The bleak future of elections in Sub-Saharan Africa


2015/16 witnessed two remarkable cases in which elections were prevented from occurring in Sub-Saharan African countries. These instances are special because they can serve as a blueprint for future attempts to forestall elections completely without violating ostensibe democratic principles. The Western world just gazes but hardly attempts to change the outcome.

So what am I talking about? In 2015, regular parliamentary elections in Chad should have taken place. However, those were postponed due to a lack of financial resources. The argumentation is as straightforward as discouraging. Chad relies much on oil export revenues; hence falling prices slashed the national budget. Furthermore, Chad is embroiled in expensive counter-insurgency activities against Boko Haram in the Lake Chad region. We write February 2017, and parliamentary elections have not been held until today. Paradoxically, presidential elections, which confirmed the incumbent leadership, could be held in 2016.

Another interesting event happened in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 2016. Officially, presidential elections were supposed to take place last year with the election of a new president since the current leader, Joseph Kabila, cannot exceed the constitutional second-term limit. However, chronic underfunding and mismanagement of the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) engendered a situation in which it is impossible to hold free and fair elections as millions of voters are not registered. Protests and negotiations between the opposition and the incumbent leadership led to a joint government with Kabila in power until at least 2018, when new presidential elections are scheduled.

Both cases display a discouraging trend for proponents of democratic systems. On the one hand, volatile commodity prices will persist in future and dependence on natural resource exports is prevalent in Sub-Saharan Africa. Hence, the combination of both can constitute an easy excuse to postpone elections by pointing out that there are more important issues to be addressed with scarcely available resources. This is pronounced by the argument that security concerns have a higher priority than free and fair elections. In short, physical security trumps Western-style good governance. On the other hand, it is fairly easy for incumbent leaders to shatter the bureaucracy which is deemed to organize elections. It comes at almost no cost. Protests will rarely change the status quo as neo-patrimonial systems co-opt opposition forces and stymie their movements (as happened in DRC last December).

These instances were just two in the past years. Notwithstanding, many elections (with contestable results) were still held in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2016. Nevertheless, if those exemplary cases remain successful, then it can be foreseen that these will serve as blueprints for other leaders which face term-limits or simply do not want to hand over their access to power to other actors due to several reasons which I am not going to highlight here. Can the “West” do something about it? The United States and the EU imposed sanctions on several figures in the DRC, but not because of postponed elections but as a response to repressive crackdowns on demonstrators. In current times in which the EU needs good relations with African governments more than ever in order to create stability and prevent immigration flows, there is a low chance that election procrastination in Sub-Saharan Africa will play any role in discussions over joint cooperation during the upcoming years.

Bullet points:

  • Elections were postponed in Chad and DRC
  • Lack of financial resources and weak bureaucratic structures are used as justifications
  • Those arguments can serve as templates for the future
  • Western states have low interests to oppose such a trend

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