Five elections tell the diverse tale of democracy in Africa

Five African presidents with a collective 90 years of leadership under their belt are meant to hold elections in the next five months. Among them, only Joseph Kabila, who “inherited” the presidency of the Democratic Republic of Congo from his assassinated presidential father in 2001, is ducking the challenge, claiming his country is too broke to organise a poll. Four out of five, as they say, ain’t bad.

The elections that will take place — starting with Rwanda on August 4, followed by Kenya, Angola and Liberia — tell the variegated story of African democracy. Two of the four, those in Kenya and Liberia, will be genuinely competitive and fiercely fought. The other two, in Rwanda and Angola, will be walkovers for the dominant ruling parties, though in Angola, President José Eduardo dos Santos is calling it a day — after 37 years. He has already anointed João Lourenço, defence minister, as his replacement.

Elections in Africa have become routine affairs, although some are more honestly contested than others. Even Congo’s Mr Kabila went through the rigmarole of holding polls in 2006 and 2011 and putting in place a constitutional two-term limit that theoretically obliged him to step down last year. Pressure from international donors and a greater commitment, at least in theory, from the African Union to the idea of democracy have played a part. More importantly, African people themselves, according to numerous surveys, are strongly committed to an ideal of competitive electoral politics, even if the reality often falls short. As Africa becomes more urban and connected, civil society has grown more active, especially around election time.

In Kenya, which moved to multi-party democracy in 1991, nothing is stage-managed about elections. So brutally are they fought — and so high the winner-takes-all stakes in power and money — that they fit the description of “war by other means”. In 2007, more than 1,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced in orchestrated violence. This year, the veteran oppositionist Raila Odinga, who lost that contest, will challenge Uhuru Kenyatta in what will probably be his last stab at power.

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