Sunday was a massive day for African democracy. Presidential elections were held in Benin, Congo, and Niger; a constitutional referendum was held in Senegal; legislative elections were held in Cape Verde; and the Tanzanian semi-autonomous region of Zanzibar held a general election. Many of these elections provide valuable insight into the political situations of their countries, and some may have important long-term effects. It is these ideas that I will summarize for four of these elections: those in Benin, Congo, Niger, and Senegal.
Benin is a small country located along the coast of West Africa. Like many of its neighbors in West Africa, it was for many years a French colony. It became a Marxist-Leninist State after its independence in 1960, but it transitioned to a multi-party democracy in 1990. Since then, it has surpassed most of its neighbors in indices of democracy and governance. According to Freedom House, Benin “remains among the most stable democracies in West Africa” and is one of only 6 countries in sub-saharan Africa ranked as “Free.” In keeping with its rankings, Benin’s incumbent president has respected the country’s constitution and did not run in this election.
The run-off held on Sunday was between a businessman named Patrice Talon and Benin’s incumbent Prime Minister, Lionel Zinsou. Zinsou, a member of the current President’s political party, was seen as the favorite due to his widespread support by the political establishment. Talon, on the other hand, criticized Zinsou’s dual French-Beninese nationality and portrayed himself as more authentic. This man-of-the-people appeal may seem bizarre considering Talon’s immense wealth, but it appears to have worked. He won the run-off by a significant margin.
In the election’s first round, Zinsou had more votes than Talon. This suggests that Talon’s success simply represents a desire in Benin to replace the old administration with a new one. Talon’s business credentials, as well as his harsh criticisms of the economic policies of the current government, likely appeal to a desire for economic change. While it is difficult to tell, at this point, whether that change will come, it is clear that one thing remained the same. Zinsou, upon learning of his defeat, conceded and congratulated his opponent. If Zinsou’s actions are maintained in future governments, it appears that Benin will continue on as one of Africa’s most successful democracies.
Republic of the Congo
Like many nations on the African continent, the Republic of the Congo recently held a constitutional referendum. Passed last year, the new constitution removed the limit of two terms per president and extended it to three terms. This allowed Congo’s incumbent president, Denis Sassou Nguesso, to run for a third term in Sunday’s elections. In passing these constitutional changes, Nguesso is in good company. Quite a few African leaders, in thinly veiled attempts to extend their own time in power, sought to remove term limits in the last few years. In nearly every case, a president who is entrenched enough to amend a constitution is entrenched enough to win the next election.
As far as entrenchment is concerned, Denis Sassou Nguesso is certainly quite deeply embedded in the Congolese political system. He is nearing the end of his second term, having first been elected in 2002. But prior to those elections, he had ruled the country for 5 years during a transitional period following a brief civil war. And prior to that period, he ruled the country from 1979 until his ouster in 1992. Thus, having had plenty of time to consolidate his rule, Nguesso is by far the most formidable politician in Congo.
Nguesso’s power has plenty of irregularities in Sunday’s elections. According to the Wall Street Journal, soldiers were stationed near polling stations and the government cut off access to cellphone and internet service in the days before the election. These displays of power further indicate Nguesso’s entrenchment, which seemed to be reflected in preliminary results. These show a victory for Nguesso by a large margin, a result that is not at all surprising in a country that is far closer to a dictatorship than it is to a democracy.
Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world. Much of its land is covered by the Sahara desert, and the rest by the Sahel grasslands. With the threat of Al-Qaeda militants in the Sahara and Boko Haram militants just over the border in Nigeria, it is in a precarious position. Yet despite its unstable situation, Niger has, in terms of governance, improved in the last few years. Since a coup d’etat in 2010 overthrew a leader who, like Nguesso in Congo, tried to extend his time in power, Niger has seen improvements in civil liberties and electoral processes. Yet in a country as poor and undeveloped as Niger, immense challenges still remain.
One such challenge is corruption and abuse of power. These issues run so deep in Niger that one of the two candidates in Niger’s run-off election, Hama Amadou, was running from prison. Amadou ran against Mahamadou Issoufou, Niger’s current president. But considering Amadou’s imprisonment–and also considering that he is currently hospitalized–the opposition called for a boycott of Sunday’s election. As a result, Issoufou was practically handed a second term. This election demonstrates Niger’s strengths and weaknesses. Unlike Congo, it has managed to improve its political system over the past few years. But the drama surrounding Amadou indicates that Niger’s democratic institutions, like many aspects of the country, are far from stable.
Unlike the other countries that went to the polls on Sunday, Senegal did not hold a presidential election. Instead, it held a constitutional referendum. Yet this constitutional referendum quite unlike the one in Congo that has become common across Africa. Rather than extend the maximum term length of the president, it sought to shorten it. It also, among other things, granted constitutional recognition to opposition leaders. Thus the referendum in Senegal sought, quite contrarily to recent trends in Africa, to strengthen the country’s democracy rather than the position of its leader.
Like Benin, Senegal is already one of the few African countries to be rated as “free” by Freedom House. This referendum–which was proposed by Senegal’s current president Macky Sall–may bolster Senegal’s international image as a stable democracy. But critics of referendum argue that the constitutional changes will have little effect on democracy and are simply a political tool employed by Sall to increase his popularity. Regardless of the motivations for this referendum, it will certainly do no harm to Senegal’s democracy. The results of the referendum–an approval of the changes by a healthy majority–will consequently have a positive effect on Senegal’s reputation as a strong democracy. With most constitutional referendums in Africa having the opposite effect, the result of changes in Senegal are a refreshing development.
The elections on Sunday reflect the diversity of Africa’s political systems. In Benin and Senegal, the strength of democratic institutions succeeded in giving citizens a certain level of control over their own futures. In Niger, the challenges faced by many developing countries manifested themselves in a free but flawed election. In Congo, the citizens had little say as an old autocrat further consolidated his power. All across Africa, there are countries like these. There are both developing democracies and brutal dictatorships. Sunday was special because it allowed us a glimpse into examples of many of these different political systems.