Coups and military takeovers were the order of the day in Africa in 2021 with aging leaderships ousted by military takeovers time and again. It started in Chad in April when the death of President Idriss Deby on the battlefield prompted the military to take power (installing his son Mahamat, a military commander, as interim president), while also dissolving government and suspending the constitution. More traditional coups followed in Mali in May; in Guinea in September; and in October in Sudan. So far in 2022 the pattern does not look that much more encouraging with a 24 January military coup overthrowing Burkina Faso’s president Roch Marc Christian Kaboré amid a deepening security crisis and widespread dissatisfaction among civilians with Kaboré’s leadership and his failure to contain the devastation caused by frequent attacks by jihadist insurgents. This was followed swiftly by an attempted coup in Guinea Bissau on 1 February when armed men attacked the government palace in a failed effort to unseat President Umaro Sissoco Embalo. With the West African region especially hard hit, its leaders, via the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), have managed a desultory response only with sanctions and suspensions (excluding of Chad) yet to convince any of the new military rulers to organise new elections.
With democracy thus clearly under the cosh on the continent and a slew of elections up ahead this year, presidential elections in Kenya and Angola in August will test both countries’ democratic mettle and hopefully create at least a counter narrative to the bad news noise generated by the contagion of coups of the last year.
However, Kenya’s presidential election is unlikely to be an easy or peaceful one with incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta excluded from running for a third term and still smarting from the failure of his effort to modify the structure of the executive and create a broad coalition after his so-called Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) was rejected by Kenya’s courts. Hence the main contest for a new president will likely be between former vice-president William Ruto and opposition old-timer Raila Odinga ‒ the latter making what is highly likely to be his last stab at the country’s top job. With the stakes high for both men, the support of Kenyatta’s constituency (for Odinga so far) will be key and the soon to be former president will be keen to maximise his leverage before he leaves office. Fears of violence and disputed results are high with Kenya’s electoral history riddled with warning signs and its population torn between the desire to both achieve democracy and avoid bloodshed. While the courts’ recent rejection of Kenyatta’s attempt to change the constitution offers some hope that democracy could prevail, the electoral system and many of the presiding officials that produced 2017’s highly questionable outcome remains as it was and wide open to abuse.
Angola’s August poll is less likely to drive Kenyan scale unrest or violence but it will be a significant route marker in the country’s democratic evolution. Also elected in 2017, President João Manuel Lourenço’s initial incumbency was tainted by alleged electoral irregularities. However, he has since sought to consolidate power and clean up governance at the same time via a series of reforms that have been praised for tackling corruption and increasing political and media freedoms while simultaneously eroding the grip of former president José Eduardo dos Santos and his family on Angola’s body politic and wealth. The election this year will, therefore, be a litmus test of the strength of both Angola’s still precarious electoral process ‒ which has historically favoured the ruling People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA/Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola)– Partido do Trabalho, MPLA) ‒ and of Lourenço’s much-touted progress on political and press freedoms. Either way, the elections will offer a timely and public gauge of Angola’s democratic climate and trajectory.
While Kenya’s presidential polls will inevitably unsettle the country yet again, any outcome that is perceived to be less tainted than 2017 would be a win but the odds are low and volatile emotions high at this point. Conversely the re-election of Angola’s Lourenço could strengthen his reformist hand while sceptics and rights watchers will keep a close eye on the extent to which the expansion of political and media freedoms is sustained in his second term.
Further south towards the end of 2022, South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) is set to hold its own internal electoral conference which will essentially confirm the party’s president elect for national elections set to be held in 2024. While these are not official presidential elections, they will similarly recalibrate South Africa’s democratic reality. Infighting in the ANC is fierce with President Cyril Ramaphosa facing numerous threats to his second term and the ANC under significant pressure to hold on to a 50% majority in 2024 after a dismal showing in 2021 local government elections suggested waning support. With South Africa often seen as the continent’s democratic vanguard, and the ANC as its self-appointed custodian, the party’s ability to unite around a single credible future president and run a solid election campaign in 2024 will, like the elections in Kenya and Angola, reverberate across the region. With the threat of fresh of coups high and the future of newly installed military governments in Chad, Mali, Guinea and Sudan uncertain, strong and credible presidential elections in Kenya and Angola could lift Africa’s flagging democratic spirit at a vital time.