Alagi Yorro Jallow
Fatoumatta: Why Incumbents in Africa are on a losing streak at the ballot? What is happening? Could it be the wind of an African democratic renaissance blowing across the continent? Maybe yes, may not. However, demagogues and despots that have always held the continent hostage are increasingly being cornered and running out of the tricks they have been applying to subvert democracy. Despite the elections being a democratic ritual of legitimizing administrations, they have presented a fresh look into the economic and social development in the African continent. Good for democracy.
Zambia stands out in Africa, changing governments democratically twice since the late Kenneth Kaunda’s rule ended in 1991. The Patriotic Front won power in 2011 under Michael Sata’s leadership, and outgoing president Edgar Lungu was elected in 2015 following Sata’s death while in office. The coalition/alliance of opposition parties (10 parties) in Zambia provided President-elect Hakainde Hichilema (HH) with more leverage and formidable force to get the reigns of government. Coalition building of opposition is a growing trend in the continent.
However, it proves to be challenging in displacing dominant political parties from the levers of the state. This was seen in the Gambia in 2016, Senegal, Nigeria, Malawi, Kenya, Botswana, and now Zambia. However, if maintained, it could provide new opposition politics in the continent, and united opposition coalesced around common agenda. Instead, president Outgoing Edgar Lungu borrowed to invest in mega infrastructure at the expense of micro-economic stability. He borrowed so much so that Zambia became the first African country to default on sovereign debt post-Covid-19. As a result, he and the so-called “Deep State” and “System” now face the wrath of the same voters he despised and persecuted through brutal force until the eve of election day.
Fatoumatta: Two decades after the onset of the third wave of democratization, the African political landscape is still replete with dominant political parties operating within the framework of competitive multiparty systems. Some of these political parties seem so entrenched that even relatively free competitive elections have not been able to shake their political bases. Botswana, for example, is widely regarded as “the longest-enduring and most stable liberal democracy in Africa.” However, despite this impressive record of democracy, the Botswana opposition Democratic Party has won all successive elections. It has ruled the country since independence in 1965.
Even in countries where grand old political parties lost the founding multiparty elections, the opposition political parties that took power became dominant. In South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC) has prevailed since the first all-inclusive elections of 1994. In Zambia, the Movement for Multiparty Democracy—which defeated Africa and the country’s longest-serving leader Dr. Kenneth Kaunda, President of Zambia since independence from Britain was resoundingly defeated in a multiparty election in 1991.
Moreover, In 2000, Senegal, after four unsuccessful attempts, Abdoulaye Wade was first elected as president in 2000, ushering in much needed political change —supported by a section of the opposition parties as a coalition candidate—polled only 30 percent of votes in the first round of the 2000 presidential elections against 41.3 percent garnered by the incumbent president Abdou Diouf. In the second round, Wade enlisted the support of the other key opposition leader, Moustapha Niasse, and won by 58.5 percent. Once in power, however, Wade strengthened his Senegalese Democratic Party, making it an invincible monolith. In the 2012 presidential elections, incumbent Abdoulaye Wade fell short of the outright majority needed to avoid a run-off in the first round, with 34.8 percent to Sall’s 26.6 percent. Defeated candidates then united behind Sall.
However, The opposition has won the historic rerun of Malawi’s presidential election. The first time a court-over-turned vote in Africa led to the defeat of an incumbent leader. Lazarus Chakwera’s victory resulted from months of determined street protests and a unanimous constitutional court decision that the May 2019 vote had widespread irregularities and could not stand. Chakwera won with 2.6 million votes out of 4.4 million casts. President Peter Mutharika, who had sought a second five-year term, called this new election flawed but has urged the country to “move on peacefully.”
A court overturned the original election last year won by Mutharika, citing widespread irregularities, including the use of correction fluid on ballots. It was just the second time in Africa that a court has overturned a presidential election, following a ruling on Kenya’s vote in 2017. The constitutional court on 3 February unanimously ordered that the vote be held again, citing “widespread, systematic and grave” evidence of irregularities and vote tampering.
Fatoumatta: The emergence, survival, and dangers of dominant parties are well documented in the literature. For instance, party dominance has the negative effect of promoting authoritarian tendencies. Elections are now knocking off the despots and pseudo democrats off the power seats in shocking unheralded ease. We saw it happen in the corrupt to the core Nigeria. It was repeated in Ghana, and the unthinkable happened in the Gambia in 2016. You see, since the advent of multiparty politics in Subsaharan Africa, incumbents have always had their way at the ballot, even when it is clear the masses want to change.
Of course, many demagogues in Africa perpetuate themselves in power through fraudulent elections. However, a keen analysis of the events leading to the defeat of the incumbents in the recent elections in West Africa reveals some discernible pattern: In all these cases, there was a thorough audit of voters registers.
Most of these despots have been rigging elections. However, what is rigging? We have always given undeserving leaders an easy ride to power by sticking to the lopsided understanding of rigging. We have always approached and viewed this evil called rigging as just ballot stuffing in favor of someone during election day. Furthermore, that is why we have not been able to slay the dragon. Rigging elections is a process. Its starts with any activity that may give any party in an electoral contest undue advantage over the others. Such actions like skewed distribution of the resources during registration of voters constitute is a form of rigging.
Already there are reports of state or non-state actor apparatus like chiefs etc., being used to marshall people to register as voters in some constituencies claimed to be specific parties or politicians strongholds.
However, perhaps the worst form of rigging and that has been used so successfully by the African despots is the use of fraudulent voters registers.
Fatoumatta: In Nigeria, voters register audit knocked out an alarming one million fake voters from the register. This was shocking, considering previous elections had used the same register. Any wonder that the inept incumbent Dr. Goodluck Jonathan who had lost the war on corruption and wholly outfoxed by the Boko haram militants, lost so quickly to Muhammad Buhari in the 2015 presidential elections?
