2020 Elections In Africa: In the Face of a Pandemic

2020 was guaranteed to be an election year for several African countries. This year, millions of Africans will be expecting to go to the polls to exercise their civic duties in presidential, parliamentary and local elections. Some elections have already taken place, while the greater parts have been scheduled for the second half of 2020. There will be presidential and parliamentary elections in some African countries including Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Uganda and Somalia.

Elections by nature are usually breeding grounds for conflict and discord because rival parties are all competing for power. Violence usually erupts, making elections more often than not, associated with violence in Africa. Elections have the likelihood of turning a state from a peaceful democratic state to a state with prevalent violence. Nonetheless, numerous studies have shown that elections can bring about positive changes in stable, long-standing democracies. Countries like that are less likely to be involved in civil wars and promote development (Salehyan & Linebarger, 2013).

With the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of states expecting to vote this year may have their election plans interrupted. Even now, the elections scheduled for 2020 are already being affected. With some elections in Africa, there is already the problem of terrorist activities in countries like Burkina Faso and Mali and this Coronavirus outbreak poses an additional threat to the already lack of confidence in the electoral systems. Instead of elections allowing rival political parties to compete for a share of the vote, their attention has now been shifted off each other and focused on COVID-19 and its multifaceted effects. Election processes in Africa involve human-to-human interaction. In the case of COVID-19 which spreads easily from person to person, holding an election would be very hazardous.

As of this writing, 26th April 2020, the African continent has a total number of 30,367 confirmed cases, 9,107 recoveries, and 1,378 deaths according to the Johns Hopkins University. These numbers are still considerably low as compared to other parts of the world. South Africa is currently leading with 4,361 confirmed cases and Egypt, which was the first country to record a case in mid-February, is following closely behind with 4,319 confirmed cases. Comoros and Lesotho are the only African countries to have no recorded cases.

In Eastern Africa, the High Court of Uganda has been petitioned to delay the 2021 elections for five years as the country’s capital struggles with the pandemic. The suspension of the elections will be “until the government gains control over the Coronavirus disease”. There are currently 75 confirmed cases in Uganda. On the 31st of March 2020, Ethiopia also suspended its general elections that were to be held in August 2020. The country recorded its first case on the 13th of March 2020. Presently, there are 123 confirmed cases. Burundi, on the other hand, will still hold elections on the 20th of May 2020. It recorded its first three cases in the first week of April. The ruling party has sought to reassure Burundians that there is no need to be concerned about the deadly pandemic and life is to be carried on as normal. Political rallies are being held competitively between the ruling party, CNDD-FDD and the main opposition party, CNL. Elections will be held despite having 11 cases, because according to the presidential candidate of the ruling party, General Evariste Ndayishimiye “God loves Burundi…God may manifest his power in Burundi” (France24, 10 April 2020).

In Western Africa, Guinea went ahead with its constitutional referendum and parliamentary elections in late March. In early November 2019, protests began following efforts by President Alpha Condé to eliminate term limits through constitutional amendments in the lead-up to the 2020 elections. Guinea recorded at least 2 COVID-19 cases before the referendum which was overwhelmingly backed by voters and enacted. The results of the referendum ruled 91.6% in favour of President Alpha Condé who has been in power since 2010, to stay in power beyond 2020. Condé’s move to seek a third term follows a similar pattern as seen in other countries such as Uganda, Rwanda, Cameroon, Eritrea and Burundi, where term limits have either been amended or abolished. At the moment, there are 996 confirmed cases in Guinea. Mali also held its final round of a legislative election on the 19th of April, 2020 to revive the public’s faith in the country’s battered institutions. The elections were held in the face of jihadist activities, which have claimed the lives of thousands of people, and the COVID-19 pandemic. The election has faced many setbacks causing the delay and interruption of the first round of elections on the 29th of March 2020. One of the setbacks included the kidnapping of the opposition leader, Soumaila Cisse, by jihadists. Despite the 370 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Mali, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita maintained that “every health and security” precaution would be “rigorously applied” (News24, 20 April 2020).

In Ghana, logistical preparations for the elections were already underway. Ghana’s Electoral Commission was working on a voter registration exercise but due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the government’s ban on public gatherings including political rallies that ensued, it has been postponed indefinitely. Ghana’s general elections have been slated for 7th December 2020 and there are concerns about how the COVID-19 situation will affect the elections. The Constitution of Ghana states that parliamentary elections should also be held at least a month before dissolving parliament which will fall on the 6th of January 2021.  Even assuming there are no interruptions and the 7th January 2021 date for the commencement of the term of the next President holds, questions remain as to what the present uncertainties mean for the Electoral Commission’s election calendar. Ghana currently has a total number of 1,550 confirmed cases.

