old narratives

How not to write about an African election

By Moky Makura

Posted on September 13, 2021 09:04

Zambia Elections © Supporters of main opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema celebrate on the streets of Lusaka, Zambia, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)/
Supporters of main opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema celebrate on the streets of Lusaka, Zambia, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)/

By the end of 2021, 13 African countries would have held presidential elections. That’s 13 different opportunities for global media to paint the same story of rigged and, in some cases, violent elections that have become the single story of democracy in Africa.

Is it an African election if it’s not unfair, violent or marred by chaos and social media shutdown?  We won’t have long to wait because in the next three months Somalia, Cabo Verde, Gambia and Libya will have their own elections, and chances are it will be more of the same story.

Zambia 2021 as a case study

Elections in Benin, Chad, Djibouti, Niger, Congo, São Tomé and Príncipe, South Sudan, and Uganda have done little to change the narrative, so it was with great interest I kept my eyes on Zambia’s August elections when the country went to the polls to choose their next president. It was a race with two front runners: President Edgar Lungu, who had been in office since 2015, and businessman Hakainde Hichilema who won 59% of the votes.

Contrary to the narrative around the reporting, Zambia is not new to democratic elections. Hichilema himself has participated in five previous elections and will be the country’s seventh president since the late Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s first president who served between 1964 to 1991 and died earlier this year.

With a free and fair election now under Zambia’s belt and with the benefit of hindsight, many of the media headlines and predictions are almost laughable. To The Economist, a free and fair election was an unlikely outcome.

“Zambia’s election is crucial,” they wrote some days before election day, “but it’s not a fair fight. Hakainde Hichilema deserves to be elected, but the world should prepare for a rigged vote.”

Sadly, The Economist wasn’t the only news platform that predicted chaos. “Zambians head to the polls, but hopes of a free election are slim,” South Africa’s Business Day Live said.

“Zambians go to the polls Thursday amid fears of unfair election,” RFI warned. “Election to test Zambia’s standing as a stable democracy,” AP News said.

There were declarations of hitting “rock bottom”, as CAJ News Africa reported after Lungu initially rejected election results. Although unhappy with the results, Lungu accepted them and subsequently congratulated the new president in a handover of power that was free from violence.

Reports that didn’t suggest that the elections would be unfair said poverty, economic woes and Covid-19 underscored the polls. Zambia’s economy is indeed in recession due to Covid-19, but this is a global issue that also created a public health and economic crisis in the US.

The Zambian election had its expected cliches. The internet was shut down, but the rule of law reigned when the High Court ruled that access should be fully restored. There were accusations and counteraccusations of violence against members of the campaigning parties and even military presence on election day. Still, there was a  high turnout at polling stations. It showed that Zambians had faith in the democratic system working, as evidenced by the peaceful handover of power in previous general elections.

Continued use of old frames

Unfortunately, this stereotypical framing of African elections has become the norm for how news platforms cover African elections – there will be violence, fraud, and corruption. This continued use of old frames is problematic.  The arrogance of some of the predictions and the bias of the reporting is feeding a narrative about this continent that many Africans and their leaders are trying to move away from.

Elections in Africa are not a test for democracy; they are proof that democracy and institutions meant to uphold the system work despite the typical politicking of elections everywhere. For instance, the February elections in Niger were a second run-off between candidates after the initial elections on 27 December 2020 failed to produce a winner. The 29 August elections in São Tomé and Príncipe were a second run-off. The first elections were initially held on 18 July.

Impact of the youth

What’s often missing in the current style of election reporting is the context that could help frame the story differently. We all know that Africa’s population is very youthful, and elections are often happening against the backdrop of youth-led unrest sparked by the economic impact of Covid-19 and movements like #EndSARS in Nigeria.

The youth vote was credited with swaying the Zambian elections in Hichilema’s favour showing the power of using elections as a tool for protest.

It’s time for more nuanced, contextualised reporting on African elections as the current framing does a disservice to the process of democracy.

Al Jazeera‘s post-election report on Zambia provided an alternative perspective for election reporting in this line: “They say this was a protest vote, a protest for hope and a protest for change.”

Bottom line

The story of elections in Africa is more complex and far more interesting than the media often give us credit for. A new framing of hope and change reflects more authentically what elections have come to signify in Africa and encourages a style of reporting that should dig deeper.

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