Democracy in decline in Africa

December 18, 2017

Opinion: Elena Gadjanova, Senior Research Associate, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, argues that anti-democratic tendencies in East Africa are gathering momentum.

The margin of victory in national elections is inversely related to a country’s quality of democracy. Electoral landslides, particularly in newly-democratizing states, are often a sign of trouble. In October, Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya’s incumbent president, won 98% of the vote in a repeat election after the one in August was invalidated by the country’s Supreme Court. Uhuru’s ‘victory’ puts him in the rather enviable club of Paul Kagame of Rwanda, re-elected with 98.8% of the vote, Omar al-Bashir of Sudan (with 95%), Salva Kiir of South Sudan (with 93%), and Teodoro Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea (with 94%). Kenya’s opposition boycotted the poll, turn-out was estimated at a meagre 35% (in comparison, close to 80% of eligible voters cast a ballot in August), and clashes between the police and opposition supporters resulted in a number of deaths in opposition strongholds.

Things looked very different in September and there was widespread optimism that Kenya would firmly set on to a pro-democracy path. The country’s Supreme Court annulled the August 2017 presidential election because of ‘massive irregularities and illegalities’ and ordered a new vote. The move was historic and was widely heralded as a triumph of the rule of law and due process over political impunity. Kenyan citizens were told by their own court that they could and should expect more from their institutions and politicians. This was important because elections in Africa often suffer from ‘the tyranny of low expectations’: lower standards are tolerated because of fears of political instability. This allows incumbents to subtly manipulate the vote and is deeply subversive to efforts to hold elected officials fully accountable.

Kenya’s supreme court decision invigorated pro-reform forces in the country and across Africa. It also appeared to remedy a previous judgement when in 2013 the opposition also claimed the polls had been rigged in favor of the incumbent, but their case was dismissed. At least for a moment, there was hope that justice would triumph over the desire to maintain the stability of the political system at all costs.

But measures designed to ensure free and fair repeat elections were never put in place. For ‘lack of time’, the electoral commission was not reformed and the same election officials who had botched the August poll were allowed to oversee the repeat election. The new ballots were printed by the same firm in Dubai with alleged links to Kenyatta’s family. Provisions were not made to better safeguard the security of the election transmission system, which had been severely compromised in August. Further, the ruling Jubilee party rammed a new election law through parliament, which limits the ability of the Supreme court to annul elections in the future and stipulates that if a candidate withdraws from the election, the other candidate automatically wins. Supreme court judges were intimidated to the point where a last-minute petition to halt the October poll was not heard for lack of quorum because only 2 of the 7 justices showed up.

And so, the few remaining institutional safeguards of democracy in Kenya are being eroded one by one. The electoral commission and the parliament are in the service of the regime, and it appears that the courts are being neutralized. There is evidence the police is engaging in ethnic profiling and violence targeting communities believed to support the opposition, including shootings and door-to-door searches. Civil society organizations are also stifled on a daily basis.

The optimism of September quickly turned to sadness, apathy, and fear. The opposition presidential candidate Raila Odinga urged supporters to boycott companies associated with the ruling Jubilee party and proclaimed the NASA alliance would be transformed into a ‘national resistance movement’, echoing pro-democracy rhetoric common among activists battling authoritarianism during the single party era. Thus, democracy in Kenya appears to have gone back several decades over the course of a few months only: the speed of this transformation is remarkable.

Kenya’s election drama over the last four months provides a template for the decline of democracy in the rest of Africa. Democracy’s prospects suffer when moments of hope and opportunity are squandered because a regime refuses to loosen its grip on power. We see this bleak scenario currently play out in Togo, where protesters against Faure Gnassingbe, whose family has been in power for the past 50 years, are being beaten and shot at, in Liberia, where the second-round presidential vote is postponed because of alleged rigging by the incumbent president, and in Uganda, where a parliamentary vote to remove the presidential age limit descended into a physical fight. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe’s firing of his vice-president in order to install his wife as successor precipitated an army coup, plunging the country into a period of much uncertainty.   

Still, Kenyatta’s victory may well have been a hollow one. The low turnout in the October re-run is an embarrassment to the ruling Jubilee party. It shows that the election was not seen as credible in the majority of the country and Kenyans have lost faith in the procedural aspects of democracy. There are open calls for secession in parts of the country supporting the opposition and the opposition alliance is planning to inaugurate Raila as president in a parallel ceremony in mid-December. So Kenyatta cannot claim legitimacy by electoral mandate. This weakens his standing among his allies and his ability to form a cross-ethnic coalition. So how can he govern a divided country without a popular mandate? If developments in the rest of Africa are any indication, Kenya is headed towards a period of protracted instability, insecurity, and creeping authoritarianism.  

Author: Elena Gadjanova, Senior Research Associate, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Department Lecturer, Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford

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