Credible Elections and Economies in Transition

Published on 9th February 2023

This discussion comes at a time we are grappling with this same matter back home in Kenya following our elections last year. Back home, I have expressed fears that if we do not comprehensively and credibly address the issue of the credibility of 2022 election outcome, the virus will spread and affect upcoming elections on the continent. More immediately, Kenyans may lose all faith and decide to boycott future elections because they will believe their voices do not matter.

Kenya has become a laboratory for bad election practices that others borrow around the continent. You may recall that our malpractices of 2007 quickly became the script for Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

Since then, more of our neighbours have followed suit and perfected the use of technology to override the will of the voters.

As a pan-Africanist and an Afro-optimist, I fully subscribe to and support Africa’s Agenda 2063 which seeks the socio-economic transformation of the continent.

But I want to send a red flag. If Africa wants to achieve the goals of Agenda 2063, then we must prioritize and entrench free, fair and credible elections by all member states.

Since the reintroduction of multiparty politics in the 1990s, the quality and credibility of our elections have steadily deteriorated. In many of our countries election management bodies have been captured by the ruling parties or individual politicians, making it impossible to have fair contests. The capture leads to skewed processes like voter registration and appointment of election management officials, with disastrous consequences.

As a continent, we have to agree that critical development efforts cannot succeed without a legitimate and democratically elected government that is responsive and accountable to its citizens and the investor community.

Free and fair elections are indicators to investors that there is government in place that believes in fairness and the rule of law. When a government comes in through a fair ballot, investors get the reassurance that their property will be respected, taxation will be fair, investment rules will be simple and clear and they will not have to resort to corruption and bribery to set up or stay in business.

Illiberal regimes send signals that are the direct opposite of what the investors are looking for.

Professor Mike Touchton of Boise State University in the US wrote… “Many (investors) conclude that governments that violate electoral laws to stay in office would also be willing to violate investors’ property rights. If the election was rigged, and the leader is overriding laws and constitutional provisions, no one in the country can stand up to the government… And so investment falls — because there’s a lot of economic risk in doing business in countries with unconstrained governments.”

Regimes that come to power by rigged elections cannot guarantee judicial independence and other state and non-governmental bodies that are critical to the rule of law, which is an indispensable requirement for a good investment climate.

We therefore need to internalize the fact that elections are important political risk assessment tools for investors.

I must hasten to add here that by investors, I am not simply talking about foreign investment; I refer also most importantly to domestic investors.

Africa has seen swings in fortunes before, from bad to better and back to worse. Much, if not all of those swings, have resulted from elections that fail to meet minimum standards for free elections.  In other cases, there are no elections at all.

In mid-1990s, Africa was hopeful. Our leaders and intellectuals proclaimed an African renaissance. The grim days of post-colonial Africa were declared over.

The Cold War too was over and with it, the misrule and dictatorship perpetuated by military rulers, big men and presidents for life.

I recall that in 1994, our very own President Nelson Mandela declared: ‘‘Africa cries out for a new birth. We must, in action, say that there is no obstacle big enough to stop us from bringing about a new African renaissance.’’

I also recall than when President Bill Clinton set out on a six-nation visit of Africa in 1998, his destination was the countries that were seen to be shepherding this renaissance.

The nations were also viewed to have a new generation of leaders that would protect and champion the ideals of democracy and economic prosperity.

Ghana, Uganda, Rwanda, South Africa, Botswana and Senegal. Eritrea, Ethiopia, Mali, DR Congo then under President Laurent Kabila were among them.

Ahead of the Clinton visit, Secretary of State Madleine Albright proclaimed… “The era of the big man who comes to power, stays for life and robs his country blind is over.” Unfortunately, she spoke too soon.

We now know that the era was not over. We also know that the fortunes of the countries that were seen to be shepherding the renaissance have swung back and forth over the past several decades and some are worse off.

In a number of cases, those who were lauded as a new generation of African leaders have become a new generation of African strong men and tyrants.

