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Africa: Electoral Landscapes

AfricaFocus Bulletin
January 16, 2017 (170116)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

Ghana, Gambia, and Gabon are all small African countries with names beginning with the letter "G," which held presidential elections in 2016. But neither the electoral landscapes nor the electoral outcomes can fruitfully be analyzed without giving greater weight to the contrasts than to the similarities. The same applies to the even wider set of 14 African countries with presidential elections last year, or the 8 so far scheduled to hold elections in 2017.

As this Bulletin is published in mid-January, the most pressing uncertainty about Africa's elections is for Gambia, where outgoing President Yahya Jammeh reversed his decision to accept his election defeat in December (see, meeting with widespread condemnation both internationally and domestically. And for the latest news as of this morning, see and follow this Gambian news site (

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains several summary commentaries on Africa's elections in 2016 and 2017: Vera Songwe on the contrasting outcomes in Gabon, Ghana, and Gambia; Abdi Latif Dahir on five elections to watch in 2017; Kim Yi Dionne reviewing public opinion on the wide variations in the extent of freedom to organize in 36 different African countries. Also included are several links to additional recent analyses worth noting.

Also of related interest

Two videos of particular relevance, given the nomination of ExxonMobil executive Rex Tillerson for U.S. Secretary of State. Both Chad and Equatorial Guinea held elections in 2016, with leaders who have been in power for 26 and 37 years respectively continuing in power.

Rachel Maddow on Chad and ExxonMobil December 13, 2016 - 16 minutes

Rachel Maddow on Equatorial Guinea and ExxonMobil January 12, 2017 - 4 minutes
transcript not yet available

List of Africa's rulers longest in office, updated for 2017

For general reference and news related to African elections

Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa
Resources includes an election calendar for each year beginning in 2005

Afrobarometer - extensive data and analysis on public opinion in 36 African countries

Quartz Africa - sign up for their weekly brief at

The Trump Election: Intersecting Explanations

An intersectional database of articles and books, compiled by AfricaFocus editor William Minter

  • 21 relevant explanations, any of which arguably sufficient to have tipped the balance of the narrowly decided electoral college outcome
  • As of January 15, 2017: 244 recommended articles, 23 books for deeper background

Voter suppression is among the most important factors, but also among the least prominent in the public debate. See

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

Africa's mixed political transitions in the 3 Gs: Gabon, the Gambia, and Ghana

Vera Songwe

Brookings Institution blog, December 22, 2016 - Direct URL:

Africa has gone through a number of leadership transitions in 2016 and with each one the edifice that will shape Africa's leadership and political transition process is being molded. 2016 has been another year of progress on the African leadership transition front. This year there have been 16 elections, in seven of the elections there was an effective leadership transition and over 60 percent of the elections were conducted in a free and transparent manner with satisfactory citizen involvement and little or no unrest--such as in Ghana or Cabo Verde. Overall, the leadership transitions have been largely peaceful, constitutional, and transparent. However, the experiences across countries and sub-regions have been quite varied and provide us with many lessons for the future. I will use Gabon, Gambia, and Ghana (the "three Gs") to illustrate these experiences.

Three elections, in Gabon in August, and the Gambia and Ghana in December, are shaping the narrative of this dynamic process and providing important lessons for the transition process. First, the struggle for change continues: While Africa is slowly moving towards more participatory political transitions, the fight has not completely won. In addition, the growing importance and maturity of electoral commissions; citizens' increasing awareness that their votes matter; the slow but certain move away from tribal politics to issues politics; and now regional, rather than foreign, ownership around leadership transitions all contribute towards the deepening of democracy on the continent. Each of the countries--Gabon, the Gambia, and Ghana--have tackled these issues differently.

The Struggle for Change Persists

Ghana is the pride of Africa when it comes to democratic transitions. Once again, its most recent election has proven this point. Despite the tense and intensely fought campaign both parties continue to pledge respect for the process. Indeed, there is much to celebrate around Africa's leadership transitions, but much remains to perfect the process the continent over. This year many elections were held freely and fairly on the continent, and both incumbents and new leaders were elected to office--including Benin, Cabo Verde, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Zambia for example. And in an unprecedented move the President of Mauritania and Angola all declared they will not seek re-elections at the end of the term. A very positive and encouraging trend if the pronouncements come to pass.

However, in a number of countries the old has not given way to the new, and the evolution of democracy is still in motion with toooften deadly consequences for the citizens in Burundi, Gabon, and the Gambia to name a few. These examples demonstrate that the concept of leadership transition has not yet been fully adopted. A number of lessons can be drawn from these latter experiences. The populations are increasingly more vocal about transparency of elections. Both sides incumbent and opposition have increasingly equal chances of getting their voices heard and results tend to be closer in these countries. There is still a need for vigilance, and the tendency to slip remains. Peaceful leadership transitions are not yet the norm.

