A new wave of grassroots and activist politics is making its mark across Africa

Elections on the edge: Is populism leading us down a dangerous path? By Patrick Smith

Grievances are mounting as economic inequities and corruption worsen. But after a spate of bad elections this year, people are losing faith in the political elite’s ability to fix the problems. In this vacuum, a new wave of grassroots and activist politics is spreading

For corrupt, brutal and despotic politicians around the world, 2016 is a year to celebrate – a year of impunity.

And into that crucible has rushed a herd of politicians rehearsing their nationalist and populist bombast. For everyone else, it marks a failure of politics, particularly electoral politics, to address deepening inequalities and harsher oppression.

Leaders who have sent their air forces to bomb the people of Aleppo and Darfur, or their armies to shoot protesters in the streets, face no sanction and little more than distant cries of international protest.

And the companies and banks that finance these atrocities for their political clients escape serious penalties. For many, this global failure of politics has reached its nadir in the United States presidential election.

How did Donald Trump, reality television star and property magnate, become the Republican candidate with a chance of victory? In fact, the economic grievances exploited so disingenuously by Trump in the US are mirrored in Africa.

Trickle-down economics has failed in both the US and Africa. However, Trump’s proposed remedies – more tax cuts for wealthy citizens and corporations – would make matters still worse.

Injecting both a sense of humour and proportion into the US political angst, Mo Ibrahim, the Sudanese telecoms billionaire and philanthropist, told a meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations on 17 October: “May I suggest an African solution? […] Give President Obama a third term!” Some diplomatic laughter rippled around the room.

Earlier in the discussion, Ibrahim had combined optimism about Africa’s economic future – “within 30 years, the continent will have a bigger labour force than either China or India […] and more valuable resources on land and offshore than either” – with stern warnings about trends in governance and security.

Research by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation shows a very mixed picture over the past decade. The Ibrahim Index of African Governance records improvements in 37 of Africa’s 54 countries in overall governance, such as rule of law, human rights, economic opportunity and human development.

But in 33 countries, corruption and bureaucracy have worsened. And two-thirds of African countries have seen a deterioration in freedom of expression over the past decade, according to the index.

At the heart of this is a political problem, Ibrahim told the Council on Foreign Relations. “How many bad elections have we seen in Africa this year? And no one says anything.”

He singled out presidents’ penchant for changing constitutions to get more time in power. On the clashes in Burundi over President Pierre Nkurunziza’s unilateral insistence that he is entitled to a third term, Ibrahim said he was disappointed by the African Union’s response.

It has backed down from plans for tough action and instead sent Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, himself in power for three decades, to negotiate with Nkurunziza.

Election violence this year spread to Gabon, where the national assembly was burned down after allegations of rigging, and Zambia, where pre-election tensions exploded into street fighting and the government closed down independent media houses.

Harsh crackdowns

Patricia Scotland, the new secretary general of the Commonwealth, appointed Ibrahim Gambari, a former foreign minister of Nigeria, to work with Zambia’s electoral commission to broker dialogue between the rival parties.

As electoral and other tensions rise, there could be a shortage of effective mediators, according to the US Institute of Peace’s president, Nancy Lindborg. More pre-emptive actions are needed, she argues: “Elections are becoming a flashpoint for violence that undermines political legitimacy and economic ­development.”

Rights organisations across the continent are reporting harsh crackdowns by security officials as electoral contests get closer.

This year’s elections in Ghana are a particularly important sign, adds Lindborg. “Ghana had this great reputation […] good on investment, governance and elections too.” What happens in a tight election in December could to point to trends elsewhere.

President Museveni’s re-election in February this year triggered protests in the capital and in the north and east.

Under house arrest at the time, long-time opposition leader Kizza Besigye told The Africa Report: “It is a strange election victory for Mr. Museveni when no one comes out to celebrate the so-called win and instead all you see on the streets are armoured cars, tanks and soldiers.”

Six months later, Besigye was in London, having been allowed out of Uganda although he faces treason charges for organising a parallel presidential inauguration to reinforce his argument that Museveni rigged the election.

Besigye says he sees the limitations of electoral politics in Uganda. “I don’t have illusions that any elections organised by Museveni will announce a different result [than his victory],” he said in London before returning to Kampala in late September. “But elections are a form of mobilisation […] to put pressure on the government by refusing to recognise the results.”

As in many countries, the elections in Uganda were closer than before. It is getting harder to detect rigging, according to Nic Cheeseman, professor of African Politics at Oxford University.

