Guide to stealing elections in Africa; a snapshot of some of the worst cases, and what democrats should look out for

Strategies are numerous – from tampering with the electoral roll, bullying opposition leaders, mathematical abracadabra, to just refusing to go.

MOZAMBICANS went to the polls last week, and not surprisingly, the opposition parties Renamo and MDM has rejected the results of the presidential and parliamentary elections, saying they were riddled with irregularities.

Renamo fought a long civil war against ruling party Frelimo that ended in 1992 – but last year, Renamo leader Afonso Dhlakama took up arms again, accusing the government of reneging on the 1992 deal. In August the two parties came to a ceasefire agreement – allowing the elections to go ahead as scheduled.

This was Mozambique’s “most fiercely contested” election in its history, made ever more dramatic by Dhlakama’s last-minute entry into the race. Since last year’s return to war, he had been hiding in the Gorongosa mountains in central Mozambique, only emerging to sign the peace deal with outgoing president Armando Guebuza.

“Decent” election cheat

But if past elections in Africa are anything to go by, if Frelimo is rigging, it is doing do very “decently”. Within the first few hours one in four polling stations were reporting Nyusi in the lead with 63% of the vote against Dhlakama at 30% - a plausible lead (and the latest count shows that margin changing little), unlike some incumbents in Africa who get 99% of the vote – and with hardly any reports of violence.

Other elections in Africa totally redefine the phrase “blatant rigging”, and some of the tactics employed by ruling parties in Africa can be outrageous. Strategies are numerous – from tampering with the electoral roll, bullying opposition leaders, mathematical abracadabra to just refusing to go. 

Nearly every country in Africa has a story to trade, but here’s a highlight of some of the most brazen, unashamed and flagrant:

Nigeria, 1993

It’s been called the election that still “haunts” Nigeria to this day, and June  12 (the date of that fateful election) has entered the Nigerian lexicon as shorthand for political betrayal. Popular businessman Moshood Abiola officially garnered 58.3% of the vote, against his closest contender Bashir Tofa with 41.7%, in what was called Nigeria’s most democratic election since independence: For the first time, a southerner was able to gain broad popular support from all corners of the country. 

But soon after the results were announced, the military regime in power, led by Ibrahim Babangida, simply annulled the results - end of story. Nigerians were appalled, taking to the streets in protest. Babangida had to resign, and in the uncertainty following, General Sani Abacha took power – leading to the most brutal and repressive chapter in Nigeria’s history.

Uganda, 2006

Long-serving president Yoweri Museveni was up against opposition leader Kizza Besigye of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC). But in the run up to the election, Besigye was arrested and charged with treason both in civilian and military courts, allegedly for his “anti-government” activities while in exile in the preceding years. He was also charged with rape, of the daughter of a friend. 

Besigye protesters believed (and court proceedings later suggested) the charges were fabricated to stop Besigye from challenging Museveni. When it appeared that Besigye and his twenty-two co-defendants in the treason case might be released on bail by the civilian court, the government prosecutor, in an apparent attempt to prevent Besigye’s candidacy, then brought terrorism charges against him. 

On the day of their bail hearing, a group of heavily armed goons were lurking around the court, ready to detain the group as soon as they were released on bail. The judge presiding did grant them bail, but the defendants decided to remain in Luzira Prison, instead of risking detention– incredibly, prison was a better deal than going free. In the end, the legal charges, counter-charges, appeals, and dramatic court decisions made it impossible for anything like a level playing field to be possible, and Besigye ended up spending almost as many days in court as on the campaign trail. Museveni ended up winning with 59% of the vote.

Kenya, 2007

President Mwai Kibaki was facing tough competition from opposition leader Raila Odinga, with initial results showing that the opposition party had taken the majority of seats in the National Assembly. While parliamentary results were forthcoming, it wasn’t the case for the presidential results. Three days after the election, President Kibaki suddenly and inexplicably received a massive boost in the tally, with the numbers ostensibly coming from his “strongholds” – but which observers say was marred by ballot stuffing and outright fraud. 

The Electoral Commission of Kenya announced Kibaki as the winner, leading to his hurried swearing in at dusk at State House in Nairobi. The country swiftly descended into deadly political violence that killed over 1,000 and displaced 600,000, and eventually Odinga joined Kibaki in a coalition government as Prime Minister to end the violence.

Zimbabwe, 2008

President Robert Mugabe was facing his toughest challenge yet, as the country’s economic situation was dire – inflation was averaging 165,000% and the economy had shrunk 40% since 2000. Voting day itself was generally peaceful, but as initial reports of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) taking the lead began coming in, confusion set in, and a recount was ordered in 23 constituencies. More than a month went by before an official result was announced by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, indicating Tsvangirai won with 47.9% of the vote, and Mugabe came second at 43.2%, necessitating a run-off. 

The period between the first and second votes was marked by systematic violence, intimidation and brutalisation of voters perceived to be MDC supporters, and just days to the run-off, Tsvangirai announced he was withdrawing from the run-off, describing it as a “violent sham” and saying that his supporters risked being killed if they voted for him. Although Tsvangirai’s name remained on the ballot, Mugabe (obviously) won the second round as the only candidate. Tsvangirai later joined the government as Prime Minister in a Government of National Unity.

Democratic Republic of Congo, 2011

The 2011 election was the second since the official end of the Second Congo War in 2003, but it was marred by widespread fraud in the electoral roll and in vote tallying. One survey showed hundreds of thousands of ghost voters in the form of duplicate names in the register. Some duplicates could be attributable to technical glitches, but tampering was a more likely explanation due to the scale. In several of the Congolese provinces, the double entries were equivalent to more than 12% of voters; the margin of error for duplicates on similar databases used in Western and some Asian elections is less than 1 per cent

And in the tallying, some constituencies in Katanga province “reported impossibly high rates of 99 to 100% voter turnout with all, or nearly all, votes going to incumbent President Joseph Kabila”, while in  Kinshasa, where opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi enjoyed strong support, results from nearly 2,000 polling station stations were  simply “lost” - roughly a fifth of the city’s total. In the end, Kabila officially won the poll with 49% of votes cast, against Tshisekedi’s 32%.

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