COVID-19 Pandemic: Elections and Governance Issues in Africa

By Paul Ejime*      

Prof Mahmood Yakubu, INEC Chair & ECONEC Honorary President

Elections in Africa during normal times are a huge challenge, in terms of logistics, operations and stakeholder participation. Various studies have shown that political contestations are a major source or driver of conflicts, largely responsible for the continent’s perennial political instability and volatility.

The severe global impacts of COVID-19 pandemic, in deaths, prolonged lockdowns and disruptions to socio-economic activities, coupled with hygiene protocols including physical distancing, can only make the delivery of safe and credible elections much more challenging, particularly in the politically restive countries.

Even before the pandemic, elections are also known to be an expensive enterprise, as shown by a recent study commissioned by the ECOWAS Network of Electoral Commissions (ECONEC), with support from the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA), and the German Development Agency (GIZ – Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit).  For obvious reasons, electoral expenses are naturally expected go up during a pandemic such as the COVID-19.

Out of an abundance of caution, nine African countries – Chad, Ethiopia, Gabon, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, The Gambia, Uganda and Zimbabwe – have postponed municipal and by-elections scheduled for 2020 because of the pandemic. In contrast, Mali, Benin and Burundi, have conducted planned elections amid health concerns and in some cases, under political uncertainties.

Guinea held a controversial referendum and parliamentary elections in March, but at grave national cost. The Chair of the national electoral Commission, Amadou Salif Kebe and at least two senior government officials died from the coronavirus infections, which they reportedly contracted from visiting civil society poll experts. Fortunately, no international organisations sent observers to monitor the votes that were boycotted by the opposition parties, which accused President Alpha Conte of using the referendum to further his plan for tenure elongation.

Regional grouping, ECOWAS, had actually raised concerns over lack of the transparency and respect for democratic principles ahead of the polls in Guinea. In addition, Guinea’s health record is not impressive. The last Ebola virus pandemic reportedly started from the country in 2013, and by 2016, more than 11,300 lives had been lost, mainly in West Africa, with some 2,500 of the deaths in Guinea itself. Against this background, the consequences could have been worse if hundreds of international observers had travelled to the country for the March elections.

But if the Guinean poll was controversial, that of Burundi on 21st May was even more so. There were serious governance and health/safety issues with opposition parties accusing President Pierre Nkurunziza’s government of authoritarianism and clearing the way for his anointed successor Evariste Ndayishimiye, and allow himself to remain as a ‘paramount leader.’ Regional observers were absent after being told that arriving foreigners would be quarantined for 14 days. As expected, Ndayishimiye was declared the poll winner and president-elect. However, Nkurunziza, who was also upbraided for downplaying the effects of COVID-19, died suddenly on the 8th of June. To end the power vacuum in the country, the Constitutional Court has ruled that Ndayishimiye should be sworn in before August when Nkurunziza was due to hand over after 15 years in power. Still, Burundi remains under political tension.

Mali held its first and second-round parliamentary elections in March and April, while Benin also conducted local elections in May 2020, with the government cancelling campaigns and restricting mass gathering to 50 persons.

Part of the precautions taken during some of these elections to avoid the spread of the COVID-19 infection was the cleaning of polling stations, but one dominant characteristic was the reported low voter turnout.

So, despite the havoc wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic globally, some national elections are being held, and political governance has continued in Africa if only to ensure continuity in government and prevent interruptions to the democratic process.

Meanwhile, South Korea has set a good example in the conduct of safe and successful elections during a pandemic. The country conducted its parliamentary elections in April under strict safety measures. Voters had their temperature checked on arrival at polling stations and wore protective equipment such as masks and gloves. They were also encouraged to vote before the Election Day using home and mail voting and with Early Voting Polling Stations.

According to a report by the Korean National Electoral Commission (NEC), the measures resulted in the highest voter turnout of 62.2% or 29.12 million ballots cast, since the country’s 14th National Assembly elections held in 1992. Early voting accounted for about 27% or 11.74% of the votes cast, the Commission said. It attributed the high turnout to “the mature consciousness, where citizens understood and followed the new procedures even though they were slightly inconvenient, (and) the NEC’s thorough and derailed disinfection plans and the huge effort of election officials.”

This would be comforting to believers in democracy and could strengthen the commitment of those willing to innovate, knowing that necessity is the mother of inventions.

Within the ECOWAS region, outstanding elections scheduled for the rest of 2020 include local polls in Senegal; presidential elections in Cote d’Ivoire, 31st October; presidential and legislative polls in Burkina Faso, November; presidential and legislative votes in Ghana, 7th December; and presidential and legislative votes in Niger, 27th December 2020.

In Nigeria, where no new dates have been fixed for the postponed by-elections, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) still has some off-season polls this year. These include the governorship votes in Edo state (19th September) and Ondo state (10th October 2020), as well as Legislative (National and State Houses of Assembly) elections, all expected to involve 62 Local Government Areas, 9,149 Polling Units, 6.45 million registered voters and some 62,697 electoral staff.

