Africa’s Year of Elections

On December 30 last year, around 40 million voters went to the polls in a hotly contended election in the Democratic Republic of Congo. When the belated results were finally announced, opposition leader Félix Tshisekedi was surprisingly declared the winner. Election observers from the influential Catholic church and leaked election data pointed in another direction and claimed that another opposition candidate, Martin Fayulu had garnered a substantially higher number of votes than Tshisekedi. President Joseph Kabila’s handpicked successor came third in the race.

Given the surprise victory of Tshisekedi, there were immediately suspicions that he had made a behind-the-scene-deal with the outgoing president. Although the African Union at first stated there were “serious doubts” about their veracity, it now seems as if the continental body has decided to welcome Tshisekedi into the club.

This year, the continent is looking at several important elections. Tens of millions of Africans are expected to pick a leader of their choice. In some of these elections, the will of the people will reign, but in others there are already now uncertainties of the polls being free and fair.

These are four elections to keep an eye on in 2019.

1. Nigeria – February

Africa’s most populous state is first out. Elections will be held on February 16 23 (Note: date has changed, see update below). There are more than 60 candidates to choose from, but only two that stand a chance to win. The incumbent Muhammadu Buhari (who at the end of last year had to fight off rumours of his own passing) and the former vice president Atiku Abubakar. Unfortunately, one of the more interesting candidates, the renowned anti-corruption and #BringBackOurGirls activist Oby Ezekwesili has withdrawn her candidate to form a viable coalition that could challenge the two main contenders.

Here are three challenges for the incoming president:

Oil-rich Nigeria is the country in the world with the most people living in extreme poverty. Deep-rooted corruption is a major issue in this vast and divided state. And, despite his election promises, the sitting president has not been able to halt the Boko-Haram insurgency in the north.

UPDATE: Less than five hours before polls were to open in Nigeria on 16 February, the entire election was postponed. The reason is not yet clear, but we will keep an eye on it and report on any interesting developments. A new election date is set for 23 February.

2. Senegal – February

When Abdoulaye Wade tried to run for the presidency in 2012, he had already been in power for 12 years and during his watch a two-term limit was adopted. This didn’t stop the then 85-year-old from trying to win a third term. But, the young Senegalese took to the streets in protest. Their preferred candidate, Macky Sall, could later claim a clear victory and Wade had to concede defeat. 

This time, Sall is the incumbent and he can still count on a large support base in this small West African country. There are two leading opposition candidates, but none of them are likely to be allowed into the race due to corruption charges.

The prospering economy and the general feeling that Senegal under Macky Sall is on the right track, will most likely pave the way for the sitting president’s second term in office.

3. South Africa – May

It will be the sixth democratic election since the fall of apartheid. The governing party the ANC, has lost a lot of ground and credibility under the nine years of president Jacob Zuma’s rule but the sitting president Cyril Ramaphosa has tried his best to turn the situation around. The euphoria that swept most parts of South Africa when Zuma finally stepped down in February 2018, has subsided but Ramaphosa has instilled new hope and energy in Africa’s biggest economy.

The opposition, mainly the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), lost their main argument for the voters not to give the ANC a further mandate when Zuma stepped down. Therefore, the ANC can look forward to another win at the national poll, but probably with a smaller margin compared to the results in 2014.

The elections will also decide the leadership for South Africa’s nine provinces, all but one (the Western Cape) is governed by the ANC. Two provinces might be leaning towards DA-rule: The poor and sparsely populated Northern Cape and the rich and densely populated Gauteng.  

Three challenges for the coming five years.

How to root out the culture of corruption that was spreading under the former president Jacob Zuma. The education system is still not producing the desired results and poor, mainly black students, are lagging behind their richer peers. The Land reform issue will continue to raise emotions and debate. Can expropriation without compensation be the solution?

4. Malawi – May

Not many are familiar with the political landscape of Malawi, but this might change when the small Southern African state holds elections in May. The incumbent Peter Mutharika has ignored calls for him to step down despite mounting corruption allegations. One of his main competitors is Mutharika’s former Vice-President Saulos Chilima. He has started his own campaign, promising to target corruption and nepotism.

Another contender is former president Joyce Banda. She was the second female president in Africa after Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, but Banda never won an election. She took power after the sudden death of Bingu wa Mutharika (older brother of Peter) but was defeated in the elections that followed. At the time, Banda was accused of money-laundering but denied the charges and argued that they were political. Last year the Malawi Anti-Corruption Bureau said it had no evidence against the former president.

Banda is back in the country to take up the fight again. This time she is seen as a possible winner.

More elections are coming up throughout the year. Mozambique, Namibia and Botswana will hold elections in October. In north Africa, Algeria will go to the polls in April followed by Mauritania in Mid-2019 and Tunisia in December. All in all, elections will be held in 15 African countries during 2019.

Görrel Espelund

Journalist, author and Africa guide. Read more about Görrel here.