Elections, Peace, and Managing the COVID-19 Pandemic in Africa
The year 2020 will live in infamy as the global economy reels under the deadly COVID-19 pandemic that has seriously impacted lives, jobs, and trade. The virus has so far claimed 582,125 lives and infected more than thirteen million people globally. African countries are already challenged in stemming the spread of the virus, but the task is even more complicated for countries that are constitutionally mandated to hold elections during this unprecedented time. COVID-19 mitigation measures during elections have massive implications for peace and security in these countries, as the measures have the potential to upend the electoral process, lead to bans on campaigning, and abuse by incumbents.
COVID-19 in Africa
To date, Africa appears to be riding out the COVID-19 storm with relatively low impact. The continent is thus far the world's least-affected region, accounting for only 1.5 percent of the globally reported cases of COVID-19 and less than 0.1 percent of COVID-19-related deaths. Africa's relatively youthful population and its experience from fighting infectious diseases like Ebola and influenza have helped it mitigate the impact of the deadly coronavirus. However, the continent is largely under-resourced in its fight against the disease, with low testing capacity, ill-equipped health facilities, and more frontline health workers contracting the disease with each passing day.
Implications of COVID-19 for Elections in Africa
For African countries with elections scheduled in 2020, the fight against COVID-19 is even more grave. These countries will have to divert resources to hold these elections while prioritizing COVID-19 mitigation measures. COVID-19-related restrictions have upended electoral preparations, including the convening of political campaigns. Voters' fear of contracting COVID-19 could depress voter turnout. Participation by foreign observer missions who have been vital in safeguarding the integrity of past elections on the continent will also be affected. Similarly, funding from donor countries who have traditionally supported electoral activities in Africa will likely decline as they grapple with their own COVID-19 crises.
At the beginning of 2020, 18 African countries were due for parliamentary and presidential elections this year. Following the COVID-19 outbreak, Comoros, Cameroon, and Togo already conducted their elections before COVID-19 struck the continent, while the Gambia, Kenya, Nigeria, Tunisia, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe postponed their sub-national elections. In March, South Africa suspended some 30 by-elections scheduled. In April, Ethiopia indefinitely postponed its much-anticipated parliamentary elections; the constitutional implications of which have been a subject of controversy. Meanwhile, to avert the risk of constitutional crisis, plans are underway to proceed with the elections in Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Seychelles, and Tanzania. In each case, however, electoral preparations have been severely hampered by the pandemic.
Since the outbreak, Guinea and Mali (parliamentary elections,) Benin (local elections), Burundi (presidential, parliamentary, and local elections) and Malawi (presidential) have already held elections with mixed results. Even before 2020, most of these countries were already experiencing political or security crises. These pre-existing crises, coupled with the implementation of COVID-19 mitigation measures during elections, heightened the risks to electoral integrity. Guinea's parliamentary elections and controversial constitutional referendum elicited massive protests and electoral violence as protesters feared the referendum was a ploy to reset the term limit of President Alpha Condé for another 12 years. Burundi's elections were characterized by widespread harassment and arrest of opposition party supporters, including those assigned to monitor polling stations on election day. Even ahead of Burundi's elections, the United Nations had highlighted the country's increasing political violence and crime. Mali's parliamentary election was also fraught with various security challenges, including the kidnapping of political opponents, intimidation tactics, threats from terrorist groups, and destruction of voting equipment. In Benin, which had experienced incessant protests following disputed parliamentary elections in 2019, candidates from opposition parties were barred from standing in the 2020 local elections as they were unable to meet the strict eligibility criteria established under a new election law adopted by the executive-aligned National Assembly. In Malawi, there had been frequent protests since February 2020 when the Presidential election of May 21, 2019 was annulled due to widespread irregularities
Contrary to expectations, voter turnout was marginally affected. Mali's voter turnout for the first round and second-round elections were 35 percent and 23.2 percent respectively–down from 38.5 percent in 2013. Voter turnout in Malawi's historic presidential election rerun was 64.81 percent (from 74.44 in 2019) while Guinea's parliamentary election was about 61 percent (from 64 percent in 2013). In Burundi, the government's downplaying of the risks of COVID-19 in a bid to ramp up participation in the May 20 elections saw a surge in voter participation from 73 percent in 2015 to 88 percent in 2020. The government expelled the World Health Organization (WHO), which had raised concerns about the country's lackluster approach to implementing COVID-19 health protocols during the electoral campaigns.
While most of these four countries prioritized basic COVID-19-related health protocols during voting, implementation was a challenge. In Guinea, Reuters noted that few voters wore masks and large turnouts at some polling stations resulted in people being crammed into long queues to vote. In Mali, although the national electoral body distributed hand sanitizers and masks in some polling stations, and provided water for handwashing, reports noted that public exposure to COVID-19 was high as voters had to commute to polling stations in crowded buses. Benin entirely banned rallies and gatherings of more than 50 people, forcing candidates to make extensive use of the media and campaign with vehicles equipped with megaphones and ensured that voters were at least a meter apart at polling stations. However, the national order of doctors in Benin noted non-compliance to health measures in some campaigns.
Foreign observer missions were notably absent from some of these elections. The African Union canceled its electoral observer mission to Guinea highlighting major issues with the electoral roll. In Burundi, the East African Community (EAC) was the only foreign observer mission allowed into the country, but the mission had to be aborted after the government insisted on them going through the mandatory 14-day quarantine on arrival (which would extend two days beyond election day).
In Africa, elections are central to democracy but have often been characterized by pre- and post-electoral crisis. The COVID-19 outbreak and resulting mitigation measures have further exacerbated the security and political risks associated with many African elections. While some African countries have postponed their elections in view of COVID-19, others — fearing postponement could trigger a constitutional crisis — have already conducted scheduled elections or are planning to do so.
African countries yet to hold elections this year will have to grapple with how to maximize voter turnout while mitigating the health, political, and security risks related to conducting elections in the COVID-19 era. National electoral bodies will need to draw valuable lessons from the experiences of the four African countries that have already held elections during this era.
Concerns about political leaders using COVID-19 to perpetuate incumbency are also far too real. The likely absence of Western observer missions and international media leaves a huge vacuum for the African Union (AU), Regional Economic Communities (RECs), and local civil society organizations (CSOs) to fill. So far, the AU and RECs have not been up to the challenge of filling this void. The AU should urgently explore partnerships with and build the capacity of local CSOs and religious groups to monitor elections in the COVID-19 environment. Observer missions should be mindful of countries' quarantine measures in order to avert situations like that, which scuttled the EAC's observer mission in Burundi's elections. The WHO will also need to play an active role in making elections safer for all participants.
In the likely absence of many foreign observer missions, the success of African elections in the COVID-19 era rests largely on the resilience, pragmatism, and innovation of national electoral bodies, as well as pro-active consensus-building and active involvement among all relevant national stakeholders. Although COVID-19 heightens the political and security risks attendant with many elections on the continent, the pandemic nonetheless offers an opportunity for African countries to prove they are capable of organizing free, fair, and peaceful elections with limited external support.
Richmond Commodore is a Research and Policy Analyst for the African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET), a member organization of the Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding (SVNP) in Ghana. He was a Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding (SVNP) Scholar and an Africa Program Scholar during spring 2020.
Photo source: Citizens in Madagascar receive COVID-19 testing from the World Bank and other organizations. Credit: World Bank / Henitsoa Rafalia. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/worldbank/49834249446. License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/.
About the Author
The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in U.S.-Africa relations. Read more