The perils of election fraud in Africa

By Joshua Kenyon

Free and fair elections are crucial for development by encouraging governments to act in the best interests of the citizens who vote for them. Achieving this includes ensuring that there are regular elections, a transparent voting system, and freedom of speech. However, some countries in Africa have consistently fallen short of these conditions, leaving many citizens feeling alienated and unrepresented. Election fraud not only leads to less freedom for people, organisations, and political parties, but also to protests and occasionally violent conflict. Widespread change is therefore needed in Africa to prevent the adverse political, economic, and social effects that are caused by election fraud.

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What is election fraud?

Reports of election interference throughout Africa are abundant. The methods used in election interference include arresting opposition party members, censoring media, and denying access to election observers. Tanzania held elections in October 2020, which has since been widely accused of significant election fraud. In the run-up to the election, social media platforms such as Twitter and WhatsApp were blocked, with the desired effect of preventing opposition candidates from reaching the electorate. Furthermore, the secretary general for the main opposition party claims that over 300 of their members were arrested and detained during the electoral campaign, including opposition leader, Tundu Lissu, who was incidentally shot outside his home in 2017.

Faulty voting equipment and inconsistent polling station procedures have also led to credible claims of election fraud in Africa. The Democratic Republic of Congo has been the recipient of allegations that claim it to not be as democratic as the name suggests. The election in December 2018, which was 2 years later than the agreed upon date, was held using new touchscreen voting machines. Questions were raised over the wisdom of using such equipment in a country where both faulty electricity supplies and fraud are common occurrences. And unsurprisingly, voting machine malfunctions meant that not all votes were tallied. Not only that, but over 1000 polling stations were subject to last minute closures, 24% of polling stations closed without allowing those in line to vote, and over 1 million citizens were not allowed to vote at all. Most concerning were the reports of militia groups coercing voters to vote for certain candidates. In one example, a teacher was threatened with arrest if they did not vote for the incumbent party.

The results of the election were also controversial, with the analysis of 2 separate collections of voting data showing the official results to be false. According to the data, the official ‘runner-up’ in the election received 6 million more votes than the official ‘winner’. With such a corrupt political system, the real victims of election fraud are the civilians who not only lack a real influence over election outcomes, but are also subject to the unfavourable policies of the fraudulently-elected government.

Consequences of election fraud

Fraudulent election victories have led to the coming to power of governments who lack accountability to their people, which has given rise to policies that suppress the work of media, non-governmental organisations, and human rights campaigns. In Tanzania, President Magufuli has done a lot to damage the health of his citizens, not least by encouraging people not to wear masks after announcing that God had ended the coronavirus. Non-governmental organisations are subject to deregistration if they are found to be critical of the government. And people who criticize the government are at risk of prosecution – in one example, a man was sentenced to three years for insulting the president via WhatsApp.

Election fraud often creates contempt towards the government, which can lead to an increase in protests and confrontations with armed forces, and therefore, more killings and economic hardship. In Kenya, in 2007, over 1200 people were killed in election-related violence that left over 350,000 displaced. Foreign offices then advised people not to travel to Kenya, which caused an 80% reduction in tourism revenue, one of the country’s largest sources of income. It is estimated that election violence led to the nation’s growth rate of GDP falling from 6% to 2%. Reforms must therefore be enacted across Africa to preclude the consequences that follow from a corrupt electoral system.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

There are signs of change within Africa’s electoral systems. For example, in the last 5 years, 40% of Africa’s elections were won by opposition candidates, compared to only 17% during the previous 20 years. And though traditionally gerontocracies, some African countries have started to give more power to younger candidates. In Tunisia’s 2014 election, for example, each party had to list at least one candidate below the age of 30. Morocco has also enacted similar policies, with new election laws meaning that 30 seats are reserved for candidates under 40, which has given rise to ideas and policies that are more representative of younger people. In response to high unemployment rates amongst young people, Morocco passed ‘The National Employment Strategy 2015-2025’ which aims to create at least 200,000 jobs a year. Countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, where under 30s make up 70% of the population, should look to mirror these policies and give young people more autonomy to enact change within government.

Joshua is an undergraduate at the University of Sheffield studying Economics, and has interests in economic development.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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