Southern Africa Human Rights Round-up: What lessons do the US elections provide on electoral democracy in Africa?

By mobilising his base to distrust the electoral system, Trump may have finally offered African dictators what they have always wanted but failed to get: evidence from a so-called mature democracy that elections are not to be trusted all the way from pre-voting, voting and post-voting and that fighting back against democratic outcomes is justifiable.

On 20th January 2021 President Joe Biden Junior was officially installed as the 46th president of the USA in Washington DC. Since the US has modeled itself as a beacon of good governance, freedom and people power in the post-Cold War era, questions are being inevitably asked whether the US election process and outcome had any positive lessons for the rest of the world, in particular Africa.

Some would argue that in the post- second world war era, the universalization of liberal democracy across the world happened through the Americanization of politics. America’s role in the establishment of the United Nations (UN) and an international world order built on respect for international rule of law standards has been acknowledged many a time.

Then in 1989 the collapse of the Soviet Union led to the emergence of the US as a sole superpower and leader of the ‘free world’.  America’s model of democracy has generally been accepted as a standard despite some very strong but scattered voices that dismiss it as a neo-colonial project.

The post 9/11 wars that have sucked the might of American forces into a number of foreign lands also tainteded the emergence of the US as the moral authority in matters of democracy and human rights observance and protection. The perception of some of the interventions as pure pursuit of narrow American interests hurt the image of America as a defender of democracy and human rights.

In Africa for example, while Gaddafi was unpopular and seen as a dictator, the US invasion of Libya produced atrocious outcomes that neither introduced democracy and human rights, nor stability and economic prosperity.

Enter Trump and Change of Policy in Africa

Whilst America’s position as the leader of the ‘free world’ has always been questioned, the emergence of President Donald Trump onto the global scene accelerated a negative view of America’s influence.

Trump’s policy of ‘America First’ reduced America’s policy in Africa from effective support of democracy and governance into competing with China for economic opportunity and political influence.

Some called it a new form of the scramble for Africa.

While America remained engaged in democratic interventions in Africa via Congress, embassies and other institutions, its public policy on Africa supported by a pledge of $60 billion[1]  seemed to respond to China’s pledge to support Africa with $60 billion in projects support expressed during the FOCA summit[2] .

Pitched as a competition for influence between the East led by China and the West led by the US, America’s influence faced stiff challenges given that China and Russia continue to reap the dividends arising from their supporting the liberation movements against Western colonialism.

The world’s eyes always get fixated on American elections. The Trump -vs- Biden election show was no different. However the degeneration of the electioneering process into unprecedented chaos threatened to smash the US’ image as a leader on democratization globally.

“The horrifying scenes of violent, seditious protestors storming the United States Capitol raise doubt about how — and indeed if — the U.S. can be a democratic leader globally. How can we claim to promote democracy abroad when it is in crisis at home?” lamented Derek Mitchell the President of the National Democratic Institute and Mark Green the executive director at the McCain Institute.

The behavior of Trump and the Republican Party hurt the message that American presidents have given that America supports democracy and good governance abroad and that those who stand against these values will face consequences.

“Our message,” President Obama declared in 2009, “to those who would derail the democratic process is clear and unequivocal: the United States will not stand idly by when actors threaten legitimately elected governments or manipulate the fairness and integrity of democratic processes.”

In a  press statement on ‘Upcoming Elections in Africa’ on October 8, 2020, Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo said that, “We will watch closely the actions of individuals who interfere in the democratic process and will not hesitate to consider consequences – including visa restrictions – for those responsible for election-related violence.”

Barely a month later he shocked the world when he said there would be a “smooth transition to a second Trump administration” just a day after Joe Biden was announced as president-elect.

Such was the Trump administration’s blatant inconsistency in applying standards.

US Elections and Africa’s Democractic Fragility

America’s electoral chaos exposed how fragile democracy is in the heart of the ‘developed’ world. Yet Africa is essentially a continent of fragile democracies. The consequences of a failure in American democracy are far reaching in Africa. According to National Public Radio it comes at a time when questions are being raised whether democracy is in retreat in Africa.

