The Futility of Elections: Rethinking Democracy in East Africa

By Su Muhereza and Eshban Kwesiga

Despite their frequency and venerated place in the functioning of democracies, elections in East Africa are increasingly violent, plagued by coercion and widespread irregularities and tend to exacerbate existing socio-political tensions without resulting in meaningful political change, improved quality of governance or citizen participation. Recent polls in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, South Sudan and Uganda have all been heavily criticised. But with the elevation of elections as the most sacred anchor point for a functioning democracy, electoral “winners” can claim their victories as legitimate despite the dubious circumstances under which they are earned.

Democratic decline

In the 1990s and 2000s, participatory politics in Africa grew exponentially as the percentage of African countries holding democratic elections increased from 7% to 40%. In 2010, Freedom House classified 18 countries on the continent as electoral democracies. During the past two decades, the general trend in Africa has been towards demands for greater accountability from political leaders, whose domestic legitimacy is largely linked and limited to elections. However, the 2020 Freedom in the World report documented the 14th year of global decline in democratic governance and respect for human rights, with Africa contributing to the backsliding. Freedom House now ranks just seven countries on the continent,  none of which are in East Africa, in its ‘free’ category. The lowest figure since 1991. As elections have become more commonplace, the quality of public participation has declined.

While elections have advanced political participation in some African states, they have also been one of the major causes of instability and economic setbacks. Instability that has gone beyond the harassment and detention of opposition leaders, to outright clashes between voters, and between voters and security forces. In 2005, Ethiopia suffered 200 election-violence related fatalities. Over 1,000 Kenyans died during and after the country’s 2007 elections and triple that figure were killed in election and post-election clashes in Ivory Coast in 2010-11. In the run-up to Uganda’s recently concluded elections clashes with security actors, during riots sparked by the detention of opposition candidate Bobi Wine in November 2020, resulted in the deaths of 54 people.

There are economic electoral consequences too. 11 of the 13 elections held in Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya over the last two decades have been accompanied by a fall in GDP during the election year or in the year after, with the raiding of central banks to fund increasingly expensive election campaigns a key driver of socio-economic pressures. Political instability and uncertainty also impact small and big businesses. Uganda’s 2021 election driven internet shutdown saw companies lose an estimated 66 billion Uganda shillings daily (US$17.9 million) according to the country’s Financial Technology and Service Providers Association. In this regard, elections risk undermining the very forces that help consolidate a democracy, such as access to economic opportunities and better standards of living.

The threat of election related violence, and the accompanying instability and economic uncertainty, bring into question the value of elections to a region grappling to consolidate democracy.

Elections in vain?

Elections as the basis of democracy is a strongly held global norm, defended and enforced by a wide array of individuals and institutions even though governments produced by credible polls can also be corrupt, short sighted, dominated by special interests and inefficient. Afterall, it was an electorate that chose Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro to preside over the United States and Brazil, respectively. But ensuring free, vibrant and informed mass engagement in political life and governance choices – key tenants of democracy – should not be conflated with the holding of regular elections.

In January 2021, Uganda held its sixth consecutive election – four of which have been held in a multi-party dispensation – but each resulting process has happened within a context of restricted political competition and limited changes towards an open political culture. Ahead of the 2021 poll, analysts and citizens alike questioned the value of holding an expensive election in the middle of a global health pandemic when the outcome was all but predetermined.

President Museveni’s 58% share of the vote – his nearest challenger Bobi Wine secured 35% – was announced amidst a five day internet shutdown. Procedural irregularities and claims of fraud by the opposition centred around failing biometric voter verification machines, videos on social media of ruling party agents ticking ballot papers in favour of Museveni and a lack of clarity about the way votes were tallied at the districts and announced by the Electoral Commission. Administrative hurdles, along with the internet blackout, prevented both international and domestic election observers and media from observing these processes across the country. Widespread claims of kidnappings and extrajudicial arrests of opposition agents and supporters charged with planning riots have been reported before, during and after polling day, whilst the house arrest of Bobi Wine from 14-26 January, continuing a pre-election pattern of detaining political opponents.

