LSE academics reflect on key stories of 2015 along with what they expect from 2016.
Dr Ryan Jablonski – Assistant Professor, Department of Government
In 2015 voters in Zambia, Burkina Faso and Nigeria celebrated competitive and largely peaceful elections. The latter two also resulted in historic political turnover via electoral means. These are all too rare events. Especially noteworthy in these elections was the important role that civil society played in ensuring the fairness of these elections through parallel vote counting, election monitoring, education campaigns, and get out the vote movements.
In 2015 we also saw that such political mobilisation can be a tarnished blessing. When entrenched incumbents face a mobilised and informed electorate, electoral manipulation becomes difficult. This can bind entrenched incumbents to either agree to liberalise or engage in mass repression. We witnessed the former in Burkina Faso, we are witnessing the latter in Burundi. Encouragingly electoral repression is rarely a successful long-term strategy against a mobilized opposition.
In 2016, one of the big stories will be the Ugandan elections. While the long-term incumbent Museveni is leading the polls, he faces an increasingly organised opposition, and it is not at all clear that Museveni will obtain the 50% of votes needed to prevent a runoff election. Such organised opposition movements are often a prelude to repression and there are indications that the government remains willing to use similar intimidation tactics as in previous elections. However, the government also faces a more active electorate and civil society, which will help deter overt fraud and repression. While the political environment remains tense, there are positive signs that the government may be moving towards a more open and accountable election, for instance by agreeing to hold a presidential debate and by competing on programmatic issues.
Dr Folashadé Soule-Kohndou – Visiting Postdoctoral researcher, Department of International Relations
2015 was a much anticipated year. Several presidential elections were taking place across the continent with predictions of potential electoral violence, especially in Ivory Coast and Kenya. Overall elections went well, opponent parties recognized their defeats and African civil societies acted both as advocates and mediators.
Despite several challenges of national reconciliation, 2016 should confirm the strong roots and further process of democratisation in post-conflict countries.
Dr Brian Klaas – Fellow in Comparative Politics, Department of Government
2015 was a turning point, in which some leaders realised that elections truly do matter (Nigeria; Côte d’Ivoire; Tanzania), while others sought to undermine electoral integrity by either violating term limits (Burundi/Rwanda) or delaying elections from happening at all (DRC). The big takeaway from all of this is that leaders are now, more than ever before, taking elections seriously–but are also devising ‘soft’ ways to ensure that the contest need not be rigged; instead, incumbents from Kagame to Kabila to Nkurunziza are instead finding ways to manipulate the elections before voting day, in ways that firmly advantage the incumbent’s chances of re-election. In DRC, President Kabila’s regime has signaled that elections may need to be delayed between 2-4 years ‘for technical preparations,’ which is absurd and should not be tolerated by the international community. In Rwanda, Paul Kagame has set his sights on a legal change that would allow him to rule continuously until 2034. These developments make clear that yes, African elections are still often manipulated and regularly uneven in their treatment of the opposition, but that a more insidious form of institutional rigging is creeping in well before voters go to the polls. This dark side is somewhat offset by the bright spot (but still flawed) elections in 2015: President Goodluck Jonathan’s peaceful transition out of power in Nigeria, and peaceful post-conflict elections in Côte d’Ivoire.
Dr Vanessa Iwowo – Fellow, Department of Management
‘For Nigeria, the year 2015 was in a sense, a double-edged experience.
On the one hand, terrorism assumed a more violent dimension in the increased monstrosity of Boko Haram’s continued onslaught against the Nigerian state. On the other, during its widely reported Presidential elections, Nigerians witnessed the first opposition defeat by APC, of the seemingly indestructible incumbent, since the country’s return to democracy in 1999 and for many, particularly given the political dominance and near-invincibility of the erstwhile ruling party, PDP, the effect of this was euphoric and shouts of ‘Change!’ ‘Change!’ filled cyber as well as atmospheric space.
Having ridden to power on the back of its ‘Change!’ mantra; the year 2016 will, for many disenfranchised Nigerians, determine whether the promised ‘Change!’ will become their lived reality or just another case of empty electoral rhetoric geared simply to seize power. As it stands, 2016 will tell.
Dr Bronwen Manby – Visiting Fellow, Centre for the Study of Human Rights
Nigeria’s elections have to be the top story for me in 2015: the continent’s most populous country, with a history of extremely problematic votes, took a major step forward in organising a free and fair choice of ruler. For Goodluck Jonathan, whatever history makes of his complete record, the conclusion may perhaps be that nothing in his presidency became him like the leaving it. If Nigeria can institutionalise democratic transfers of power in which outgoing rulers accept the results, it will do a great deal for stability and respect for ordinary people’s rights. But Nigeria also provides one of the continent’s worst stories, with the continued atrocities committed by Boko Haram threatening to undermine the advances in democratic accountability.
Another important set of elections are those for DRC in 2016 – though I fear that they are unlikely to mark a significant step forward for that country. Municipal elections in South Africa will be key testing grounds for the continued dominance of the ANC in the big metropolises. But it is hard not to focus still on Nigeria, where President Buhari’s progress in office – after a very slow start – will be critical for the region as much as for Nigeria itself.
In relation to my own work, 2015 saw the adoption by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights of a draft protocol to the African Charter on the Specific Aspects of the Right to a Nationality and the Eradication of Statelessness in Africa. This text will move forward to be considered by the political institutions of the African Union during 2016. If adopted by heads of state in the form approved by the Commission, Africa would lead the world in its formal recognition of the importance of a recognised nationality for access to other rights. It is easy to be cynical about the value of such normative standards for the daily lives of ordinary people, but these documents provide critical advocacy tools for those seeking to change laws and practices at national level: and the right to a nationality has been one of the most problematic challenges facing African states since independence at the root of many conflicts.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.