Election Commissions: Strong, Credible, and Independent Institutions are Emerging

In the three Gs, the role of the electoral commissions has been a determining factor. In fact, electoral commission heads are increasingly becoming the new villains and/or heroes in the African struggle for peaceful leadership transitions.

In Gabon, the head of the electoral commission's independence was largely questioned primarily by the opposition and the people of Gabon, as well as international election observers. Notably, the final results of the election were not announced by the head of the electoral commission, as constitutionally stated, but by the minister of the interior--an institution with no independence from the incumbent. Gabon's incumbent President Ali Bongo won by 49.9 percent over 48.2 percent for his rival Jean Ping, less than a 6,000 vote difference and suspiciously high turnout in Bongo's home province. Violence and protests erupted not long after the announcement.

The Gambia's electoral commission performed and fared much better: Three months before the election, the head of the electoral commission Alieu Momarr Njai pledged in a memorable but unpublicized speech to uphold the integrity of the commission and protect the integrity of the process. During the launch of the electoral process he said:

Election results may be rigged to predetermine who will win or lose, and election may be disrupted, casting doubt on the legitimacy of the process, but I stand here today to pronounce to you that, as far as our concerted efforts are in play, this will never be the case in our dear country. The Independent Electoral Commission believes that an election without integrity subverts the purpose of a democratic election, and cannot be considered fair and equitable. The IEC will ever concentrate on conducting free and fair elections. This, I believe we will ever achieve by upholding governing principles such as: respect for principles of electoral democracy; ethical conduct; accuracy and transparency.

The people of the Gambia and many others did not expect such clarity of vision from the head of the electoral commission, and many dismissed this as normal election propaganda. However, Njai kept his word. He pronounced the elections results in favor of the opposition candidate Adama Barrow and called for President Yahya Jammeh, who has been in power for over 22 years, to step down, eliciting pride and jubilation from the people of the Gambia. The Gambia's troubles have instead come from Jammeh's withdrawal of his concession and determination to stay in power.

In Ghana, the head of the election commission benefitted from a robust and solid system, which has a history of inclusion, transparency, and most of participation by all members of the political exercise. The continuous process undertaken by the Ghanaian electoral commission to continuously educate the electorate and the political parties is clearly a lesson for the rest of the continent on how to build trust and interact with the population.

However, even in Ghana there are lessons to learn from the election, such as how to manage delays in the announcement of the election results and or glitches in the system on election day. In Ghana the commission needed more time to ensure everyone eligible to vote had voted and to count the votes. Tensions began to mount as the population waited for the elections results to be proclaimed, both sides began proclaiming victory and the supporters of each candidate began filling the streets.

This could have led to severe unrest. However, the communication of the election committee head asking the people for patience while all the votes were counted was an example of good election management. The people could only heed to this request because of the trust built by the commission and a legitimate sense of ownership of the commission. Therefore, while independently elected, the first task of every election commission is to build trust with the people. As African countries prepare for more elections this should be an area that gets special attention.

Ownership: The People's Voice, The Continent's Voice

Ethnic politics is slowly giving way to issues politics. The economy is taking center stage in elections. In Ghana, as in the Gambia, the last few years have seen citizens suffer under the weight of weakening currencies, erosion of purchasing power by over 50 percent, increasing poverty, joblessness, and interest rates above 25 percent. Similarly, the rise of corruption, noted by Ghanaian President John Mahama in his concession speech, undermined all the achievements of Mahama presidency--and most of all his struggle to give affordable and reliable power to the people of Ghana. The results of these elections increasingly show that while there will always remain a thread of local politics in elections, the electorate is becoming more sophisticated and are voting on issues broader than ethnic origins. Citizens are more engaged and are owning the election agenda.

African leaders are also increasingly more active in the resolution of African leadership transition issues. During the crisis period of the Gabon elections the French and the European Union were the most active and vocal voices. The French president called for a recount and the EU asked that all results be published, but Chadian President Idriss Déby, as head of the African Union, was the central mediator of the proceedings. In the case of the Gambia, the African Union alongside five other presidents of ECOWAS countries have taken it upon themselves to mediate a settlement of the impasse. The acknowledgement and ownership of the transition agenda by Africa's leaders is an important part of assuring peace and stability during transition crises. The cases of Burundi and the Gambia should provide lessons on how to make such negations successful. What incentives could be put in place to minimize difficult transitions?

