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Assessing Africa’s 2020 Elections

African elections in 2020 will be a test against efforts to erode presidential term limits and other democratic checks and balances, with direct consequences for stability on the continent.

A woman voting in the 2016 Ghana election. (Photo:USAID)

As Africa gets set to host a dozen presidential or general elections in 2020, leaders seeking to evade term limits, democratic resiliency in the face of armed conflict, and the increasingly overt efforts by external actors to shape outcomes emerge as recurring themes.

2020, thus, represents an important benchmark of whether African citizens (especially its increasingly active and networked youth), regional organizations, and international partners will tolerate efforts to erode democratic norms—or whether a renewed effort to uphold certain standards will gain traction.

Underscoring the stakes at play, a majority of African elections in 2020 will be held in countries confronting or emerging from conflict, including Burkina Faso, Burundi, the Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Niger, and Somalia. These countries face crises sparked from previous exclusive power structures, militant Islamist insurgencies, and the challenges of building inclusive national visions from polarized polities. Consequently, the strong link between governance and security in Africa will be on full display in 2020.

Africa’s 2020 elections are clustered in West Africa (with 6 elections), the Horn (Ethiopia and Somalia), and the Great Lakes (Burundi and Tanzania). Ten of the 12 elections are scheduled for the latter half of the year. This suggests that 2020 will be a dynamic period of maneuvering by key actors seeking to advance not only their individual interests, but also their vision for the future of their countries—and governance norms for the continent as a whole. Here are some of the key issues to watch:

Togo Presidential Election, February 22

The headline of Togo’s presidential elections is President Faure Gnassingbé’s efforts to stay in power for a fourth term—and extending the hold his family has had on the presidency since 1967. Faure Gnassingbé took office in 2005 in a disputed election following the death of his father, Gnassingbé Eyadema, who had ruled the small West African country with an iron fist for 38 years.

Following 2 years of sustained popular protests demanding that Faure Gnassingbé step down at the end of this term, a two-term presidential limit was restored to the Constitution in 2019. (In 2002, Gnassingbé Eyadema was able to strike term limits from the Constitution). However, the ruling Union of the Republic party, which holds 59 of 91 seats in Parliament, did not apply the new term limits retroactively, effectively resetting the term limit “clock” and opening the door for Faure Gnassingbé to run for a fourth term in 2020 and possibly a fifth term in 2025.

Togolese protesters before police in Lomé in 2017. (Photo: VOA/Kayi Lawson)

Togo’s notoriously fragmented opposition parties, supported by an energized diaspora, have been increasingly adamant in demanding an end to Togo’s dynastic rule and a transition to democracy. They showed unprecedented levels of organization and resiliency in coordinating the protests that led to the reinstatement of term limits. Tellingly, however, the C-14 coalition of opposition parties that led the protests effectively disbanded once the term-limit reform was passed. Instead, the parties will run multiple candidates, potentially paving the way for Faure Gnassingbé to win a first round electoral victory.

This is not a foregone conclusion, however. One of the candidates, Jean-Pierre Fabre of the National Alliance for Change, garnered 35 percent of the votes in the 2015 presidential election, reflecting a strong base of support. Moreover, many members of the C-14 have rallied behind former Prime Minister Agbéyomé Kodjo, who has been selected as the candidate of the Democratic Forces, a coalition initiated by Philippe Fanoko Kossi Kpodzro, Archbishop Emeritus of Lomé. Should the election go to a second round and the opposition join forces, they would have a strong chance of winning a majority of votes.

With high levels of popular discontent over the lack of political freedom and Togo’s economic malaise, there is a groundswell of support for a long-delayed transition to democracy. The issue to watch will be whether the opposition can become sufficiently organized to offer a united front to overcome Faure Gnassingbé’s influence on the electoral process. It will also be worth keeping an eye on the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). In the past, the regional body has been a leading force in upholding democratic norms in the region (most recently by facilitating the departure of Yahya Jammeh after he was defeated at the ballot box in 2017), greatly elevating ECOWAS’s reputation. However, ECOWAS has been notably passive in responding to Togo’s persistent democratic deficit.