“Of course, we know the constituencies where there was 100% turnout and 100% of the votes went to Museveni in his heartlands. But the question is how to prove fraud conclusively.”

Few were surprised by Museveni’s victory. Given his party’s use of state funds and control of the electoral process, the security forces’ intimidation of opposition candidates and mobilisation of its youth supporters, a win for Museveni seemed almost inevitable.

Tougher economic conditions have complicated elections, according to Josephine Ojiambo, deputy secretary general of the Commonwealth. “There is less public funding available for electoral commissions to deliver elections to the quality standards and critical timelines that could be achieved,” Ojiambo tells The Africa Report.

“On the other hand, there are large amounts of unregulated campaign funds, which is leading to some elections being tilted unfairly to those with the deepest wallets. Commonwealth election observers are increasingly concerned about money in politics and also the misuse of state resources to favour a governing political party.”

New tricks

Organisations such as the European Union, or the US-based National Democratic Institute, are chary of rejecting official results, unless the evidence of fraud is irrefutable.

Instead, tortuous formulations such as ‘Overall, the elections reflect the will of the people’, emerge in election-monitoring reports. For experienced observers such as Cheeseman, that view is contentious.

“But is an election that is stolen by 100,000 votes better than one that is stolen by a million votes?” he asks. He says elections are getting closer because opposition parties are using new tricks to counter government dominance and, in some cases, technology helps to defeat fraud.

Opposition parties risk putting too much faith in technology, he adds. “To work well, it needs a vibrant civil society to use the equipment to monitor and record the voting and the counts, and a well-organised opposition with reliable election agents.”

In Lagos, Tunji Lardner, director of WANGONeT, wants Nigeria to make the next technical leap. “We should digitise the entire process. Biometric voting? Why not?,” argues Lardner. “[Biometric] card-reader technology was pioneered in Africa, like mobile money.”

Lardner is working with other civic activists, lawyers and state officials on a radical reform of Nigeria’s electoral commission. One of their concerns is to stop a new ruling party entrenching itself in power, even if it gained power after a credible election.

Officials in President Muhammadu Buhari’s government claim that judges and police have been complicit in undermining the commission’s independence and received inducements from politicians to do so.

Those claims led to several raids by the Department of State Services on judges in the early hours of 9 October, which have provoked a furious row.

Lardner says the raids were linked to claims that certain judges were blocking the prosecution of former high-level politicians, such as national security adviser Colonel Sambo Dasuki, and electoral officials who are accused of receiving money to rig elections in the Niger Delta last year. “Corruption is not an aberration in the system, it is the system,” Lardner explains.

Yao Graham, director of Third World Network-Africa in Accra, agrees with the need for a cultural change but sees electoral politics at the root of the problem. “Our parties lack organisational structures […]. You have the leaders, the business backers and the foot soldiers, or the mass members. But there are no procedures to discipline party members or officials.”

Politics get personal

“Are our elections really about political pluralism,” asks Graham, “or are they a contest between political elites or factions of the elite? No party is holding the political elite to account.”

Those weaknesses in party structures, according to Graham, are repeated in parliament, which instead of holding the executive to account is suborned by it. “Ruling and opposition parties share in the patronage,” he explains.

Added to this, Graham argues, there is a growing trivialisation and personalisation of politics. That is undercutting attempts to debate policy and strategic direction.

For example, neither of Ghana’s two main parties have proposed solutions to the crisis at the Obuasi gold mine, where industrial production has been disrupted and more than 18,000 illegal miners are working.

Such crises are likely to prompt political movements outside of the party system, says Graham. A new wave of grassroots and activist politics is already making its mark across Africa, according to ­Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi, executive director of the Ghana Center for Democratic Development.

Gyimah-Boadi points to the courage of South Africa’s public protector, Thuli Madonsela, who investigated President Jacob Zuma’s spending of public funds on his homestead.

Coalitions of activists have pushed back government efforts to remove or extend presidential term limits in Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal and Zambia. In Burkina Faso, an alliance between activists and soldiers drove long-standing President Blaise Compaoré from power in 2014.

Gyimah-Boadi, who is also a director of the Afrobarometer survey, writes that his organisation’s research points to growing popular support for more democratic and accountable institutions.

This is not often shared by political elites in Africa and beyond. After a succession of clashes and widespread fraud, agitation for political change and better elections could be entering a critical phase.

From the November 2016 print edition