But despite violence and coercion consistently revealing themselves as the most relied on and direct means for changing power in Uganda, there is an almost unshakeable belief in, and need for, elections by all sides. Yes, elections provide an opportunity for yesterday’s losers to become today’s winners, but they also have downsides. While acknowledging that it is not elections that make bad leaders – it is leaders that make elections less than desirable and it is easy to blame political actors that have failed to play by the rules – we must also ask ourselves if ‘electoral fundamentalism’ prevents us from seeing the problems they produce.

According to David Van Reybrouck, author of “Against Elections: The Case for Democracy”, ‘electoral fundamentalism’ is an unshakeable belief in the idea that democracy is inconceivable without elections and elections are a necessary and fundamental precondition when speaking about democracy. Electoral fundamentalists refuse to regard elections as a means of taking part in democracy, seeing them instead as an end in themselves, as a doctrine with an intrinsic, inalienable value. They argue that at the very least elections produce some qualified politicians who act as democratic punching bags; representatives that can be held accountable and blamed for a lack of service delivery. But in Uganda, even this bare minimum has struggled to be realised. Most parliamentarians know they will likely only get one term in office and as such use that time to recover funds lost during expensive campaigns and to build connections to advance their own personal interests, rather than to improve service delivery.

Renewing democracy

Resistance to re-imagining political participation beyond elections does a grave disservice to the many ways in which citizens have found to participate in civic and political life within their communities beyond queuing at polling stations once every few years. In fact, it is electoral fundamentalism that has led to the destruction and delegitimising of alternative means for regular, iterative civic and political participation of ordinary citizens.

There are many examples of active citizen participation in political and civic life at the village level that go beyond the narrative of declining voter turnout across East Africa. Ugandans remain actively involved in village and municipal level politics, and interact regularly with leaders of local councils. Prior to the 2016 elections, 62% of respondents to a Twaweza public opinion poll said they sought information from their local council office, the smallest administrative unit in Uganda. In Rwanda, national and district youth councils channel the voices of young people into annual budget conferences and allocation cycles. In Kenya and Tanzania, citizens were an active part of constitutional review processes.

Despite the limited devolvement of decision making power and funding from central governments there is a real possibility for democratic decision making and citizen participation at village and municipal levels across East Africa. Examples exist of community innovation, participation and voice in transitional restorative justice practices and land dispute resolution mechanisms across Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Kenya. Unfortunately, these types of civic organising and participation are overlooked by donors, civil society organisations and political parties working to advance democracy who favour a narrower focus on elections.

Beyond the ballot

What does it say for East Africa that recent elections have, by and large, failed to be conducted fairly, transparently, and peacefully? Or to produce outcomes that foster meaningful civic participation, improve the quality of governance and usher new voices and ideas into the arena of political participation? Acknowledging the limitation of elections as the primary institution of democracy would be a good start. Beyond that we must start to see them as a transient system in the organisation of human affairs.

Political analyst, Chris Ògúnmọ́dẹdé recently tweeted that “institutions are not organisms with supernatural, self-correcting powers. Institutions simply are collective agreements people come to. In other words, they can change over time and produce good or bad outcomes.” Even though the words “election” and “democracy” have become synonymous, elections alone cannot, and do not, adequately reflect the will of the people. Over the last decade citizens of 13 of 15 countries regularly polled by Afrobarometer have expressed a decline in support for elections.

The tendency to focus on citizen participation in elections has pushed aside local democratic and proto-democratic institutions such as village meetings, traditional conflict mediation or established jurisprudence even though they are valuable in encouraging a peaceful and collective discussion on the issues that affect people’s daily lives. Although they have not always done so, these institutions are perfectly capable of reflecting more inclusive values that acknowledge the equal status of women, youth and other excluded demographics.

Ultimately a democratic society should not be identified by whether or how it conducts winner-takes-all elections but rather how it allows for liberal freedoms such as political inclusivity, freedom of speech, media, expression, and association, access to property rights and judicial independence. Ensuring a combination of these elements supports greater everyday political participation and the building and consolidating of democracy, as opposed to a decisive vote once every few years in a sham election. To safeguard the democratic experiment in the region, we should begin to consider elections as a feature of, and not the basis for, democracy.

Su Muhereza is a Ugandan political analyst and tweets @suemuhereza.

Eshban Kwesiga is a development analyst and tweets @EshbanKwesiga.

Editor’s note: This is the first article in a nine-part series in which leading thinkers and practitioners explore key questions and themes about the current state of electoral democracy in Africa.