Thirteen presidential and legislative elections are scheduled to take place in Africa during the course of 2021, despite the presence of COVID-19.
While fear of contracting COVID-19 has possibly contributed to lower voter turnout, it is not the only reason people are staying home from the polls. Across the continent, there have been many reports of security crackdowns on public rallies, intimidation of opposition parties their leaders fleeing into exile if they have not been arrested and much of the media has been muted with many journalists being harassed, threatened, and imprisoned.
The legitimacy of a country’s electoral process is closely tied to its prospects for stability.
In a number of countries, such as Uganda, Chad, the Republic of the Congo, and Djibouti, leaders have held their seats for decades, and are holding onto their positions by any means necessary including force removal of term limits, and giving limited operating space to opposition parties. Increased internal conflict in many countries as a result of increased corruption, lack of accountability, and lack of reform, is threatening to undermine the economic stability of the entire Horn of Africa region.
Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, for example, ranks Uganda and Djibouti at 142 out of 180 countries; Chad at 160 out of 180; the Republic of Congo at 170 out of 180.
In it’s CPI 2020: SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA Report it reveals that Sub-Saharan Africa with an average score of 32 is the lowest performing region on the CPI, showing little improvement from previous years and underscoring a need for urgent action. There is a desperate need for reform in every sector of each of these countries, if their economies are to be salvaged, security improved, and youthful populations employed.
In January 2021, Uganda’s national electoral commission declared President Yoweri Museveni the winner of a sixth term with 58% of the vote, but the results have been widely contested. The main opposition candidate Robert Kyagulanyi was placed under house arrest for 12 days post-election, and opposition parties called for national defiance of Museveni’s government. Human rights groups and foreign governments slammed the government for shutting down the internet during the election, and banning outside voting observers.
Elections in Somalia which were scheduled for the 8th of February 2021, are yet to take place due to lack of agreement on how the vote should happen. As protests and tensions grow in the country, the U.N. Security Council has urged Somalia’s government to organize elections “without delay” in a resolution that stressed the pressing threat to the country’s security from al-Shabab, and armed opposition groups. The UN resolution, which was adopted unanimously, authorized the African Union to maintain its nearly 20,000-strong force in Somalia until the end of the year, with a mandate to reduce the threat from the extremist groups.
In Niger, accusation of election irregularities have led to mass protests and government repression. On February 23rd, 2021, the country’s Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) declared, Bazoum, the ruling party’s candidate and a former minister of the interior, the winner with 55.75 percent of the vote. Ousmane, who won 44.25 percent of the vote, carried the opposition strongholds of Tillabéry, which includes the capital, Niamey, and Zinder. Despite CENI’s announcement, however, Ousmane declared himself the winner.
Republic of Congo’s election held on 21st March 2021 was the first time that voters went to the polls in two phases since the first multi-party presidential election in 1992. In power for 36 years, the country’s 77-years old incumbent president Dennis Sassou Nguesso is one of the longest serving presidents in Africa. His challengers included Mathias Dzon, the former Minister of Finance between 1997-2002 and just until recently, the late Guy-Brice Parfait Kolélas, who died of COVID-19 complications.
Up next - elections in Djibouti
Free and fair elections are the cornerstone of democracy, and are one of the major drivers of foreign investment into any country.
On the 9th of April 2021, Djiboutians go to the polls, as President Omar Guelleh attempts to extend his tenure to a fifth term in the country’s presidential elections. Guelleh has been in power since 1999, a total of 22 years. Term limits that stated that Presidents could only serve two terms were lifted in 2010, just prior to his third term.
The media is not free in Djibouti. The 2020 World Press Freedom Index ranks the country at 176th place out of 180, down three places since 2019. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) report that there is no privately-owned or independent media outlet operating in the country. Media outlets that are operating are used for propaganda purposes by the government.
Djibouti journalists live in fear. There is one exile station, La Voix de Djibouti that broadcasts from Belgium, but the signal is often jammed and its website blocked. In 2019, a La Voix de Djibouti reporter, based in Djibouti, was badly beaten and arrested several times.
Members of opposition parties even those recognized by the electoral commission are harassed, arrested, and prosecuted. In September 2020, several opposition parties joined together under the banner of the USN Coalition aimed at blocking a fifth Guelleh term. They want elections delayed until the Election Commission is reformed, and until that happens, they are calling for a transitional government.
Djibouti is strategically located near the Bab al Mandeb, and its access to maritime traffic through the Indian Ocean and into the Red Sea has resulted in the country hosting naval bases of France, China, Japan, and the United States. This has meant there is little international pressure on the country to reform.
The government draws much of its revenue from port and basing fees and it took on external debt of 103 percent of GDP to support rail, port, and the requisite power projects. Between 2019 and 2021 Djibouti’s debt service payments have increased by around 120 percent leaving the country and its people in high risk of debt distress. There are high levels of inequality and poverty in the country, unemployment sits at 48 percent, and as the youth continue to struggle to find employment, their discontent is rising.
In order to overcome these challenges, the country needs to court foreign investors who are intent on improving infrastructure, facilitating international trade and creating jobs in a dampened economy.
While in theory there are no laws practices or mechanisms that discriminate against foreign investors, navigating their bureaucracy can be complicated. According to the US Department of State’s 2020 Investment Climate Statements: Djibouti, “Government policies are sometimes not transparent and do not foster competition on a non-discriminatory basis. Likewise, the legal, regulatory and accounting systems are not always transparent nor are they consistent with international norms.” This poses a potential threat for foreign investors like DP World who are currently pursuing all “legal means” to defend its claim to a Djibouti terminal, after the African nation nationalized the facility.