As the Ghanaians celebrate the peaceful election of new President Nana Akufo Addo, as President Bongo of Gabon settles into his second term, and as the Gambians wait anxiously for a resolution, the continent must heed the lessons of these three transitions and begin putting in place systems that allow citizens more ownership of the process, ensure that election commissions are truly independent and equipped to build trust with citizens, and encourage candidates that acknowledge the increasing sophistication of the electorate so campaign messages must have content and can no longer rely solely on identity politics.

The five African elections to watch out for in 2017

Abdi Latif Dahir

January 03, 2017 Quartz Africa

Last year, a public survey of elections by the Pan-African research network Afrobarometer showed Africans distrusted national electoral commissions and the quality of their elections. Just over 40% of Africans in 36 countries believed that the last elections in their country were free and fair; 25% said they trusted their electoral commissions "a lot"; and many described elections where bribery was rampant, media bias persisted, and voters were often threatened with violence at the polls.

Yet elections across the continent are always markers of important democratic milestones and are followed closely by observers and citizens alike. In 2016, congratulations poured into Ghana after the country elected Nana Akufo-Addo as its new president. Several incumbent presidents, including Uganda's Yoweri Museveni, Zambia's Edgar Lungu and Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon all won re-election too-- despite protests from opposition members, violence, and internet shutdowns. And after 22 years in power, The Gambia's Yahya Jammeh, who once said he will rule for "one billion years" conceded defeat live on television, only to reject the outcome of the elections a few days later.

In 2017, more African countries will pursue the democratic path by conducting presidential, legislative and municipal elections. Some 281 sworn lawmakers--they are 347 legislators in total--will kick things off in Somalia by voting for a president later on Jan. 24. Incumbent president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud is considered a frontrunner and is among dozens of candidates who are vying for the presidency.

Here are the key elections to watch as millions of people head to the polls.

1. Rwanda

When: Aug. 4, 2017

President Paul Kagame will be seeking a third, seven-year term since winning the country's second election in 2010 with 93% of the vote. Dubbed as the "global elite's favorite strongman" and the "darling tyrant," Kagame is a media-savvy politician who uses his sleek website and over 1.5 million Twitter followers to propagate his message of progress and development. Kagame is also credited with transforming the landlocked nation's economic development, boosting youth employment and trade, reducing poverty and advocating for technology as a tool for prosperity.

Yet, the country's transformation under Kagame has come with a catch. Kagame is accused of muzzling the press, restricting free speech, and silencing dissidents--in some cases, even allegedly assassinating opponents who fled to Uganda and South Africa.

But the upcoming election will point more to the future of Rwanda than to its troubled past. In 2015, a constitutional amendment allowed Kagame to run for this new term and two more five-year terms after that, meaning that he could stay in power till 2034. The controversial move was criticized by many in the international community and questioned whether Kagame was even interested in fostering a new generation of leaders to take on the mantle of leadership. "I don't think that what we need is an eternal leader," Kagame said when he announced his candidacy early last year. And in 2017, he will have to work hard to prove to his critics that he doesn't count on being one.

2. Kenya

When: Aug. 8, 2017

Kenyans will go to the polls to elect almost 1900 public officials including the president, senators, county governors, members of the national and county assemblies, and women county representatives. This is yet another high-stakes election, which is tilted in favor of incumbent president Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto. The two, however, will go into election facing an energized opposition who have used the administration's failings as a rallying point.

Since Kenyatta came to power in 2013, the country has been bedeviled with deadly terrorist attacks; teachers, nurses and doctor strikes; failing banks; and several corruption scandals that have drained tens of millions of dollars from government coffers.

Even though the opposition is yet to pick a candidate, Kenyatta will likely face Raila Odinga, a longtime opposition figure who has been angling to become president for almost 20 years. The opposition has also accused the country's Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission of being inept and biased, with a British court recently convicting two British businessmen of bribing election commissioners to get contracts for printing ballots.

Like previous elections in the past two decades, the fear of violence, ethnic polarization, and escalating political tensions looms large. Kenya walks a tight rope and depending on how the IEBC conducts the election, might see it maintain its fragile democracy or slide into yet another gloomy post-election period.

3. Angola

When: Aug. 2017

President Jose Eduardo dos Santos arrives for an EU Africa Summit in Lisbon, Sunday Dec. 9, 2007. European and African leaders are scheduled to sign a strategic partnership agreement on Sunday, after a two-day summit marked by tensions over human rights in Zimbabwe.

In Dec. 2016, president Jose Eduardo dos Santos surprised many observers by announcing that he will step down as president before the 2017 elections. The ruling People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola party has elected João Lourenco, a former defense minister, as vice president ahead of the next parliamentary elections. In Angola, the leader of the winning party automatically becomes president.

