Sunday,22 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1289, (31 March - 6 April 2016)
Sunday,22 July, 2018
Issue 1289, (31 March - 6 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Big Sunday in Africa

This month saw several sets of elections in Africa, with democratising states making further progress and dictatorships becoming more entrenched, writes Haitham Nuri

Al-Ahram Weekly

When several elections take place in Africa in one year it is cause for celebration. Sunday, 20 March, saw five states and autonomous regions hold various elections, from presidential polls and runoffs to constitutional referendums and parliamentary and local elections.

But unfortunately, the news was not all good. In the Republic of Congo, also known as Congo-Brazzaville, the presidential elections were opposed by many after President Denis Sassou-Nguesso amended the constitution to allow him to run for a third term.

After the referendum proposal passed with 92 per cent of the vote, Sassou-Nguesso, 71, used it to extend his rule for another seven years. He has governed the country since 1979, with the exception of a five-year interregnum between 1992 and 1997.

The referendum did not pass in peace, however. The press reported a poor turnout, while Amnesty International condemned the use of excessive force against demonstrators protesting the referendum. At least four demonstrators were killed.

In a move that reminded some of the January revolution in Egypt, the Brazzaville government cut Internet services after calls went out over Facebook and Twitter to boycott and oppose the referendum and presidential elections and mobilise against Sassou-Nguesso.

Sassou-Nguesso won the presidency with 67 per cent of the votes, according to the country’s election committee. His competitor, Guy Brice Parfait Kolélas, took 15 per cent of the vote, while General Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko, his former advisor, won 14 per cent.

Although the Republic of Congo is rich in oil — it is ranked eighth in Africa and 36th in the world — most of its population is poor. Unemployment stood at 34 per cent in 2013 and 60 per cent among youth aged between 15 and 24.

The government claims it has paved thousands of kilometres of roads, established modern airports, and attracted investment, but the growth of recent years was merely a reflection of oil prices before the recent drop. And it appears that the people of Congo will not be easily pacified.

Meanwhile, Benin President Thomas Boni Yayi respected his country’s constitution and left office without attempting to extend his rule beyond two presidential terms.

Benin was the first Francophone state in Africa to adopt a multiparty system, in 1990, after popular mobilisation brought down one-party systems in several states in West Africa. President Yayi’s move was thus natural in the context of democratic development in Benin, which many global reports hail as “an African success story”.

The presidential race in Benin pitted Prime Minister Lionel Zinsou, a former director of an investment bank, for the ruling party against opposition candidate Patrice Talon, known as “The King of Cotton”.

Although Zinsou won the first round of the race with 28 per cent of the vote compared to 24 per cent for Talon, the balance shifted in the runoff, giving Talon 65 per cent of the vote against 35 per cent for the prime minister.

The president-elect promised to reduce presidential terms to a single five-year term, which seems to be the trend in emerging African democracies. Senegalese President Macky Sall has also proposed reducing presidential terms — and hence his own rule — from seven years to five years, with a two-term maximum.

“This is a major step for African democracy, which moves against the current of long-time African leaders like Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, Paul Kagame in Rwanda, and Pierre Nkurunziza in Burundi,” said Mohamed Youssef Wardi, a Sudanese writer living in Washington DC.

“Even in the West, late President François Mitterrand did not seek to reduce his presidency from seven to five years except at the end of his second term, so it was applied to his successor, Jacques Chirac.”

Throughout 2015, all African leaders barred by their countries’ constitutions from running for a third term sought to change these constitutional provisions, in Congo-Brazzaville, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Sudan.

Wardi continued: “Macky Sall is a president from a modest social background and he has clear socialist tendencies. He’s also made great strides in combatting the corruption that benefited the Senegalese political class, particularly in the era of his predecessor, Abdoulaye Wade.”

Since Sall assumed the presidency in 2012, Senegal has risen in the rankings prepared by Transparency International (TI), demonstrating the progress made in the country. Under Sall, Senegal ranked between 36 and 44 on the TI index, which is good compared to other African states.

Some 63 per cent of Senegalese approved their president’s proposal in the referendum, according to local media. The new rule will go into effect with the next elections, scheduled for 2019. The change also set a maximum age of 75 for presidential candidates, to bring new blood into Senegalese politics, which has been controlled by tribal leaders, Sufi orders and prominent families since the country’s independence from France in 1960.

The amendments reduce the president’s power while strengthening the position of the National Assembly, which long supported presidents since independence leader and poet Léopold Sédar Senghor and his successor Abdou Diouf, who together ruled the country for 40 years.

Just as Senegal and Benin diverged from Congo-Brazzaville, the presidential runoff in Niger differed sharply from the parliamentary elections in Cape Verde.

The two countries could hardly be more different in levels of development and stability. Niger is one of the least developed countries in the world according to the World Bank and ranks at the bottom of the UN Human Development Index. In contrast, Cape Verde, an archipelago situated 570 kilometres off the coast of Senegal, is an oasis of African stability.

Niger has waged a war against Boko Haram and has been affected by the fall of late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and the short war against Al-Qaeda in northern Mali. It is the home of the biggest French military base in the African Sahel and the most important source of uranium in the world.

The unrest and economic decline had an impact on elections. Opposition candidate Hama Amadou ran for president from prison. He has been charged with smuggling children to European nations, which he denies, claiming that the case is politically motivated.

The first round of elections gave neither candidate a clear majority. Current President Mahamadou Issoufou won 48 per cent of the vote while Amadou came in second with just 17 per cent.

Before the votes were counted in the runoff on 20 March, Amadou withdrew from the race, accusing the government of rigging the elections. Issoufou won the runoff, but unrest will continue to plague him, though the opposition does not outnumber his supporters so far.

The situation was starkly different in Cape Verde, where the opposition Movement for Democracy won more than 53 per cent of votes while the Socialist Party, which has been in power for 15 years, came away with less than 37 per cent.

Cape Verde, which won its independence from Senegal in 1975, enjoys clear stability. Its former president, Pedro Verona Rodrigues Pires, won the Mo Ibrahim Prize for good governance in Africa in 2011, the most lucrative prize in the world with an honorarium of $5 million. The prize is awarded to a president or prime minister who has undertaken reforms in his country and voluntarily abandoned power. Only five African leaders have won the prize since its inception in 2007.

Not all African island nations are as lucky as Cape Verde. The Zanzibar archipelago, part of the United Republic of Tanzania, still suffers from its decades-long history of violence.

The results of the last presidential elections on the island, which is a semi-autonomous region, were cancelled in October 2015 after the election committee announced that there were legal questions about their integrity.

Opposition leader Seif Sharif Hamad announced himself the winner, accusing the ruling party of refusing to allow him to come to power. The ruling party Chama Cha Mapinduzi has governed the country since 1977, when Tanzania was under one-party rule.

Since the elections returns were cancelled, Zanzibar has seen clashes that have left unknown numbers of people injured. The clashes stopped briefly for new elections on 20 March, in which outgoing President Ali Mohamed Shein won 91.4 per cent of the vote after the withdrawal of the opposition.

Big Sunday made the political outlines of the continent clearer, with the outcomes conforming to established trajectories. Promising democracies like Senegal, Benin and Cape Verde moved ahead on the path of stability, while dictatorships like Congo-Brazzaville continued to violate the constitution and laws. Elections in troubled states like Niger and Zanzibar opened up the possibility of a turn to violence. But there is still cause for celebration in Africa.

add comment

  • follow us on