In Africa, just as in every region, there is no more critical variable than governance. The nature of governance determines how the people see the state. The quality of governance determines the services they receive. Governance shapes social interactions, guarantees peace and the prospect of economic development. Governance can make or mar a country’s political culture, institutional structures and norms. Governance determines whether or not the exercise of authority is viewed as legitimate. Governance and democracy are mutually reinforcing. And the relationship between democracy and African development is profound.
This is why the most important issue facing the African continent today is free and fair elections. It’s often said that in any given year there are more elections happening in Africa than in Europe and at great expense too. Elections in Africa cost more than anywhere else in the world, per capita.
But the dividends have been slow in coming. Even though elections are now a fairly regular feature of African politics, they have not resulted in democratic consolidation and they have certainly not brought development. This is tragic. The 54 African countries account for nearly 25% of the United Nations’ membership. The African continent also has the largest number of landlocked states of any region. Both factors substantially affect the political environment in which African leaders make choices, which is why the transparent election of good leaders is important for national and regional governance.
Consider Mali, my country. It has multi-dimensional geopolitical issues. Its geographical location makes it a country of origin and transit for illegal migrants as well as a hub for all kinds of illegal trafficking, not least in people and drugs. Some of the world’s most wanted terrorists have made Mali their refuge. Some years ago, a United Nations mission in the Sahel region said that northern Mali had become the dangerous crossroads of drugs, crime and terrorism. The situation has hardly improved since that dispiriting commentary. Sectarian violence is flaring and armed groups are multiplying, with all the attendant implications for regional stability. Indeed, the insecurity has spilled over Mali’s borders and is destabilizing neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso.
The only peace agreement that could bring about meaningful change will take time. The security situation in the north and center of Mali is dangerously complicated by the absence of administration. This is causing the Malian people to have less confidence than they should in the political system and their leaders, who are themselves thrown by sloppy elections.
It’s debatable we would be in this doleful moment had the president of Mali been properly elected. In 2018, after the first round of the presidential election, local analysts unanimously agreed that massive fraud occurred. It brought the incumbent president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, to 42% of the vote and dragged my vote share down to third place among 24 candidates. This allowed the incumbent to qualify for the second round against a challenger he was ready to face. He, therefore, easily won last year’s election. The consequence of the fraud on the first round was a muted turnout during the second round – just one-third of eligible voters. Accusations of ballot stuffing and tweaked electoral rolls were simply dismissed as coming from sore losers even though the European Union observer mission and other local and international monitors also said there were irregularities. Had the Malian people been allowed a genuinely free choice, the president would have the popular and political support needed to take the bold steps necessary to draw Mali away from the abyss. This is clearly not the case.
What’s clear is that the transparency and fairness of elections in Mali and elsewhere on the continent can no longer be regarded as a simple matter of domestic politics. On the African continent, the electoral processes always raises concerns.
Make no mistake, voters respond when the ballot box is seen less as a way to bring about real and positive change and more as a means to entrench the status quo, no matter how discredited. Indeed, the Malian election is an unfortunate example of waning enthusiasm for representative democracy. Voter turnout never gets to 50%. How can it be otherwise when elections are discernibly tarnished by the sloppy way they are run – the opposition is marginalized, polling stations open late, ballot boxes disappear empty and reappear stuffed, and election officials are unprepared? Unsurprisingly, international observers just keep citing “serious operational shortcomings.”
Each time an election in Africa falls below the required standard, the international community simply shakes its head and moves on. This feeds the notion that democracy in Africa should be accepted as having discernibly different standards to the rest of the world.
It need not be this way. The narrative needs to change and it falls to us, to Africans, to do it ourselves. We need to recognize that elections are only as good as the level of political participation, freedom and fairness. We need to safeguard robust political debate, which allows us all to express different views, even on deeply contested subjects such as sustainable development, justice and security.
We need to celebrate our differences. It is preferable that differences are expressed in the political arena and allowed to drive peaceful debate, as well as the choices made in the privacy of the voting booth. For no one should feel excluded from the political process. Only a sincere inclusiveness can prevent marginalization, which can drive the poor and the voiceless to dangerous levels of despair.
Alongside a forensic identification of what is wrong with our elections, we need to put in place judicious correctives. We could start relatively small. Last year, for instance, I proposed fingerprint analysis of ballots cast in the Malian presidential election in order to settle the charge of fraudulent votes and ballot box stuffing. In fact, many local actors offered some very good proposals to ensure the transparency and fairness of elections in Mali.
The international community has a role to play in nurturing transparent elections in Mali and other African countries. It should not condone fraud and tampering as something that Africans are intrinsically prone to do. It should pay more attention to the concrete proposals made by political actors who enjoy local credibility (in Mali and elsewhere).
This will not only strengthen people's confidence in their political system but also the credibility of elections. Only then can the greatest, most sacred act of self-expression – casting a vote – become the stable base of our democracy. Only then can we devote ourselves to the only battle Africa has not yet won: that of sustainable development.
Good governance is what it would take for Africa to achieve its next stage of development. But there’s no way to get there if we don’t have free, fair and transparent elections.
Aliou Boubacar Diallo
Aliou Boubacar Diallo is President of Petroma Inc. Canada. In 2012, he launched the humanitarian Maliba Foundation and a year later, the Democratic Alliance for Peace–Maliba (ADP-Maliba), a political party whose mission is to "renew Malian politics." He ran for president of Mali in 2018.