Africa’s Volatile Politics

By Laura Seay

It’s an exciting time in Africa as 22 states prepare to hold presidential elections in 2010 and 2011.

Sudan has emerged from decades of turmoil be- tween the country’s northern elites and the oil-rich south. This month’s elections are supposed to be
a significant step on the path to restoring stability, but the most important opposition party, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement, recently decided to pull out of the elections due to fears of cheating. Other opposition parties followed suit. The SPLM is banking most of its hopes on a January 2011 referendum on southern indepen- dence. Their decision to boycott the April elections reflects the desire to focus on southern secession, as well as the sense that the presidential elections are highly unlikely to be free and fair.

Ethiopians vote in May. However, the credibility of the elections is already in question as reports of intimidation and human rights abuses against opposition politicians spread. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s ruling party used repression to suppress dissent after the country’s 2005 elections, and most observers doubt that the upcoming elections will be free or fair. Zenawi recently accused the U.S. government-funded Voice of America of broad- casting “destabilizing propaganda” and jammed its radio signal to prevent citizens from listening to the station. The VOA responded by broadcasting its service via satellite.

In Central Africa, Burundi, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo are preparing to hold presidential elections. Reports of opposition candidate intimidation led the International Cri- sis Group to issue a warning about possible elec- tion-related violence in Burundi, whose citizens vote in June. In Rwanda, the Tutsi-dominated government is trying to rebuild its public image after reports of opposition candidate intimida- tion surfaced in the Western media. Opposition candidates accuse the government of using the country’s vaguely worded genocide-prevention laws (which prohibit inflammatory statements about ethnicity) to prevent a serious electoral challenge in the August 2010 polls. Meanwhile, DRC President Joseph Kabila insists that the MONUC peacekeeping force must leave the country prior to elections scheduled for late 2011. No observers believe this is a serious possibility; the DRC government does not control its eastern territories and the absence of the UN peacekeeping mission would be disastrous.

Finally, frustration continues in the Cote d’Ivoire, where elections originally scheduled for 2005 have been delayed yet again. Ivoirian President Laurent Gbagbo has held off the elections due to instability in the country’s north and disputes over the citizenship status of northern Muslims. Once a shining beacon of stability and economic development in West Africa, the Cote d’Ivoire’s descent into ethnic tension and instability has dismayed many Africa-watchers.

As we see from these cases, instability, candidate intimidation, and electoral fraud are problems for many states. It is clear that the process of democratic consolidation requires more than just holding elections. Stable, well-functioning political institutions, a robust civil society, and an independent media are also necessary to ensure democratic outcomes.

Laura Seay received her Ph.D. in government in 2009. She is assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College. She researches African politics, conflict, and state failure.