Côte d’Ivoire Presidential and Legislative Elections, October 31

A challenge to uphold presidential term limits coupled with unresolved tensions surrounding Côte d’Ivoire’s civil war in 2010 make the 2020 elections a watershed for the country. The outcome of these competing forces will determine whether Côte d’Ivoire continues on the path of political reform and economic growth (which, at 7 percent per year, is among the highest in Africa) or lurches back to a form of unaccountable exclusionary governance that triggered the 2003 and 2010 civil conflicts.

President Alassane Ouattara, who has led the country’s post-war rejuvenation, completes his second term in 2020. However, the 78-year-old Ouattara has claimed that a new constitution adopted in 2016 has reset the term-limit clock and that he may indeed run for a third term. According to Afrobarometer polling, 86 percent of citizens support a two-term limit in Côte d’Ivoire.

Ouattara has also demonstrated increasingly authoritarian tendencies. Since the start of 2019, there have been 14 arrests of activists and opposition members. Most prominent was the warrant for the arrest of former close ally and leader of the National Assembly, Guillaume Soro, after Soro declared his intention to run in the 2020 elections during a European tour in December 2019. Soro was subsequently forced to divert his flight back to Abidjan to avoid being arrested. The charges against him are widely seen as politically motivated.

President Alassane Ouattara. (Photo:s_t)

Similarly, opposition figure Nathalie Yamb of the Lider party was expelled from Côte d’Ivoire in December 2019 after suggesting France exerted undue influence over the Ouattara government. In October 2019, Jacques Mangoua, a leading figure in the opposition Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire–African Democratic Rally (PDCI–RDA), was arrested for allegedly possessing weapons at his home. Subsequently, he was sentenced to 5 years in prison. In January 2019, Alain Lobognan, a parliamentarian close to Soro, was arrested and sentenced to a year in jail and fined about $520 for posting a “fake news tweet.”

Ouattara’s interest in extending his time in power may be, in part, to fend off an alliance between former presidents Henri Konan Bédié, 81, and Laurent Gbagbo, 75, representing the pre-Ouattara political order, which is preparing to compete for the presidency in 2020. The former leaders’ parties organized a major joint rally in Abidjan in August 2019 despite their lack of common ground. Bédié’s presidency in the late 1990s was marred by accusations of corruption and the invocation of xenophobia under the guise of “Ivorianness.” Gbagbo, meanwhile, remains in Belgium pending an appeal at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity committed during the 2010-2011 electoral crisis sparked when he refused to step down after an electoral loss to Ouattara. The ongoing popularity of these former leaders reveals thatethnic and religious divisionsin Côte d’Ivoire remain potent. Bédié and Gbagbo hail from the relatively more prosperous and Christian south, which has traditionally held power in the country to the exclusion of the more rural and largely Muslim north.

The 2020 electoral process in Côte d’Ivoire will be a test of the country’s capacity to assert constraints on the executive.

These divisions carry over into the security sector. Despite a major security sector reform effort in which nearly 70,000 ex-combatants were demobilized and competing militias integrated into the national army, divided loyalties persist. These tensions were evident in violent mutinies in 2016 and 2017. The prospect that the polarizing politics of the past may return has raised concerns that the reforms of the past 10 years may be undermined.

In short, despite commendable progress since 2010, the 2020 electoral process in Côte d’Ivoire will be a test of the country’s capacity to assert constraints on the executive, as well as of the depth of progress in advancing reconciliation, peacebuilding, and national identity. At stake is Côte d’Ivoire’s reputation as an economic and security anchor in West Africa.