The issues that blighted the USA’s election sound like they are coming from a typical African election dispute playbook from say Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) or Tanzania. Most African countries prefer to call themselves ‘democracies’ in the liberal sense even though according to Decker and Arrington, most governments in Africa fall somewhere along the autocracy-democracy spectrum or continuum.

The disputed election could not have come at a worse time for Africa which has disputed elections in Tanzania, Guinea, Ivory Coast and now Uganda. In Côte d’Ivoire, Alassane Ouattara got the OK from a friendly court[3]  to run for a third term. He won with more than 94% of the vote putting the country into potential conflict. In Guinea, Alpha Conde first changed the constitution through a referendum and then won a third term with nearly 60% of the vote[4] .

Election violence, disputed results, refusal to concede official results, a stalled transition/transfer of power and generally a deficiency in electoral integrity are everyday problems in Africa.

Yet ultimately American democracy won because, however disputed elections and election processes may be, the end result will depend on how these disputes are handled so that the popular will of the people not only prevails but is also defended.

Six lessons for Africa

The lesson for Africa is that robust, independent institutions with effective guardrails are as vital to democracy as the vote itself.

  1. Judicial independence, impartiality and accountability is crucial: Despite the fact that some judges were appointed by the Republican administrations or Trump himself, the judiciary asserted its independence as an arbiter of electoral disputes.
  2. Independence of Election Management Bodies: Trump’s attempts to manipulate and threaten the vote counters and the Electoral College hit a brick wall with several states certifying the results against his active edging.
  3. The Covid-19 Pandemic cannot stop elections: This election had the highest voter turnout in American history despite being held when the US had the highest numbers of infection rates with Covid-19. This shames those countries in Africa that have used Covid-19 as a pretext to trample on elections and democracy. America used mail-in ballots as a response to the pandemic instead of postponing elections.
  4. Independent Media and Election Monitoring and Observation is key: Throughout the election the independent media gave a continuous run down of how the elections were going including the areas of dispute and how they were being resolved by the different dispute settlement mechanisms. It was open for all to see how the counting was unfolding including how cases before the courts were being resolved. In the end, the electorate and the whole world knew of the results and election outcome before the official results were announced as a result of the openness and transparency.
  5. Vice President as an Independent election functionary: Despite being a Republican and strong enabler and supporter of Donald Trump, at a critical time when he had a choice between the country and his party interests, Vice President Pence chose his country and presided over the Congressional formal election of Joe Biden and subsequently the transfer of power processes.
  6. Independence and impartiality of the Law Enforcement Agencies: Despite the fact that Trump was Commander in Chief of the Armed forces, the security forces put the country first and pronounced themselves very strongly on allegiance to the Constitution. After the attempted insurrection on January 6th, they also oversaw a peaceful transfer of power. In the end, American democracy prevailed as the whole world watched.

Other aspects of American democracy that offer good lessons for Africa include the celebration of national diversity and continuous transformation of the political terrain as America elected the first woman Vice President, Kamala Harris, a person of colour. This is evidence that in a real democracy, everyone has equal opportunity to participate and present themselves as leaders; that as President Obama once said in Ghana, ‘Africa (just like America) needs strong institutions and not strong men; that the rule of law and separation and balance of powers are key as the insurance to guarantee sustainability of democracy.’

The US elections proved that though democracy is very fragile, it’s resilience lies in the institutions that underpin it; the justice system, independent election management bodies, a professional security sector loyal to the Constitution, a strong civil society and free and independent media.

What we have recently witnessed of the imperfections in American elections should therefore spur African countries on to keep improving our own democratic growth and practices as outlined in the African Union Constitutive Act and clarified in the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance in Africa.

Tatenda Mazurura is a Woman Human Rights Defender (WHRD) and an election expert.

Round-Up 29. The Southern Africa Human Rights Roundup is a weekly column aimed at highlighting important human rights news in southern Africa. It integrates efforts of human rights defenders and facilitates evidence-based engagement with key stakeholders and institutions on the human rights situation across the region.