They preside over de facto one-party states that do not allow for self-government and have not established mechanisms for the peaceful transfer of power.

Without that guarantee, the growth we see in some of those countries today and the stability the authoritarian regimes seem to have enforced are sure to collapse at some stage and those countries will have to begin afresh.

Elections and democracy are failing in Africa not be because a majority of Africa’s voters prefer authoritarian, non-democratic forms of government. It is happening because an organized elite, keen to protect narrow selfish interests, has forged strategic alliances and captured strategic systems and institutions of various nations with the sole purpose of subverting the substance of elections.

In a number of countries, we are witnessing a situation in which the majority is increasingly at the mercy of the minority with regard to free, fair, transparent and credible elections. Africans who wake up at dawn, stand in long queues all day to cast their ballot, end up with results that indicate their votes were not counted and did not count.

In the last decade, many of our nations have evolved modern systems for collection, collation, transmission and tallying of election results. Many have adopted a results management systems that combines traditional vote counting and tallying processes, and use of technology to verify voter eligibility, register votes and transmit results.

In addition, we have seen the evolution of the electoral laws to allow representatives of political parties to independently tally the results and transmit to party tallying centers. But as we have witnessed in Kenya both in 2017 and 2022, technology is getting compromised and results altered. This has severely damaged the credibility of election management bodies in many of our countries.

Let me cite an example. According the Gallup Poll, 64 per cent of Kenyans did not have confidence in the honesty of elections as we prepared for 2022 polls.  Similarly, the Afro Barometer Survey shows that 24 per cent of Kenyans thought that elections are not at all free and fair. A further 18 per cent thought that elections may be free and fair but there are major problems. Only 23 per cent of Kenyans thought that elections are completely free and fair as we headed to the polls.

The Afro Barometer Survey further showed that 31 per cent of Kenyans did not trust our election management body, the IEBC at all and 23 per cent trusted it only a little; only 19 percent trusted IEBC a lot.

According to the Gallup Poll, the percentage of Kenyans who have confidence in the honesty of elections declined from 58 per cent in 2015 to only 35 per cent in 2021.

I believe the picture is pretty much the same in many African countries. Existing electoral laws are not seen to assemble an electoral system that people believe is transparent, accountable and democratic. There is therefore need for further reforms to make the voting process more accessible and reliable; enhance protections against mistake, irregularity, confusion, and fraud.

There is need to rethink use of technology. Either we adopt reliable election technology, including voting machines that generate a voter-verifiable audit trail, so voters can confirm that their choices are being recorded accurately or we go fully manual.

In Kenya, the Supreme Court ruled that the technology used by the IEBC in the 2022 election met the constitutional standards of integrity, verifiability, security, and transparency. It is unclear on what objective criteria the Supreme Court arrived at this conclusion.

There is also the question of centralization of election management. Do we need one big electoral body to manage our elections or should election management be devolved to the states, regions or counties as is the case in the US?

Shouldn’t parties be allowed to second their members to the election management bodies? My answer to these two questions is Yes.

Here is my call to action. If Africa’s elite autocrats are uniting against free and fair elections, Africa’s democrats must also unite and defend democracy. We must build a continent wide pro-democracy coalition and look out for each other.

The continent’s democrats must treat the subversion of election anywhere on the continent as a subversion of the people’s will everywhere on the continent.

It should be clear in word and deed that whoever makes a move to ascend to power by means other than credible and constitutional elections is not only condemned, but subjected to sanctions and removal from such office.

So far, the trend has been that an election malpractice that goes unpunished in one country provides a script for another country and then becomes the new normal.

I will not go into details of my own country Kenya and the crisis brewing there because of an election that was compromised in August last year. But Kenya’s case must sound a warning to all.

If the continent’s democrats – together with the international community of democracies do not come together and defend the vote – the elections and democracy will be delegitimSed in Africa with devastating consequences.

By Hon. Raila A. Odinga

Former Prime Minister of Kenya. 


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