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(Re)Introducing the APCG Newsletter

This issue of the newsletter represents our attempt to transform the way APCG and our scholarship engages with contemporary politics in the African continent.  In this newsletter, we focus on the late 2016 and 2017 elections in sub-Saharan Africa. Our contributors highlight patterns across the 2017 election calendar, review a new dataset focused on the integrity of elections, and revisit election insights from Ghana and Kenya.

The 2017 Election Year:
The View from the Monkey Cage

Newsletter Overview

Taking stock of African elections in 2017

Keith Weghorst,
Vanderbilt University

This newsletter serves to reflects on elections in African in the calendar year (and December 2016).  We hope this resource will serve as a way of generating scholarly debate, as well as providing a teaching resource.  A big thanks to all of our contributors for working with me and APCG on this new approach to the newsletter. In this short piece, I wish to highlight three key patterns across the election this year has seen. 

1. Important Tests for Election Management Bodies in African Democracies

Perhaps most notable were the 2017 elections in Kenya, which are one of the elections the newsletter’s symposium focuses on.   As in many of Kenya’s polls, the lead-up to August 8th was tense and featured sporadic skirmishes between party activists.  Both the newly formed Jubilee party—forged out of a governing coalition bearing the same name—and the opposition National Super Alliance (NASA) challenged the independence of the electoral management body, its transparency and various issues related to contracting and procurement of materials like ballot papers, with additional doubt cast on its ability to deliver clean polls with the abduction, torture, and assassination of its IT director shortly before the elections. 

The polls reflected growing partisanship in Kenya and a victory for Jubilee’s Presidential candidate, incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta.  While generally held by observers as Free and Fair, the Supreme Court of Kenya moved to nullify the elections and order them re-run.  The opposition boycotted the polls and Jubilee unsurprisingly won in a blowout.  This has placed stress on Kenya’s democratic progress and the longer term consequences remain to be seen. 

Ghana’s elections also featured criticism of the independence of the election management body.  The Electoral Commission of Ghana was no longer under the leadership of Afari Gyan—the respected head perhaps best known for managing the tense 2008 run-offs which brought the NDC to power—and was subject to infighting over contracting mechanisms as well.   As Sarah Brierley and George Ofusu note this in this newsletter, the reputation of election institution which is generally well-regarded remains in doubt as it awaits scrutiny from the High Court of Ghana. 

2. The Fall of (some) African Strongmen

Africa’s electoral authoritarian regimes had mixed records of political change in 2017.  In some places, it was “business as usual.”  Paul Kagame, for example, was re-elected in August with 98.6% of the vote. Although he benefits from authoritarian governance, he is also genuinely popular and has overseen dramatic economic development (See Melina Platas’s Monkey Cage piece for more on this).

Yet, across the continent in the Gambia, elections brought about political change.  Incumbent Yahya Jammeh, who came to power via military coup d’état in 1994, was ousted in elections in December 2016.  While initially accepting results—indicating on December 2nd that he would “take a backseat” in order to help transition—he changed course one week later and refused to vacate the Presidency due to what he claimed to be “serious and unacceptable anomalies” of the polls. With this came a declaration of a State of Emergency, a crackdown on media and the public flow of information.  As the calendar turned to 2017, Jammeh faced an ECOWAS intervention and fled to Equatorial Guinea, paving the way for Adama Barrow to assume the Presidency. Jammeh allegedly fled with expensive cars, luxury goods, and over $11 million USD that he had shipped to Chad before his departure. 

The 2018 elections looming in Zimbabwe appeared to have accelerated a transition from Robert Mugabe to a successor who is still to be determined.  Amid internal party divisions between factions aligned with recently deposed Vice-President (Mgangwa? and Mugabe’s wife Grace and the G-40, the military has staged a palace coup and is currently bargaining with the incumbent President over his exit from power.  What this means for Zimbabwe now—and for its elections scheduled in the next calendar year—remains to be seen.  At this point, though, it seems clear that one of Africa’s longest standing rulers will soon be leaving the statehouse. 

 Future-looming elections are also casting their shadow on another long-standing electoral authoritarian leader in Africa: Yoweri Museveni.  While he was re-elected in 2016 and the next polls are not until 2021, efforts are already underway to ensure he can stand for office once more.  In addition to constitutional provisions for term limits—already removed so that Museveni could continue as President—he now faces an age-based restriction on his eligibility to run in 2021.  Efforts of his party to push through a constitutional amendment have been met with strong opposition in the chambers.  What these legislators are—quite literally—fighting for is detailed in [MONKEY CAGE POST BY X]. 

3. Reason for Cautious Optimism

While the global decline in democracy has been well-documented by scholars, the African continent observed some positive development in electoral democracy.  

In February, Somalia held elections in order to elect the President.  While the election was not direct–due to safety concerns, Parliamentarians voted under security protection at the airport–Mohammed Abdullahi Mohamed, or “Farmajo.”  While Somalia faces significant challenges, his rise to power was greeted with widespread enthusiasm. 

Elections in Liberia were regarding as peaceful by observers and, while highly driven by candidate expenditure, nonetheless fairly transparent.  The results of the first round are currently being challenged in court, so whether this optimism is warranted remains to be seen.