African Presidents Have Significant Experience with Election “Rigging”

American presidential candidate Donald Trump has made several public statements accusing politicians at the federal and state levels of “rigging” the current elections. He declared that the entire system, at every level, is being manipulated to deny him the presidency. So far, as of November 6, 2016, he has not yet supplied any evidence to support his accusation.

In sub-Saharan Africa, incumbent heads of state have developed the high art of rigging elections over several decades of practical experience.

Between 1960 and 1990, most African countries did not have multiparty political systems. Their constitutions allowed only a single named party in a system known as the “African One-Party State.” Under this system, the party hierarchy chose the sole candidate for each election. That person always was the incumbent president.

After 1985, most African governments moved toward multiparty democracy under pressure from their newly educated younger generations. Opposition parties were created. In a small number of countries, such as Zambia, Ghana and Mali, presidential elections were conducted honestly, resulting in opposition candidates coming to power. In most of the new multiparty countries, however, presidential elections were rigged in the last stage of vote compilation at the national levels. As the late Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin said about elections, “the people vote, but we do the counting.”

In the first decade of the 21st Century, a number of African governments amended their constitutions to include language that limited heads of state to two terms. This is similar to the two-term limit for American presidents in the US Constitution. There was such strong feeling about the limit on presidential mandates, that some constitutions had clauses prohibiting the amendment of the two-term limit. This was true of the Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania, among others.

During the decade beginning in the year 2010, a number of elected African heads of state started to come up against the two-term limit as they entered their final years in office. This was too much for some of them to bear, so they organized referenda to amend the constitution to eliminate the two-term limitation. This was the case in Rwanda and the Republic of Congo. The constitutions prohibited amendments to the two-term limit clauses, so their sole solution was to hold referenda to write new constitutions.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, President Kabila indicated that he wanted to change the constitution to eliminate the two-term limit. But this announcement caused such tremendous public opposition that he withdrew his proposal. On the other hand, the President decided not to provide funds to the electoral commission for the organization of the election schedules for 2016, resulting in an indefinite delay in holding the election, with the incumbent president remaining in power.

In Burkina Faso, President Blaise Compaore sent a message to Parliament requesting that the constitution be amended. This resulted in such a tremendous citizen rejection of the proposal that Compaore had to flee his country in the face of huge protesting crowds. In the Republic of Mali by contrast, President Alpha Konare visited the United States while he was in his second term. During a question period after he gave a speech, he was asked if he intended to amend his country’s constitution to eliminate the two-term limit. He responded: “I look forward to being an ex-President.”

As the year 2016 comes to an end, African democracy is still an idea in its infancy. Acceptance of the risk of losing an election continues to elude most heads of state, as well as most ruling political parties. Nevertheless, one can say that Africa has made great strides toward open societies since the 1960s. There are multiple parties, multiple media, and more informed electorates in over half the countries. Most of the credit for these positive developments belongs to the younger generation of African citizens who are better educated and better informed than their parents and grandparents. But the United States and other western nations deserve some of the credit due to their support for African civil society and African electoral systems, as well as their relentless pressure on African political leadership.

(Photo: Gage Skidmore / MONUSCO)