Presidential Election, October Legislative Elections and Constitutional Referendum, March 22

The dominant issue in Guinea’s 2020 presidential election is 81-year-old President Alpha Condé’s effort to seek a constitutionally prohibited third presidential term. A longtime opposition candidate, Condé became Guinea’s first democratically elected president in 2010 following Guinea’s improbable shift toward democracy after decades of military government. Rather than paving the way for a peaceful transition, however, Condé has advanced a constitutional referendum to be held March 22 that proposes an amendment to extend presidential terms from 5 years to 6. The expectation is that Condé would use any such amendment as a pretext to justify a bid for a third term. Another major change proposes that the president of the Constitutional Court will no longer be elected by its members, but instead will be directly appointed by the president. This will strengthen the executive branch’s grip on Guinea’s Constitutional Court, further eroding its impartiality.

The holding of the referendum is itself controversial since typically this would need the approval of the full National Assembly. However, in this case, approval for the referendum was granted solely by the speaker of the National Assembly. The referendum will be coupled with the long-delayed legislative elections on March 22.

The primary force opposing Condé’s bid to extend his time in power is Guinea’s civil society. Civil society organizations have repeatedly organized protests to rally opposition to any constitutional changes regarding term limits. The police have at times responded to the protests with force, resulting in at least 36 civilian deaths since October 2019. On December 10, 2019, an estimated 1 million protesters took to the streets. Since then, demonstrations have continued in the tens of thousands.

Opponents contend that Condé has increasingly governed in an authoritarian manner. In addition to attempts to suppress protests, Condé’s 2015 electoral victory was marred by widespread irregularities. Opponents believe the outcome was facilitated by Condé’s stacking of the Independent National  Electoral Commission with loyalists. Many Guineans are also angered that Condé has failed to hold accountable security actors responsible for the September 2009 stadium massacre of 150 protesters and systematic rape of dozens of women perpetuated during the rule of coup leader Moussa Dadis Camara—a defining event in modern Guinean history.

Civil society organizations have repeatedly organized protests to rally opposition to any constitutional changes regarding term limits.

Another factor in Guinea’s 2020 election will be Russia’s explicit effort to support Condé’s bid for a third term. In a televised New Year’s Eve address, Russia’s then-ambassador to Guinea, Alexander Bregadze, condoned the constitutional change telling Guineans that they would be “mad” to allow the “legendary” Condé to step down. Guinea holds the world’s largest reserves of bauxite, the ore used to produce aluminum. Russia’s biggest aluminum company, Rusal, owns a major bauxite mine in Guinea and gets a quarter of its bauxite from the country.

Burkina Faso Presidential and Legislative Elections, November 22

Burkina Faso’s 2020 election will be dominated by the twin themes of security and democratic consolidation. Burkina Faso has experienced a rapid escalation of violent events involving militant Islamist groups in recent years. In 2019, it experienced 437 violent episodes involving extremist groups, resulting in 1,270 fatalities. This represents a four- and ten-fold increase, respectively, from the previous year. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced. By contrast, in 2014, Burkina Faso did not suffer from any such attacks. Fears that the violence could spread and engulf urban areas is worrying to many Burkinabe. Attempts by extremist groups to stoke intercommunal tensions, moreover, have frayed Burkina Faso’s long-cherished sense of national unity. The ineffective and at times heavy-handed response of security forces, which had not previously faced a serious security threat, has made leadership in the combating of militant groups an overriding concern for voters.

The need for a more robust security response is unfolding at the same time that Burkina Faso is trying to build basic democratic institutions following the 27-year tenure of Blaise Compaoré. The 2020 elections will be the second democratic presidential and legislative elections post-Compaoré. Reforms under the current administration have involved proposals to reduce the concentration of power in the presidency and the dissolution of the elite Presidential Guard forces that sustained Compaoré’s tenure and subsequently attempted a coup. A constitutional referendum to formalize a two-term presidential limit that was originally planned for March 2019 is now expected in 2020. The slow pace of change is another point of frustration for the electorate.

President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré (Photo:Koch / MSC)

Roch Marc Christian Kaboré was elected president in 2015 in a free and fair, if imperfect, election. He is running for a second term and will likely face a strong field of candidates. Given the still nascent nature of Burkina Faso’s democracy, political parties remain relatively weak organizations with limited national networks. The fluid context, volatile security environment, and evolving political institutions suggest there will likely be multiple twists and turns right up to the November elections, with an outcome that remains uncertain.