According to recent reports, the concession agreement between DP World and Djibouti signed in 2006 is governed by English law through the London Court of International Arbitration. The decision by Djibouti to nationalize the Doraleh Container Terminal came after the government scrapped a 50-year concession contract with DP World, triggering a dispute between the two sides.
DP World is believed to have won three rulings from Britain-based courts over the matter, most recently an injunction at the High Court in London on August 31, 2020, however Djibouti’s government is failing to accept and implement the rulings from the British-based courts. When you consider the financial losses DP World faces, since the terminal was nationalised, as well as the legal costs that continue to mount, one must carefully consider whether investing in Djibouti would be a safe bet.
While DP World clearly continues to see value and invest in the Horn of Africa recently signing an agreement worth US$442 million to expand and operate a regional trade and logistics hub at the Port of Berbera, in partnership with the Somaliland Port Authority and Ethiopia there are perhaps strong reasons for international investors to hold their breath and adopt a wait-and-see approach when it comes to the results of presidential elections not only in Djibouti but in Benin, Chad, Sâo Tomé and Principe, Zambia, and other countries who are going to the polls nearer the close of the year.
Reforms currently sweeping through Ethiopia under the new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed have implications for the relationship between Ethiopia and its neighbours. Ethiopia is seen as the de facto leading state in the region. But it has a history of clashing with neighbouring states.
The current reforms have the potential to bolster Ethiopia’s leadership role in the region. And an Ethiopia that is perceived as a unifying force could lead to more stability.
Two recent announcements stand out: the normalisation of relations with the northern neighbour Eritrea and the signing of a peace deal with the Ogaden National Liberation Front, a separatist movement that has sought self-determination for the Somali region of Ethiopia.
The reasons these two developments are so important is that the tension between Ethiopia, Eritrea, and the Ogaden National Liberation Front have each contributed to instability in the region. The peace deal brokered between Ethiopia and Eritrea will not only affect internal tensions within Ethiopia. It’s also likely to signify a new chapter in the politics of the region.
For its part, the peace accord with the Ogaden National Liberation Front will end a long-standing conflict with the Ethiopian state. This conflict has shaped Ethiopia’s relationship with its Somali region, as well as Ethiopia’s relationship with the Republic of Somalia. The Somali region of Ethiopia is one of nine regional states under the current ethnic federal system in Ethiopia. It is mostly inhabited by Somali-speaking people.
Tensions – both within Ethiopia and between Ethiopia and its neighbours – are rooted in history. The formation of Ethiopia’s Empire state in the late nineteenth century was shaped by the absorption of smaller kingdoms in the south, east, and west of Shewa.
Shewa was Ethiopia’s political centre located north of the current capital Addis Ababa. By the late 19th century the incorporation of these territories was almost complete. By this time the capital had been moved to Addis Ababa.
This incorporation of territories is how the idea of the modern “Ethiopian state” emerged. But this imposition of state power on the new territories was contested. It has been the root cause of much of the country’s internal upheavals.
The importance of territory in Ethiopian statehood was further demonstrated by the 1952 incorporation of Eritrea as an Ethiopian province. Most Eritreans resisted the occupation and took up arms. The occupation was followed by nearly 30 years of conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrean liberation movements.
Ethiopia has also been in conflict with neighbouring Somalia since Somalia gained independence in 1960. Shortly after its independence, the new government in Mogadishu began to prioritise clan loyalties as it formed a new centralised state. This pitted various clans against each other and widened the chasm between clan loyalty and nationality.
The foreign policy objectives of the new Somali Republic were influenced by the level of influence it enjoyed in the Somali-inhabited regions of its neighbours. This included the Somali region of Ethiopia.
Eventually, the push and pull between the republic and its diaspora contributed to the rise of a separatist narrative within the Somali-inhabited regions. This spawned organisations such as the Ogaden National Liberation Front. The front is a separatist rebel group fighting for the self-determination of Somalis in Ethiopia’s Somali region.
Conflict and territory
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Ethiopia was mired in conflicts that challenged its territorial integrity. One was the Ethiopia/Eritrea war.
Self-determination was at the core of the conflict between the Ethiopian government and Eritrean liberation movements. Throughout the conflict it was viewed as a civil war since Eritrea was regarded as a province of Ethiopia.
Similarly, the tension between Ethiopia and the Somali separatist movements was triggered by the Somali belief that their territory belonged to the Somali Republic.
These conflicts led to regional instability.
Ethiopia taking centre stage
Ethiopia has been on a path of reform since 1991. In the intervening years it has become the most economically dominant country in the region. This has cemented its leadership position. The current political reforms can be seen as part of a process of redefining Ethiopia’s role in the broader East African region – and the continent.
The governing Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front and the Ogaden National Liberation Front have been in peace talks since the early 1990s. The unsuccessful talks were accompanied by low-intensity conflict that severely affected the region.
That could be about to change. Thanks to Abiy Ahmed’s reform efforts, the front announced a unilateral ceasefire in August 2018, and by September peace talks had begun with the Ethiopian government and a peace deal was signed. There is cause for optimism that the deal will last because of the current leadership in Addis Ababa.
The peace deal with Eritrea has already had a number of positive outcomes that could contribute to regional stability.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and President Isaias Afwerki have met several times to announce concrete evidence of the peace deal. Abiy also recently hosted his Eritrean and Somali counterparts to cement regional ties.