Towards the end of the 20th century, it was evident that democracy was a bitter pill to swallow for African states grappling with political and socio-economic ills. Traditional leadership, customary law and a lingering legacy of indirect colonial rule resulted in the dilution and failure of democratic functions and institutions, hindering universal buy-in from all citizens.
Fast forward to 2019, and the transition of governments is no longer a signal of impending genocide and/or civil war but a contested race for bureaucratic power and office, as it should be.
From only eight nations in 1990 that had inclusive franchise rights for their populations, to 18 in 1996 that were considered democratic, in 2019, 55 member states of the AU are obligated to hold regular and democratic elections.
In 2019 alone, 26 countries have planned elections. This is unprecedented for Africa. However, challenges still linger. According to the BBC, 15 democracies in Africa are “defective”, meaning there are democratic elements and institutions of government and governance but cannot be trusted and therefore are illegitimate. This means that although a country may hold an election, politicians tamper with electoral commissions and cannot deliver free and fair elections; the courts that should decide on the fairness of the election are also captured and offer biased decisions.
Various countries have developed electoral commissions from the example of South Africa’s. Since its inception in 1996, the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) has offered a blueprint to developing and developed democracies of how to conduct free, fair, and credible elections.
Today, we see a maturing Africa in terms of democratic culture and representative politics even in countries that have endured autocracy and dysfunctional democracies that maintained dictatorships.
In 2017, Uhuru Kenyatta won a second term in Kenya ahead of his opponent Raila Odinga. But the Supreme Court found the election conducted by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission was fraught with irregularities and illegalities.
In November 2017, after the new Commissioner of the IEBC and the Supreme Court affirmed a second election free, fair and credible, Kenyatta was inaugurated.
In Zimbabwe, Emmerson Mnangagwa’s Zanu-PF had its election victory challenged in the courts by MDC leader Nelson Chamisa, citing counting irregularities at the polling stations. In August 2018, the Supreme Court of Zimbabwe dismissed Chamisa’s claims and Mnangagwa was inaugurated.
But the biggest success story was in the Democratic Republic of Congo where for the first time in 40 years, a successful democratic election was held. Joseph Kabila relinquished power to Felix Tshisekedi amid claims the Constitutional Court that heard objections by the opposition of the election being interfered with. Crucially, the international community, including the AU and SADC called for the opposition to comply with the DRC’s constitution and laws.
In South Africa, a marginal dent that marred the 2019 election was smaller parties claim the IEC had insufficient control in the voting process and some people voted twice, some stations were not open on time and scanners were malfunctioning. These claims were not substantial enough for independent observers and IEC to repudiate the entire poll.
The ANC was the outright winner and the main opposition parties conceded. The professionalism and seeming impartiality of the IEC offers a laudable example to other electoral agencies in Africa that, for good reason, haven’t enjoyed voters’ confidence. Only when such agencies are credible will Africans believe in elections.
* Monyae is director of the Centre for Africa-China at the University of Johannesburg.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.