Reforming Electoral Processes for Structural Transformations in Central Africa

Introduction

In democratic societies, the significance of elections and electoral institutions cannot be overstated in maintaining political stability and facilitating transitions. In other words, the electoral process and institutions inherently encompass elements of legitimacy and consent. In order to enhance the effectiveness of elections, it is imperative to perceive electoral processes and institutions as comprehensive political mechanisms rather than mere isolated occurrences.  According to the International Peace Institute, fair electoral processes in certain African nations have played a crucial role in the establishment of democratic governments. The electoral process and institutions of a country serve as indicators for assessing the quality of its democracy (1). However, there is a concerning trend in some African countries where pre- and post-election disputes and allegations frequently disrupt political transitions, occasionally resulting in national disunity. These disputes are fueled by profound suspicions and mistrust towards electoral processes and institutions, which often face scrutiny regarding their transparency. It is important to note that transparent elections are essential in preventing conflicts. The aim of this paper is to examine how transforming electoral processes and institutions in Africa can enhance democracy and promote sustainable development within the central African sub-region. To this end, the researcher will discuss various trends of elections in central Africa, lay emphasis on the importance of stable and strong institutions; discuss aspects of mistrust and loss of faith in the entire process and provide comprehensive policy suggestions to stakeholders on enhancing electoral institutions and processes in Central Africa.

I – Why Electoral Reforms Matters

The analysis of African politics has frequently focused on the highly disputed aspect of elections. The significance of these elections for democratization and their effectiveness in terms of technical quality are subject to varying assessments. Elections are considered by many as the most active/evident bases of democracy. Consequently, once there is a frequent and regular election, there is the feeling that democracy exist. However, the nature, form and circumstances surrounding the elections do not matter to the institution. This has become the order of the day as most countries organize regular elections which are mostly not free, fair and credible, thereby defeating the purpose of democracy. Thus, the need for reforms in the electoral process.

Discussion with key informant persons, one from each of the 11 countries in the ECCAS zone revealed that: “Globally, electoral reforms are undertaken to improve the electoral process by promoting the electoral rights of citizens and by operationalizing key democratic principles such as impartiality, inclusiveness, transparency, credibility, integrity and accuracy. Continuous reflection, reform and adaptation of the legal framework governing electoral processes that are based on experiences, reviews and assessments are necessary in the democracies of central African countries”.

II – Trends of Elections in Central Africa

Compared to the 1990s, democratic quality has generally improved in central African Countries, but change has slowed or not been consolidated in some of these countries like Chad, CAR and Equatorial Guinea. A wave of upheavals and revolutions as in Gabon recently remains unlikely in the ECCAS countries in the near future, due to the confiscation of power by governants in countries like Congo, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Rwanda and CAR. The strategies and instruments applied by international actors therefore need to be adapted to the varying speeds and stages of democratization within the sub-region.

In the more developed democracies globally, election norms and standards are an essential component of democratic practices and traditions, making formal codification largely unnecessary. This is in stark contrast to many African and Third World countries where democratic cultures are either in their infancy, newly emerging, or undergoing restoration, necessitating continuous reminders of what democracy entails. Consequently, African nations have adopted a range of principles and guidelines for the management of elections (2). The electoral process and its results represent a significant challenge for the ruling authority, serving as the primary method through which democracy is practiced and assessed within a nation. This is especially true in African nations, where disputes and conflicts before and after elections often disrupt the interactions among political entities, ultimately jeopardizing peace and national cohesion (3). Considering the current trends in elections within the central African sub-region, there is a need for reforms on the electoral systems. This is because, in most instances, the conflicts and instability that often erupt after election results are declared and all attributed to the electoral system not being free, fair, transparent and credible. Consequently, there is a call for change. Most persons have lost faith and trust in the systems, most people predict elections results before polls are open, most incumbent arrogate victory prior to elections. These and more have made the entire process undemocratic.

While elections are not the sole component of democracy, they are widely acknowledged to be essential in strengthening and upholding democratic principles. This assertion is particularly relevant in the context of the political environment in Central Africa. A fair election is undeniably a fundamental aspect of democratic governance (4). It is nearly two decades after independence, elections have emerged as the accepted method of political competition, and the democratic language is now widely embraced by a majority of African leaders and regional institutions. The international community has played a significant role in promoting democratic norms by actively encouraging and financially supporting the organization of elections in Africa (5).

However, despite occasional achievements, it is now worth questioning whether African elections truly contribute to the process of democratization, especially when these elections are marred by irregularities and primarily serve to legitimize semi-authoritarian regimes or incite political violence. Recent events in central Africa have demonstrated that electoral processes often fall short of meeting democratic expectations. Moreover, these elections are sometimes exploited by political actors as a show of strength prior to negotiating with unstable governments. The cases of Gabon and Chad are practical examples.

Conclusion

Elections play a crucial role in upholding liberal democracy. They serve as a viable mechanism to ensure a smooth transition of leadership and facilitate political authority and legitimacy. The absence or failure of elections often characterizes the prevalence of political dictatorships and personalized rule in Africa. The recent surge of democratic fervor has led to the emergence of competitive and multiparty elections, providing an avenue for civil society to assert their political demands. However, both the structure and process of elections, encompassing the organizational infrastructure and the principles and procedures, have been largely corrupted. Many voices are regularly raised by a variety of actors to complain about this and call for the restructuring of the electoral processes in almost all the countries of this sub-region. These calls happen to be unfruitful till now. In fact, the ruling parties just totally ignore these calls. There might be a reason behind this, as there is an increase observed in election manipulation, violence, and the nullification of election results that have become commonplace. This trend indicates a regression towards despotic rule disguised as civil governance, undermining the democratic project itself. Presently, elections in many African nations appear to be a diminishing reflection of true democracy, posing a threat to its fragile existence at this particular time where parliamentarian and presidential elections will be taking place in many countries of the ECCAS zone in 2025-2026.

Policy Recommendation

The significance of elections in the promotion of democracy and the crucial role of election management institutions in the electoral process in numerous African nations have led to extensive discussions on norms and standards for election management. These discussions primarily revolve around the status, composition, duration of service, financial support, and other aspects of these institutions. While there are generally established principles, the implementation often varies from one situation to another. The key principles and prevailing trends in election management among African countries are as follows; In order to operate effectively and maintain credibility, Electoral Management Bodies (EMBs) must possess a set of widely accepted characteristics. These include independence from the formal government bureaucracy, selection of members based on various criteria such as competence, integrity and impartiality, appointment after consultation with election stakeholders and parliamentary approval, secure mandates preferably enshrined in the constitution, inclusive membership representing diverse demographics, staff recruitment and dismissal based on professionalism, neutrality, objectivity, transparency, and accountability to parliament rather than the government, and autonomous budgets approved directly by parliament. The reason for this is to ensure the regain of the lost trust many have had on the electoral systems. The lack of distinction between the state and most elections management bodies is a call for concern.

Dr. Pippie Hugues
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Dr. Pippie Hugues is a Policy Analyst at the Governance and Democracy Division of the Nkafu Policy Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in International Law with specialty in Human Rights, Conflict and Peace building.

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