5 elections in one day show the changing, yet old, face of Africa’s bitter-sweet affair with democracy

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The continent holds regular elections--that is no surprise anymore--but the form they are taking is.

AN incumbent eyeing life presidency, one seeking a second term, another who stepped down at the end of his two-terms, a president pushing to reduce his own term, and a vote in a semi-autonomous region.

Congo Republic, Niger, Benin, Senegal and Zanzibar are all voting Sunday in contrasting ballots that show both how far the continent has come in its dalliance with democracy, but how also it in some ways remains firmly stuck in the past.

In Congo, president Denis Sassou Nguesso is nailed-on to prolong his 32-year rule over the oil-rich but poor nation, all but securing a life presidency. He argues that he has not had enough time to change the country’s fortunes, which is sub-Saharan Africa’s fourth largest producer of crude.

Voters are also going to polls under a 48-hour communications blackout, after authorities instructed telecoms firms to block all telephone, Internet and SMS services for “reasons of security and national safety”.

Tensions have been running high in the country since an October referendum when voters agreed changes to the constitution that removed a two-term limit, allowing 72-year-old former paratrooper colonel Sassou Nguesso to run in the election.

The vote also removed a 70-year age limit for the presidency that could have forced one of Africa’s five longest-serving leaders to step down.

The changes were approved in a referendum by 94.3%, dubbed “a constitutional coup” by the opposition. Even before the vote, protests erupted which left several people dead.

Niger deal?

Niger is holding its first-ever presidential run-off, with incumbent Mahamadou Issoufou on track for a second term as the opposition observed a boycott.

The man who came closest to him in the first round, opposition leader Hama Amadou, 66, startlingly campaigned from behind prison cells, and left the country on the eve of the tie-breaker for medical attention in France, where he will remain for up to two weeks.

It is hard not to see a political deal that allowed Amadou to leave incarceration, giving Issoufou a clear run, even if he most likely would have won anyway, having missed an outright majority in the first round by just 75,000 votes.

Also rich with mineral resources such as uranium, the country which has only had a multi-party democracy since 1990 and three-quarters of the population live on less than $2 (1.80 euros) a day.

Benin change

In Benin, president Boni Yayi is stepping down after the end of his second-term, leaving a field that has pitted his perceived protégé against his former-backer-turned-rival. Prime Minister Lionel Zinsou is taking on businessman Patrice Talon, with Zinsou—who quit his job as head of one of Europe’s biggest investment banks when he was nominated prime minister last year – seen as the leading contender. His supporters point to his distinguished record in business and top-level contacts.


A billboard in support of Benin candidate Talon

He however also has a problem that would be familiar to African voters: his dual-French nationality. Critics have claimed the prime minister is the preferred choice of France, the former colonial power in this country of 10.6 million people.

Zinsou, who attended an elite French university and was a speechwriter for the former prime minister Laurent Fabius, has been called a “yovo” or “the white man” during the campaign.

Talon bankrolled Yayi’s successful 2006 and 2011 presidential campaigns but fled to exile in France after being accused of masterminding an alleged sensational plot to poison the president in 2012.

He only returned last October after receiving a presidential pardon, and has rallied 24 of the 32 other candidates who stood in the first round behind him, including third-placed Sebastien Ajavon, who won 22% of votes. It will be tight, but the country is regarded as one of Africa’s leading stable democracies.

Senegal surprises

In Senegal, voters are making their choice in a referendum on sweeping constitutional reforms, including cutting the presidential term from seven to five years.

Senegal’s leader Macky Sall was elected in 2012 partly on a platform to reduce the presidential mandate from seven years to five. His predecessor Abdoulaye Wade conceded defeat after pushing the nation into crisis with a controversial third term bid.

In March last year, Sall had said reducing his own mandate would set an example within Africa, where many leaders cling to power beyond their allotted term.


Senegal’s Yes campaign. Photo/AFP

But Senegal’s top court rejected his proposal this February, triggering a referendum that would allow the reforms to come into force once Sall leaves office in 2019—in the event of a “Yes” vote, that is.

Opposition parties and several civil society groups are however urging Senegalese to vote “No”, saying Sall reneged on his promise to leave office early and criticising the referendum as a cop-out.

The “No” camp has clashed sometimes violently with “Yes” supporters in a week of campaigning, with both sides alleging corruption, spreading misinformation and influence peddling against the other.

The referendum has become a Yes/No vote on Sall’s popularity, eclipsing more than a dozen other proposed points of reform to the constitution. Sall has been accused of everything from secretly manoeuvring for a third term to using the referendum as Trojan horse for gay marriage in a country where homosexuality is stigmatized.

The president has responded to such attacks by describing them as evidence the “No” campaign has nothing of substance left to say.

“They aren’t exactly criticising my economic record,” Sall quipped during the campaign.

Zanzibar

And voting begun in Zanzibar with security tight and an opposition boycott in place for the re-run of October’s election in Tanzania’s semi-autonomous islands, cancelled due to fraud allegations.

The Zanzibar Election Commission (ZEC) cancelled the results of the first poll but diplomats said they saw no evidence of the “massive fraud” alleged.

The annulment of October’s presidential and legislative elections in Zanzibar came after opposition CUF candidate Seif Sharif Hamad declared himself the winner before results were officially announced.

CUF leaders say the move in Tanzania’s semi-autonomous islands was designed to block their party’s victory and deliver another win for the CCM which dominates on the Tanzania mainland.

With Hamad boycotting, incumbent President Ali Mohamed Shein  faces no serious challengers among the dozen other candidates.

Different interpretations

Some 500,000 registered voters in Zanzibar were also eligible to cast ballots in the October polls for Tanzania’s national president and, despite the cancellation of the vote on the islands, new Tanzanian President John Magufuli was sworn in last year.

The five votes show that African countries have taken to holding regular elections, but which they interprete differently from what the conceivers of the Westphalian system would have envisaged.

The opposition has also had its say in the vibrant process: In Niger and Zanzibar they are staying away completely, leaving the headache of legitimacy to the winner, while in Congo they have signed an agreement to unite in the event of a second-round.

In Benin the opposition is already horse-trading as they seek their place in the post-Yayi order, while in Senegal the opposition has actively taken their place in the electoral process.

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