There was a similar clean-up of voters register in Ghana and the Gambia. The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) chairman Mr. Alhagie Alieu Momar Njai, has disclosed that his office will officially write to the Ministry of Justice to appoint judges for the revising courts in a standard procedure that immediately after voter registration, to check the list and see whether there are people who have registered multiple times.
Chairman Njai told the media seven revising courts. Each of the country’s seven administrative regions will embark on a voter registration cleaning exercise lasting sixty days to expunge double registration. Chairman Njai revealed that “there are some people who registered twice or even three times. This is what we are sorting out and immediately we are done with that, we will announce the provisional number of voters.”
However, Mr. Njai said he could not tell whether there are other significant issues in the registration, saying the database specialists are working very hard to complete their review. The moment they are done, they will update him. You see, however much you monitor and guard the voting exercise during the polling day, the incumbent will always pull a surprise on you by manipulating the register to its advantage unless the opposition has a clear understanding of the contents of the register.
Take the example of the Kenyan presidential elections. The register was so chaotic that when the electoral commission was asked for it at the Supreme Court presidential petition, it tabled three different unharmonized voters registers that shocked even the judges. Yes, three chaotic registers. The electoral commission has never fully accounted for the 2 million votes discrepancy between the total votes cast for the presidential position and the other five elective posts?
Fatoumatta: What the Gambian opposition and credible civil society should be demanding now that the voter registration has ended is a good and transparent clean up of the voters register by a reputable international audit firm with a proven track record of carrying out similar exercise internationally, preferably the firm that audited the Nigerian voter’s register would work for the Gambian voters so well given the fact that the Gambia can compete for the neck to neck with our Nigerian brothers on matters corruption, so we expect what is ailing our voter’s register is probably what was ailing theirs.
This audit should consider how easily Gambians can acquire all sorts of fake documents from the backstreets. What is the key identifier in the entire electoral process? It is the birth certificate, national identity card, Passport, and attestation from a village, Alkalo. However, our problem is that our voter database is not synchronized with the national registration of personal data. So you produce a birth certificate, an identity card, Passport, or attestation, and you are registered as a voter. Nevertheless, it is public knowledge that Gambians can acquire fake IDs, logbooks, degree certificates, title deeds from Barra car garage or roads within minutes. This implies you could have someone who has registered in one station using a real ID and is registered in another station again using the river road ID.
Of course, this could not be possible if we had a credible biometric identification system because by use of biometrics like fingerprints it would easily detect such fraud and blocklist the cheats. We all know the gadgets the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) officials carry around are more or less like advanced Chinese playthings. They failed terribly to identify voters in the other elections. We are still using the same gadgets, so the starting point if we want a credible audit is to register the person database in its entirety. The registrar of persons should be compelled to give the data on registered persons in both soft and hard copies to the stakeholders and the public. First, the same data should be published in the leading dailies! Then the IEC publishes its registration data complete with voters and their IDs. Soft copies of the registration data should also accompany this. This way, the fake river road ID holders will be exposed.
Fatoumatta: The clean-up should further establish the data on the deceased voters and expunge them from the register. Since there is no robust system of reporting deaths in the Gambia, the exercise could rely on the registers kept by the various civil service personnel registers and returns on deaths to compliment the ones filed by the national registry of births and deaths!
There has been this popular joke that elections in Africa are not determined by the people who walk on their legs to cast their votes in the polling stations but by registered voters in the cemeteries who rise and cast ballots in strange ways. So, you find a polling station reporting a 98% voter turnout when people already know several people from that polling station who are resting in peace. This must stop.
It is also quite disturbing that the IEC registration software is so mundane that it cannot detect a repeated ID. You see, even the software developed by students for science congress fairs should be able to knock off a repeated vital identifier. In this case, an ID is a critical identifier in the process of voter registration. Without a clean voters register, it is sheer naivety to expect a credible election.
Fatoumatta: Suppose an opposition coalition wishes to succeed in dislodging the incumbent. In that case, the choice of the joint presidential candidate must be strategic, as the grand design of the 2016 grand coalition of opposition dislodged President Yahya Jammeh’s more than two decades of rule. Otherwise, voters might not neatly fit into the elite political designs. As a result, they could fail to seal the deal at the ballot box. In the Gambia, for instance, the choice of Adama Barrow as the joint opposition presidential candidate was based on the fact that he will resign from his biological party he belonged to be an independent coalition candidate. Thus, the coalition needed a joint candidate who would share all blocs of votes with the coalition choice and then top them with votes from strongholds of the incumbent. However, since the opposition coalition seeks to remove the incumbent by presenting a joint candidate and since the choice of that candidate must be a strategic rather than an electoral process, the coalition risks subverting democracy. Fatoumatta: In the first place, if political parties and their leaders pursue identical agendas, then why not merge those parties into one? Rather than persuade opposition blocs to form a pre- opposition coalition. Notes election coalitions should encourage the development of broad-based, institutionalized political parties built on ideologies, programs, and policies that offer a clear alternative to incumbent ones.
Another lesson is that outside contexts with an established too many periphery political party system, opposition candidates often increase their chances of winning if they come together in a pre-election coalition. However, for many, this is mainly about electoral maths, where the benefits of an opposition coalition are linked to the size of politician’s key support bases.
However, coalitions also have a demonstration effect. In short, many citizens across the continent believe that politicians are hungry for power and that opposition leaders are likely to be a little different from the current government.
Fatoumatta: In turn, a single platform helps to undermine a burgeoning sense of political skepticism and apathy. This can help foster a sense that the opposition could win, increasing voter turnout in opposition areas.
Alagi Yorro Jallow