But Angola is still dominantly a one-party state, ruled by dos Santos and his family, who have amassed wealth and power over the last four decades. Yet, the fourth elections in the country since it gained independence from Portugal in 1975, come at a time when the country has been hit by the slump in global crude prices-- diminishing its foreign exchange revenues. The 2017 elections will test the maturity of Angola's democracy and if successful, confer a measure of legitimacy on its government

4. Liberia

When: Oct. 10, 2017

After 10 years in office, it is the end of the road for Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Liberia, and Africa's first female president. Sirleaf leaves office after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, dealing with the Ebola crisis, passing a Freedom of Information bill, and taking on the taxing effort of rebuilding a country ravaged by war. But by Oct. 25, 2017, Liberia will have a new president-elect, who will take the mantle of an economy battered by low global commodity prices and post-Ebola decline in official inflows.

Former Liberian soccer player and current Senator George Weah smiles after addressing thousands of supporters of the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) party who petitioned him to contest Liberia's Presidential elections in 2017, at Party headquarters in Monrovia, Liberia, 28 April 2016. George Weah contested the 2005 and 2011 Presidential elections, but lost to incumbent Ellen Johnson Sirleaf on both occasions. Sirleaf's second term in office will end in 2017.

More than 1.9 million registered voters will elect presidential and legislative candidates from 22 political parties, according to the National Elections Commission. A key contender in the elections is George Weah, an ex-footballer who is considered by Fifa as the highest-ranking African footballer of the 20th century, and whose first presidential bid failed after he lost to Sirleaf. The former AC Milan footballer and current senator has promised to increase the national budget, work on religious harmony and support vocational education.

Weah could also face off with Jewel Howard-Taylor, the ex-wife of former Liberian president and warlord Charles Taylor. Jewel, considered the second most powerful woman in Liberian politics, is a twice-elected senator from Bong County, which has the third-highest number of registered voters in Liberia. Vice president Joseph Boakai will also run for president on the government's record.

5. The Democratic Republic of Congo

When: TBD 2017

Moise Katumbi, governor of Democratic Republic of Congo's mineralrich Katanga province, arrives for a two-day mineral conference in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo March 24, 2014.

On New Year's Eve, the government and opposition members in the DR Congo appeared to have signed a deal that could see president Joseph Kabila step down after the next election. The agreement came after deadly protests, arrests and internet shutdown that followed the end of Kabila's constitutionally-mandated second term on Dec. 19.

As part of the deal, a transitional government will be appointed by March, and the elections will take place before the end of the year. If this does take place, it will be the first peaceful transfer of power since independence in 1960. A peaceful election will also avert a return to war in the populous, mineral-rich country, where some five million people lost their lives in the civil war that lasted between 1994 and 2003. Moise Katumbi, a popular politician and opposition member, is expected to run to replace Kabila.

The challenge to hold the vote in 2017 will also be enormous, given that the electoral commission once said that it needed at least 17 months to complete registration processes and hold the elections. Beyond the election, a new government and president will face the task of addressing economic, humanitarian and political instabilities that persist all across the country.

Only 7 percent of citizens in this African country [Swaziland] feel free to join political organizations,

Kim Yi Dionne, Afrobarometer Blog, Dec. 16, 2016 - direct URL:

"Afrobarometer measures citizens' perceptions of freedom to assemble by asking: "In this country, how free are you to join any political organization you want?" Survey participants could answer completely free, somewhat free, not very free or not at all free.

On average, across the 36 African countries where Afrobarometer conducts its nationally representative public opinion surveys, a majority (58 percent) reported that they feel "completely free" to join any political organization they want.

But citizens' perceptions of freedom to assemble varied across the continent. While 85 percent of Senegalese felt completely free to join political organizations, only 7 percent felt that same way in Swaziland.

Why is Swaziland so far below its peers in Africa in protecting its citizens' freedom to assemble?

Plainly, Swaziland is not a democracy. It holds elections and has a parliament, but real power is vested in the last absolute monarch in Africa, King Mswati III. King Mswati III has ruled Swaziland since 1986, a couple of years after the death of his father, King Sobhuza II."

Additional links worth noting

Brett L. Carter, "Congo President Denis Sassou Nguesso's embarrassing attempt to ingratiate himself to Donald Trump," Jan 9, 2017 - direct URL:

Nic Cheeseman, "Africa's real story of 2017 will be of close elections and activists struggling to hold governments accountable," Jan 10, 2017 - direct URL:

Sarah Brierley and George Ofosu, "What will Ghanaians expect from their new president," Afrobarometer blog, Jan 6, 2017

Jesse Weaver Shipley, "The market decides if we are free," Africa is a Country, Jan. 16, 2017
On President Nana Akufo-Addo's inauguration speech in Ghana

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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