example, which in in 2010, was able to attain a democratic milestone through the promulgation of a progressive constitution. However, amidst the democratic transition, elections remain an important challenge to democratization in Africa.

Some commentators have since argued that the incidence of election-related violence in Africa is so high that even an election considered to be free and fair in electoral outcome may not have been free of violence before, during or after the election. For example, in 2007 Conde argued that elections in Africa are periods during which the stability and security of African states hangs in the balance, due to the threat of related election violence. According to the Institute for Security Studies “elections in most African countries are characterized by uncertainties, due to the possibility of election-related violence. Election-related violence may take place at different stages of the electoral process: before, during or after elections.” In circumstances such as this, there is currency and urgency in exploring challenges to the integrity of electoral processes in democratic transitions in Africa.

Unless there is robust engagement in the reformation of electoral process ecosystem, Africa risks retardation of the democratization process witnessed in the last two decades. Certainly, the period of optimism that prevailed in the aftermath of the Cold War, that saw rapid democratic shifts in various parts of the world, including Africa, is long gone and new challenges are emerging. Africa is witnessing a situation where violent conflicts, especially related to elections, are on the rise again, triggering an historic mass movement of peoples and huge humanitarian crises that challenge the collective conscience of the people of Africa and beyond.

The apparent inability of a number of African leaders and institutions of democratic governance to effectively respond to these threats is worrisome. As a result the faith that the peoples of the continent had started having in democracy is fast eroding and many are looking for facile alternatives, such as those witnessed during the unprecedented Arab spring. However, there are instances where citizens’ movements in societies as disparate as Burkina Faso which are making it clear that the democratic aspirations in Africa remain undimmed.

It is a fact that more countries in Africa, than ever before, are now holding frequent ‘democratic elections.’ But, the question is on whether such elections are resulting in the trans-formative changes that the people want to see in the process of governance of their countries. While majority of the people of Africa have demonstrated their beliefs in democracy as a best-suited political system to manage their countries changing social and economic conditions, there is need  acknowledge, the clear and present challenges to democratic ideals and institutions witnessed across the continent.

One of the challenges is the rapid changes in the world order that is causing rapid globalization and regional integration. This phenomenon has at once produced unparalleled economic opportunities and created an impression that democratically elected governments no longer control the forces that influence and shape peoples’ lives.

In the western world we have seen how the sense of alienation and failed expectations has encouraged the rise of populist movements. Governing in a globalizing world makes it that much harder for national politicians to fulfill their campaign promises. In other regions, we have seen citizens forsake the ballot box in favor of the street despite elections that were considered as reasonably free and fair.

Such reversals highlight the second challenge. That of failure of elections to peacefully adjudicate political competition and manage transfers of power. Elections are at the heart of democracy. When conducted with integrity, they allow citizens to have a voice in how and by whom they are governed. But, in Africa, again majority of the people are yet to grasp and appreciate the power of the vote. Making it is difficult for the vote to translate into a true power to change and improve representative democracy for the benefit of the people.

Elections give citizens dissatisfied with the way they are governed regular opportunities to hold their leaders to account. But when they lack integrity, citizens’ confidence in governance is reduced, and elections become flash-points for violence. Sadly, some leaders have come to believe that no matter how they win an election, it is merely a formality that allows them to continue ruling however they want.

Well, evidence is mounting demonstrating that elections without integrity fail to confer legitimacy on the winners, as we saw in Burundi recently. And without legitimacy, a government’s rule is likely to be fraught and contested.  When elected leaders flout the rule of law or govern in an exclusionary manner, they can and will be sanctioned by their peoples with or without an election, as the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt demonstrated, but the danger is replacing such regimes with yet another corrupt leadership hence repeating the cycle and locking the people in a seemingly unending clamor for true trans-formative democracy.

The role of money in politics is a third source of increasing concern as it greatly skews democracy and undermines the integrity of electoral processes, both in established and fledgling democracies. Opaque political finance robs democracy of its promise of political equality. Unregulated or undisclosed campaign funding enables special interests to usurp the political process; worse, it may permit organized crime to penetrate the political arena. This problem may well worsen with growing levels of economic inequality, which we are witnessing in many societies around the world.

There is a great danger that extreme wealth will distort the political process and undermine the basic premise of democracy.  Income distribution is not the normal purview of institutions providing electoral and democracy assistance. Nonetheless, economic inequality within societies does represent a major challenge to democracy. Coupled with insufficient controls on political finance, this inequality creates a sense that large corporations and wealthy individuals are exercising undue influence over political processes and outcomes. The result is the phenomenon of bribery (voter buying) that is rampant across Africa. As a result, social cohesion and political representation are undermined and with it the belief in democracy itself.

As countries, like Kenya, where voter bribery is rampant, the major question to ask as elections draw near is whether indeed elections are am opportunity for the people to make decisions about the weighty matter on the direction they wish their country’s leadership to take or a mere event; a routine; another flash-point of violence?

Elections are a Threat to Fledgling Democracies in Africa Elections are a Threat to Fledgling Democracies in Africa Reviewed by Ibrahim Magara on April 26, 2017 Rating: 5

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