On the Horn of Africa, Somalia’s 2020 elections will be seen as a “historic time” for the country. The last universal vote was held in 1969, just before a coup that brought military leader Siad Barre to power. The collapse of the Somali government in 1992 was followed by decades of civil unrest and persistent terrorist attacks. Ultimately, a clan-based form of transitional governance, backed by the United Nations and the African Union, was agreed on. Parliamentary seats and most government positions were divided equally among the four major clans (Darod, Dir, Hawiye and Isaaq). The remaining seats and positions were allocated to a cluster of minority clans. This system could not solve the clan conflict. Al-Shabaab, a terrorist group, which controls a significant portion of Somalia, not only threatens the security of the state but will certainly target the 2020 elections. There are reservations on whether Somalia will be able to hold the highly anticipated “one person, one vote” elections this year. This law signed by President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed was to substitute the clan-centred power-sharing system. With the COVID-19 situation, there are concerns about whether it is safe to hold elections. There are now 390 confirmed cases in the country. The pandemic adds to the existing challenges to Somalians’ right of suffrage.

The Central African Republic located in Central Africa already has its fears of reverting to its recent violent past when war broke out in 2013 involving the government, rebels from the Séléka coalition and anti-balaka militias. The former president, Francois Bozizé, who returned to the country after more than six years in exile, is threatening to run for elections. Elections have been programmed for 27th December 2020 in CAR. The Central African Republic is considered one of Africa’s most fragile states as it still suffers from instability with a large part of the country being controlled by vicious rebel groups. The poor health care systems that have been affected by decades of mishandling and political mayhem are unlikely to withstand the COVID-19 pandemic. The country confirmed 19 cases of COVID-19 which is considerably lower than its neighbours, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo. However, there have been no reports of postponement of elections.

Gambia, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Kenya and several other countries have postponed many local and by-elections. Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire and Tanzania are still scheduled to have national elections later this year.

Notwithstanding, decisions taken by various governments to postpone or delay the elections are guaranteed to be politicized. Many of the governments almost certainly will find it appealing to use the COVID-19 pandemic to their advantage. The outbreak of the pandemic presents an opportunity for incumbents to delay elections and then impose lockdowns and criminalize social gatherings to prevent street protests. Some opposition leaders of the various governments may see this pandemic as a way for ruling governments to take advantage of the situation and seek another term.

In Ethiopia for instance, opposition parties agreed with the motive behind the postponement of elections but were unhappy with the way the decision was reached. The General Secretary of Ghana’s main opposition party, the National Democratic Congress (NDC) said that the ban on public gatherings as a government measure to mitigate the spread of the Coronavirus was an attempt by the ruling party, the National Patriotic Party (NPP), to rig the 2020 elections. According to Mr Johnson Asiedu Nketia, the real intention of the NPP government is to plan with the Electoral Commission during the ban so that when it is time for elections, the election results would have been compromised. In Somalia, opposition leaders have warned the government not to use the outbreak to postpone elections. According to France24 (10 April 2020), the Burundian government would want to organize elections by any means necessary. Some interviews conducted by France24 revealed that the government is doing everything it can to avoid discovering new cases and having to postpone the elections and that all official decisions that are being taken vis-à-vis Coronavirus so far, have been political. In Egypt, the parliament’s Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee recently approved amendments to the law regulating the state of emergency. This gives President Sisi new and more power necessary to contain the pandemic. He seized control of the political system in 2013and has since progressively centred power into his own hands over the years.

If some of the delays in elections are not accepted by citizens and opposition parties, they may protest and thus enable the further spread of the Coronavirus. Whatever decisions are made, Africa will no doubt encounter several challenges related to the pandemic and how its people will exercise their democratic rights in an effective and safe environment. Ruling parties and opposition parties should have open discussions that encompass every aspect of the electoral process including voter registration, campaign measures and new election dates. Governments should, however, make it a point to have an open dialogue and be transparent about their decisions to their citizens.

*All figures on COVID-19 case counts are as of writing, 26th April 2020 from John Hopkins University.

Written by Josephine Nanortey

About the Author: Josephine is a young peace and security analyst currently pursuing a Masters of Arts Degree in Gender, Peace and Security at the Kofi Annan Peacekeeping Training Centre in Ghana. She is also working as a Research Intern at the Center for Security Analyses and Prevention (CSAP).              

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