Four elections in four days show a 'new' Africa, but also reveal that the old one is alive and well

Independents rising to power, rotational if innovative presidencies, veterans stamping their will…the continent is never a dull place.

THE holding of regular elections in Africa no longer causes great excitement, but in the last week the continent has been breathlessly treated to change, more of the same and surprises from unexpected corners.

Ballots in the Comoros and Niger and the announcement of winners in the Central African Republic and Uganda wound up a fast four days that brought to the fore the ever-hopeful view of the continent’s future, but also the familiar old one of resignation and risk.

All these countries have known coups, or civil war, but yet their elections could not have been more varied.

Battered by instability and violence since a coup in 2013, the Central African Republic (CAR)  delivered the biggest surprise, as it conducted a peaceful two-round election that saw former prime minister Faustin-Archange Touadera declared winner at the weekend.

Touadera, 58, won a commanding mandate of 62.71% against closest rival Anicet-Georges Dologuele, who he had surprisingly trailed in the first round held in December. On a continent where a party is a near-indispensable vehicle to power, the math teacher run as an independent.

Touadera’s campaign as expected was heavy on restoring stability to a mineral-rich country weary of conflict, but observers said that much of the goodwill towards his candidature stemmed from a simple reason—service delivery.

It was nothing revolutionary: As prime minister between 2008-2013, he tweaked the system to ensure that the pay of civil servants was done directly to their bank accounts, ending years of arrears. Seemingly, sometimes it is the simple things that work.

Faustin-Archange Touadera

Supporters also appreciated the fact that he did not flee the conflict as “others gorged on roasted chicken and red wine in France and in other European countries,” as motorcycle taxi driver Edouard Pounawala told an AFP journalist.

Not too far away, Uganda president Yoweri Museveni cudgelled his way to a victory that takes him into his fourth decade in power.

It was a win achieved in his characteristic swagger: the opposition was intimidated, social media and mobile money networks switched off and little protest entertained, with the attendant and real threat to use “both soft and hard means” to counter any threat to his election.

His key challenger and former physician, Kizza Besigye, was arrested several times including in election day, while deep concerns by international election observers were dismissed offhand.

“I don’t need lectures from anybody,” he said at victory. “Those Europeans are not serious.” Despite numbers showing deep apathy especially in the urban areas, Museveni declared himself satisfied with the “big” turnout. 

Not all predictable

While the outcome was never really in doubt, it wasn’t all predictable. Museveni for the first time participate in a televised debate—having belittled an initial public dialogue before realising he was giving Ugandans the rare opportunity to imagine a country without him.

There are also signs of a shifting ground: having for decades cast himself as the only guarantor of Ugandan stability there is growing evidence of a popular yearning for real change.

Nigeriens are counting ballots after a February 21 election where incumbent Mahamadou Issoufou is not as nailed-on to win.

Selfies at a campaign poster of Niger president Issoufou.

The former engineer came to power in 2011 as the primary beneficiary of an ill-advised attempt at a third term by Mamadou Tandja, which led to his ouster by the military.

Issoufou is banking on what he says is an economic record that has seen new infrastructure and government workers take home more pay, while promising to better redistribute wealth from the country’s rich natural resources.

Hemmed in by militancy on both its northern and southern borders, he remains an ally of France and the US, allowing them to tone down their criticism given one of his key opposition challengers has since November been detained for charges relating to a baby-trafficking network.

Nigeriens will be hoping a smooth election process further stabilises a country that in recent decades chalked up its fair share of coups.

In an archipelago

It is a stability challenge shared by Comoros, where voters hope the transition from president Ikililou Dhoinane is peaceful.

The archipelago has by many counts had more that 20 coups or attempts since independence from France in 1975. As a result it has an unusual system where the president is elected on a rotating basis from one of its three major islands.

Only voters on one island however are marking a ballot paper that has on it 25 names, with the top three candidates then presented for a national vote on April 10.

The race is also unusual for the fact that personal allegiances, and not political allegiances, matter most to Comorians. It is in keeping with trends on small island nations—because of their generally smaller populations (Seychelles for example has just over 90,000), the state is closely tied to society, and those who make decisions are more likely to personally know who will be personally affected and think through their impact.

As such, a public post is seen as a source of income.

Familiar problems

Despite the national idiosyncracies, the four elections also had their similarities, as they showed up the continent’s difficulties with organisation. Logistical delays wound back the clock on the CAR election, while even Uganda was not immune as voting hold-ups increased tensions.

Benin, due to initially vote on February 28, has pushed back its election to March 6, blaming logistics. (It will be another to watch, as two-term incumbent Boni Yayi steps down, resisting the temptation to push for an extension).

The inability to transform mineral wealth into changed daily lives also remains a challenge: Niger with reserves of oil and uranium is ranked last on the Human Development Index, while resource rich CAR is also among the world’s poorest nations. Many Ugandans feel their personal circumstances have not changed much despite familiar rule, even as Museveni, in power since 1986, insisted he was the person to change its growth trajectory.

It is a sign that while security has managed to muscle its way as a top continental concern, the economy is slowly reclaiming its place as the main vote card.

For close Africa watchers however, the past week has been a heady mix of the unpredictable that makes the continent ever-exciting and optimistic, and a healthy dose of the usual that makes many wring their hands in frustration.

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