With Nigeria’s registered voter population at more than 84 million (higher than South Korea’s estimated national population of 51 million), the numbers for the upcoming elections might seem relatively small, but there are no ‘small or easy elections’ in Africa, especially during a pandemic and in continent where any misstep could quickly escalate into a major crisis. Furthermore, Nigeria, because of its strategic position, carries the burden of leadership in West Africa, Africa and internationally.

Cognisant of this fact, the INEC, after extensive consultations with relevant stakeholders, including health authorities, has unveiled comprehensive guidelines under a ‘Policy on Conducting Elections in the Context of COVID-19 Pandemic.’ The policy document states very clearly that the ‘Commission is committed to conducting all elections within the extant legal framework.” It covers critical elements of electoral administration, including health and legal issues; training, ICT, voter registration and education; stakeholder engagements, political parties, election observation and securing the electoral process. INEC has also resolved to “put a premium on public safety and mitigation of health risks from COVID-19,” emphasizing: “citizens must be assured that they will be safe while participating as voters, candidates and officials.”

Prof Mahmood Yakubu, INEC Chair and Honorary President of ECONEC, said the Commission “is convinced that electoral activities can resume (in Nigeria), but in full compliance with the advisory issued by health authorities.” At a recent virtual meeting with Resident Electoral Commissioners, he explained that while INEC took the pandemic seriously, ‘democracy and electoral process cannot be truncated,’ since the Commission’s guidelines were anchored on the guidance of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19.

To deliver credible elections during a pandemic in Africa requires a redoubling of efforts with greater attention paid to health, safety and security of all involved.  An aggressively effective public education/sensitisation campaign, clear messaging and collective stakeholder commitment are also critical, especially to assuage the pandemic phobia.

Preparations in terms of logistics and general operations must also be thorough to accommodate the health/hygiene protocols, such as disinfection of polling stations, wearing of face masks, washing or sanitising of hands and physical distancing. These measures also mean that more time than usual would be required to process voters.

Doubtless, this would raise the electoral costs and exert more pressure on the electoral umpire and its personnel. Even with the best preparations, experience has also shown that the electoral commissions alone cannot deliver credible elections. Very critical are the conducts and unfettered cooperation of other stakeholders, particularly politicians, political parties and their supporters, the security agents and the judiciary, which are fast becoming prominent players with pronouncements of far-reaching consequences on electoral administration and democratic processes in Africa. Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, Malawi, Guinea Bissau and Nigeria are examples!

Like in other spheres of life, electoral administration must necessarily rise to higher expectations during health emergencies such as COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. The time might be too short for wholesale electoral reforms. Still, political actors, particularly the political parties, governments, Electoral Management Bodies (EMBs), civil society organisations, community and opinion leaders, the media and the voters themselves, must embrace the changes.

Electronic voting and transmission of results, early voting, mail voting and the injection of more cost-effective mechanisms into electoral administration and securing of votes can no longer remain far-fetched objectives. If South Korea can deliver safe and credible elections during a pandemic, African countries can, too. The necessary infrastructure or technological advancement might not be available, but the challenges are surmountable with the right political will and proactive measures to demonstrate that African countries are not merely paying a lip-service to democracy.

Critically important elements of the electoral process, such as voter education/sensitisation, should not be left with overburdened EMBs. Beyond blaming electoral umpires for their electoral failures, politicians and political parties must sanitise their conducts to curb vote-buying, rigging, electoral violence, and the lack of internal democracy, which constitute major sources of electoral crises and disruptions to the electoral processes.

Also, the number of political parties in many African countries is untenable, and so are the candidates they field for elections, even when many of these candidates end up as also-rans.

Apart from safety and security concerns, there is also the need to make elections and political governance more cost-effective, participatory and inclusive in Africa. Senegal set an example in 2012 by abolishing the Senate of its erstwhile bicameral national legislature, which has saved the country millions in scarce resources for other development projects.

In considering reforms to improve electoral administration in Africa, serious attention must also be paid to cutting down the size of government cabinets and parliaments, coupled with measures to address the growing interventions of the judiciary in the electoral process, with courtrooms now threatening to replace the ballot boxes in determining the will of the electorate.

Another major concern in electoral administration in Africa is electoral security concerning the conduct of security personnel during elections. To this end, and ahead of Nigeria’s Edo and Ondo gubernatorial elections, INEC Chair, Prof Yakubu has called for a review of the security architecture for enhanced electoral confidence during and after the pandemic periods. Speaking at the 5th June, virtual meeting of the Inter-Agency Consultative Committee on Election Security (ICCEC), he urged the authorities to design a code of conduct for security personnel involved in elections, in an apparent reference to ugly experiences in the country in recent past.

By and large, there is great wisdom in learning from the past and adopting proactive best practices for positive changes in the future. The COVID-19 pandemic might have disrupted socio-economic and political activities worldwide, but it has also created some opportunities for Africa to innovate and introduce creative measures and instruments to improve the political governance system, deliver safe and credible elections, and consolidate democracy.

*Paul Ejime, an Author and former War Correspondent, is a Consultant on Media, Corporate Communications and Elections

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