It's election season again in Africa, when all lose their heads and policy is thrown out of the window

Welcome to 2015, goodbye to 2014! A lot of vote ‘buying’ is going on, only that it has been reinvented, and works just as well.

ZAMBIANS vote today January 20 in a special election called to complete the term of the late president Michael Sata, who died in office last October. 

The winning candidate will only have 20 months before they face another election, but a major policy decision has already been enacted that could have a major impact on the country’s finances.

Effective January 1, the country more than tripled mining royalties to 20%, leaving investors and trade unions fretting, as global metal prices lag. Copper is a mainstay of Zambia’s economy, with the country now the second-largest producer in Africa having lost the top spot to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

It is easy to argue that the inaction of the new tax structure in a power vacuum shows the insulation of policy from electoral politics (a good thing), but close Zambia watchers will be quicker to connect the move with popular discontent that the ordinary Zambian has not benefited from their prized commodity as much as they would have liked to. In reality, then, it is a populist possible vote winner.

The policy shift is backed by the ruling Patriotic Front (PF), whose candidate Edgar Lungu is odds-on to win the election. His main rivals Hichilema Hakainde and Nevers Mumba have both rounded on the policy, turning it into an election hot potato—a rare feat in Africa where votes are wooed on pledges and often ethnic mobilisation, and not on real public issues.

With at least 10 African countries—accounting for nearly half of the continent’s GDP—voting this year there will be wide scope for contentious policy decisions meant to rope in more votes, their wider implications crowded out by the vote hunt. Many will be quietly rolled back once regimes are in power.

Nigeria, which votes next month, has just announced a cut in fuel prices, with a litre of petrol set to drop by 47 US cents. Oil minister Diezani Alison-Madueke said the decision was on the directive of president Goodluck Jonathan, but took account of the recent volatility in the oil market.

Nigeria depends on crude exports for 70% for government revenue, and 90% of its foreign exchange earnings. The steep fall in oil prices has seen the Jonathan administration forced to tighten its belt, including the devaluation of the naira currency, directly affecting the standard of living for Nigerians. 

Subsidies are used to keep prices low at the pumps, about the only benefit Nigerians see from their vast oil wealth. In 2011, president Jonathan sparked mass protests when he tried to do away with the subsidies, leading to his doubling back and their partial reinstatement.

The cut in fuel prices can thus be seen as a way of further placating Nigerians ahead of the elections, especially after his main rival Muhammadu Buhari sought political capital by demanding a reduction in fuel prices.

Electoral calculations

Some other election moves in Africa may not be linked to policy outright, but their timing suggests a ballot on the horizon. Cote d’Ivoire has finally put former first lady Simone Gbagbo on trial over events that took place in 2010-2011 following an electoral crisis that left some 3,000 people dead.

The 65-year-old had been in detention for three years and is wanted by a world court for crimes against humanity, but Abidjan insists on trying her, even as her husband, Laurent Gbagbo, awaits trial at The Hague on the same charge.

The West African nation holds elections in October, and Simone’s trial is viewed as the biggest judicial challenge yet for the government of Alassane Ouattara. For many, the “Iron Lady” was the real power behind Gbagbo’s throne and while it could rally supporters, it also has the potential to further alienate the former leader’s still-sizeable political base, which accuses the incumbent of a “victor’s justice”. 

Tanzania is rushing to implement a new constitution to replace the current one passed in 1977, ahead of a general election. The ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (revolution) party hopes to use this as a vote net on its reform credentials, but the opposition says the charter is meant to further entrench the party in power.

Sudan also votes in April, and president Omar al-Bashir remains under pressure from the international community over his strong-fisted handling of rebellions. Bashir has pledged to end the rebellion in Darfur “soon”, despite his army having been engaged with rebels since 2003, in addition to battling on other fronts in Blue Nile and South Kordofan states.

Bashir, who came to power in a 1989 coup, has also promised a free, fair and transparent poll. “I dare you to participate in the elections,” he told opposition parties, who are demanding the poll be postponed until reforms are in place.  

In a famous speech last year dubbed the Wathba (Leap,) the Sudanese leader had sensationally called for national dialogue, sparking hopes of real change. The opposition rushed to sign up, but that optimism has fast dissipated, with Bashir accused of only seeking to legitimise the election. Still, Bashir courted the conservative religious vote, calling on protests against French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo for its publication of a cartoon of Prophet Mohammed on its comeback issue last week after Jihadist terrorists attacked its offices in Paris and killed 12 people.

Other moves during an election years also tend to raise eyebrows. Democratic Republic of Congo first lady Marie-Olive Lembe Kabila was recently pictured handing over a $300,000 donation to the governor of strife-hit eastern DRC province of North Kivu.

Known for legendary generosity, her visit coincided with the death anniversaries of Congolese leaders Patrice Lumumba and Laurent Kabila, while she was also seen to provide support for Congolese women in the troubled region. 

But it is also not lost on observers that her husband, who hails from the east and draws most of his support from the region, is up for a controversial re-election, having reached the end of his term limit. 

Uganda president Yoweri Museveni is among those who have patented the bags-of-cash approach. In April 2013 he handed over a sack containing about $100,000 to a youth group, in fulfilment of a pledge made in the campaign trail in 2011, sparking questions as to its source and accountability for its use.

New shape of patronage

Such images will not be out of place this year on the African campaign trail. But the model could be changing.

The African version of courting votes has in many ways reinvented the traditional clientelism and outright buying, with the practice now more anchored in promises of policy shifts - expensive “youth enterprise” funds in the face of the reality of huge budget deficits; scrapping token user fees in state-run hospitals that are already collapsing and were only kept afloat the fees; or ordering public utility companies for water and electricity not to drag long-term defaulters to court or cut them off. 

It is however a tricky place to be: studies have shown that while the vast majority of voters expect patrons to provide private or small-scale (read bribes) public goods, forcing leaders to comply, many do not vote on how well such goods are supplied, but on other factors, including the economy. In other words they have their cake, and eat it too.

So one could argue that what Zambia and Nigeria are doing actually works in an African setting because it is across the board. Perhaps Mrs Kabila could learn a thing or two from them—preaching to the converted does not give the sought after return on investment.

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