Ghana Presidential and Legislative Elections, December 7

The presidential elections in Ghana are shaping up to be the third act of the ongoing political rivalry between incumbent President Nana Akufo-Addo of the New Patriot Party (NPP) and former President John Dramani Mahama of the National Democratic Congress (NDC). Mahama won when the two ran against each other in 2012. Akufo-Addo returned to claim victory in 2016. The margin in the 2012 elections was particularly close, involving an appeal and a Supreme Court ruling to determine the winner. The election in 2020 is expected to be similarly close, focusing on sustaining the middle-income country’s continued economic development (averaging 6 percent annual growth), financial sector reform, control of corruption, equity, and job creation.

Despite the previous hard-fought campaigns, both political leaders distinguished themselves by working through the courts to adjudicate their differences—and ultimately graciously accepting defeat. These actions have set admirable precedents for how another close election would be handled. This cannot be taken for granted, however. Emotions can again be expected to reach a fever pitch, and all sides will need to exercise restraint and uphold buffers that prevent these emotions from spilling over into violence.

Ghana has a relatively strong set of institutions surrounding its elections that should strengthen these buffers. The Electoral Commission has earned a reputation as a credible and independent body, which has helped the competing parties accept the results as valid while reinforcing the legitimacy of the outcome. Ghana has an active civil society that has facilitated a culture of debate and dialogue among the competing actors. This has helped to focus the differences between the parties on issues of policy and vision, rather than personal attacks. Likewise, security actors (primarily the police, though with support from the army), working closely with the Electoral Commission, have gained valuable experience in protecting the electoral process in a professional, apolitical manner so as to facilitate citizen participation and safety.

The process of democratic consolidation is a long one.… Progress cannot be taken for granted, lest previous gains be lost.

Despite this institutional legacy, opposition parties have claimed that the NPP has been eroding the independence of the Electoral Commission and the courts. Recent years have also seen increased pressure on civil society and the media. In 2019, investigative journalists in Ghana have had their offices raided and have been detained and murdered—previously unimaginable actions in Ghana. Positively, 2019 also saw the passage of Ghana’s Right to Information law—the culmination of a two-decade effort to expand access to information from—and therefore improve oversight of—public institutions.

Ghana’s 2020 elections will be a test for the resiliency of Ghana’s institutions. It also stands as a reminder that the process of democratic consolidation is a long one—and that progress cannot be taken for granted, lest previous gains be lost.


Niger Presidential and Legislative Elections, December 27

Niger seeks to take a major step forward in its democratic evolution with an election to determine who will succeed President Mahamadou Issoufou. Issoufou is completing his second 5-year term in office, and his stepping down will set a valuable precedent in Niger’s efforts to institutionalize this check on executive power.

The ruling Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism selected Interior Minister Mohamed Bazoum as its presidential candidate. Opposition leader Hama Amadou has returned to Niger after 3 years of exile in France. He hopes to contest this year’s election, though he must first clear some legal hurdles stemming from past criminal charges, which he claims are politically motivated. Seini Oumarou, leader of the National Movement for Social Development (the party of former President Mamadou Tandja), also plans to run.

Niger is undertaking this democratic transition while combating an increasingly aggressive insurgency from militant Islamist groups. Niger faced 78 violent attacks and 271 fatalities involving such groups in 2019—a three-fold increase from the previous year. Niger suffered the worst attack in its history on January 9, 2020, when 89 soldiers were killed in Chinagoder near the Malian border, an attack for which the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara took responsibility. This occurred just weeks after more than 70 soldiers were killed in a similar attack in Inates.

Leadership in times of insecurity, therefore, will be the central issue in this election—and one that may very likely overshadow the historic precedent of Niger managing a successful democratic succession.

Joseph Siegle is Research Director and Candace Cook is Research Assistant at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

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