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Africa decides 2023: Elections in the shadow of humanitarian crisis

Early action to safeguard the electoral process could help mitigate some of the concerns around poll legitimacy. Here are some suggestions…

Supporters of presidential candidate Peter Obi, one of three main contenders in the 25 February election, at a campaign rally this month in Lagos, Nigeria. Nyancho Nwanri/Reuters
Supporters of presidential candidate Peter Obi, one of three main contenders in the 25 February election, at a campaign rally this month in Lagos, Nigeria.

Ten African countries are scheduled to organise presidential elections in 2023 in contests that will both shape and be shaped by humanitarian crises. 

These countries include the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Liberia, Libya, Madagascar, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Sudan, and Zimbabwe. An election will also occur in Somaliland, the de facto state still treated in official diplomatic circles as part of Somalia. In total, these countries represent about a third of the continent’s population. 

With only a few exceptions, the polls will take place in the shadow of conflict and unrest. The underlying causes of these emergencies do not lend themselves to quick fixes. Yet credible elections can help strengthen the legitimacy of the state to deal with the difficulties of the challenges ahead. 

As such, politicians, citizens, and communities across Africa must take responsibility for ensuring that the polls are conducted successfully. Failure to do so will likely see deeper uncertainty and more intense violence.

A map of Africa showing countries with elections scheduled in 2023.

In some countries, the extent of the political and humanitarian disorder has already deferred the date of the expected ballots.

In South Sudan, presidential polls originally due this year have been delayed until 2024. In neighbouring Sudan, no date has been set by the country’s military rulers for transitional elections that were scheduled for 2023.

Libya’s rival factions have similarly yet to agree on dates for transitional elections stalled since 2021 but now planned to occur with international assistance sometime this year.

In Gabon, Madagascar, and Zimbabwe, failure to designate clear dates so far for their presidential polls are almost assuredly part of the machinations of presidential incumbency. 

Presidential elections in the Mano River countries of Sierra Leone and Liberia, scheduled to occur respectively on 24 June and 10 October, will hopefully consolidate the political reconstruction of both countries in the aftermath of prolonged conflict. If successful, the contests should buffer both countries against possible contagion from the constitutional instability in neighbouring Guinea.

The DR Congo challenge

DR Congo and Nigeria – both of whom will vote during the year – are not just two of Africa’s most populous countries, they are also two of the most fragile.

Of 20 armed conflicts worldwide mapped by the Global Conflict Barometer in 2021, three were in DR Congo and three in Nigeria. The complex humanitarian environments in both countries will present unique tests for elective democracy.

The cyclical conflicts in DR Congo have collectively produced over 5.6 million IDPs – the single largest population of displaced people on the continent. More than 100 armed insurgent groups operate in the east of the country.

The hope is that before the first round of presidential elections on 20 December, a concert of national authorities, regional partners and the UN can agree measures to diminish the extent of this multi-dimensional crisis, enabling peaceful voting in most parts of the country.

However, the window of opportunity for this is narrow and closing.

Nigeria ‘extremely volatile’

Kicking off Africa’s 2023 elections on 25 February, Nigeria has no such luxury. The vote to elect Nigeria’s next president will occur in the midst of the worst crisis of violence and armed conflict the country has experienced since the end of its civil war in 1970.

The International Crisis Group reported in December 2022 that at least 10,000 Nigerians were killed in armed conflict and over 5,000 abducted from January to mid-December 2022. “Other data indicate that at least 550 of 774 local government areas saw incidents of armed conflict between January and mid-December,” the group noted.

Some armed groups have targeted electoral infrastructure. In December 2022, the Independent National Electoral Commission reported attacks on at least 53 of its offices across the country – and that violence is ongoing. In parts of Nigeria, some insurgents have ordered entire settlements not to vote.

Alice Nderitu, the UN’s special adviser on the prevention of genocide, has described the situation in Nigeria as “extremely volatile”, and warned that the polls could “trigger violence and even atrocity crimes”.

Nigeria also has over 3.2 million IDPs – less on the continent than only DR Congo and Ethiopia. Arrangements for registering them and issuing them with voter cards have been far from satisfactory, making it all but certain that a significant proportion will be unable to vote. 

A fuel and currency crisis

The lacklustre response of the Nigerian government to this landscape of humanitarian disaster has been complicated by self-inflicted fiscal and monetary emergencies.

Overburdened by a growing debt-overhang, the outgoing government of President Muhammadu Buhari decided last year to deregulate petroleum prices. At the same time, it launched a currency reform programme, taking the pre-existing notes out of circulation with effect from the end of January 2023. The resulting scarcity of both petrol and cash – on the eve of the elections – has threatened to tip the country into mass protest.

Any ballot organised under such trying circumstances will almost certainly suffer serious legitimacy deficits.

It is possible that Nigeria can overcome these challenges and organise a credible election. But a more likely outcome is that the country muddles through with polls that produce an unsatisfactory verdict, which then gets kicked to the judges to invent a judicial fudge of electoral legitimacy for a deeply flawed process – as has happened before.

The world needs Nigeria and DR Congo in particular to organise plausible elections, and to equip whoever emerges as the winner with enough political capital to take the weighty decisions that await them.

A way forward?

Despite the challenges these humanitarian crises across the continent present, all is not lost. Early action to safeguard the electoral process could help mitigate some of the concerns around poll legitimacy. Here are some suggestions:

First, election management bodies can be much clearer in acknowledging the many challenges they confront, as well as their own constraints – both in means and skills. This is necessary in order to manage public expectations, but also to develop civic partnerships. 

Second, it is not too late for the election authorities to address the reality that the public perceives them mostly as lacking in the essential attributes of independence and impartiality. Those perceptions can stoke violence, sustaining the idea that elections are performative rituals that do not offer a real choice.

Third, the security services deployed to protect elections must be equipped with clear rules of engagement, with mechanisms in place for citizens to find effective redress in cases of abuse. In most countries, such rules are largely unknown.

Fourth, a proper partnership is needed between the political parties, civic organisations, communities, government, and regional and international partners to address hate speech and ensure effective accountability for both election-related violence and its drivers. 

In Africa’s forthcoming elections, effective monitoring of abuses will be key. In the worst of cases, the attention of the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court may be required to add some teeth to those measures.

Ultimately, without credibility, these elections will only see a further deterioration of the legitimacy of the state. This will do nothing to help turn the corner on addressing current and future humanitarian emergencies.

Edited by Obi Anyadike.

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