Political year ahead in Africa: Which governments will lose power in 2023?

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Africa in 2023
Nic Cheeseman
By Nic Cheeseman

Every month 'Political Capital' tracks which leaders' political stock is rising, who is on the slide, and what this means for democracy and development. Focusing on the trends behind the headlines, Nic Cheeseman (@fromagehomme) highlights the political power plays and events that will shape the future of Africa. He is Professor of Democracy at University of Birmingham and Author of 'How to Rig an Election'. Founder of www.democracyinafrica.org. Co-producer of Resistance Bureau.

Posted on Tuesday, 20 December 2022 16:29, updated on Thursday, 19 January 2023 14:07

Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari delivers a speech during the Paris Peace Forum, in Paris, Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

The dust is just beginning to settle on President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo’s farcical election victory in Equatorial Guinea. Not satisfied with ruling the country since 1979, he engineered one of the most one-sided elections the world has ever seen. This included giving himself 97% of the vote in the presidential election and preventing the opposition from winning a single legislative seat. Equatorial Guinea is now a one-party state in all, but name.

Things look very different in Kenya, which also held elections in 2022.

Ahead of the polls, it became clear that President Kenyatta would respect term limits and support his former rival, Raila Odinga, as his successor.

Despite concerns that Kenyatta’s allies would use their control over the state to manufacture a victory for Odinga, the electoral commission announced a narrow victory for his main rival – a decision subsequently upheld, despite significant political pressure by the Supreme Court.

Year of contrasts

The cases of Kenya and Equatorial Guinea demonstrate that 2002 in Africa was a year of tremendous contrasts.

[Although] politically changing elections were reaffirmed in Kenya, it seems further away than ever in Cameroon, Chad, Uganda and Rwanda.

[…] Zambia demonstrated the potential for new leadership to address debt crises and economic recovery, [but] other countries, such as Zimbabwe, became evermore corrupt and indebted.

The widening gap between Africa’s more democratic and authoritarian states is not a new trend.

My work has often reflected on the growing divide between countries where presidents respect term limits, where governments sometimes accept defeat and states where leaders stay in power no matter the cost to their people.

Where democracy and authoritarianism are concerned, Africa is two – or perhaps three or four – regions in one.

So what can we expect in 2023?

Presidential polls are scheduled in Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Liberia, Madagascar, Sierra Leone, Sudan, and Zimbabwe.

Where will we see repression and rigging carry the day and where might the opposition be able to win out, demonstrating that citizens really can choose their governments?

The last 20 years of electoral politics suggest that four main conditions make it more likely a government will lose power.

The most obvious is that opposition victories are more common in countries where the security forces are less politicised and the electoral commission is more independent.

Elections held under these conditions are less likely to see rigging and repression, and citizens are more likely to believe that change is possible.

In turn, this reduces the risk of voter apathy and means that governments will find it harder to intimidate opposition supporters.

Governments are also more vulnerable to defeat when the opposition is united behind a single candidate

Although the presence of a “militocracy” can make government defeat all but impossible – as in Equatorial Guinea – an unfair playing field doesn’t always make a transfer of power impossible.

This is especially the case when the sitting president does not stand for election – either because they have died in office or ha[ve] exhausted presidential term limits.

Triggering split

Selecting a new presidential candidate usually triggers splits within the ruling party while also disrupting existing support and patronage networks.

Outgoing presidents also tend to allow better quality elections – because it is not their own “neck on the line” – and open seat polls create a window of opportunity for opposition parties.

Governments are also more vulnerable to defeat when the opposition is united behind a single candidate, and high levels of corruption contribute to economic hardship.

When this happens, voters blame the ruling party for their pain and are more likely to throw their weight behind “change” candidates, as in Malawi (2020), Zambia (2021), and Kenya (2022).

It is hard to be precise about the effect of these factors given that so many different things shape how an election plays out.

[However], I estimate that when “open seat” presidential elections are held in more democratic countries with a united opposition and public anger at economic mismanagement, the chances of an opposition victory increase eightfold.

At this point, a government defeat is more likely than not.

Which governments could lose in 2023?

There are very few countries in Africa right now where citizens are happy with the state of the economy, and so elections pose a grave challenge to every government that holds them.

However, ruling parties generally have things in their favour where the other three factors are concerned, making a wave of opposition victories unlikely.

Take incumbency: in Chad, the DRC, Gabon, Liberia, Madagascar, Sierra Leone, and Zimbabwe, the sitting president is expected to contest the polls.

The most vulnerable ruling party from this perspective is the All Progressives Congress in Nigeria.

[…] President Buhari’s successor, Bola Tinubu, comes from different ethnicity, region, and religion, [so] it may be difficult for him to inherit his predecessor’s support base.

This may be one of the reasons Tinubu is behind in the prospective polls, or perhaps it is the result of Peter Obi – a viable “third force” candidate that is shaking Nigeria’s two-party system.

Saving force

The saving grace for Tinubu is that he faces a divided opposition and can use state resources to bolster his campaign, while Obi lacks an effective political structure.

However, if no candidate secures a first-round victory, and the opposition coalesces behind a single figure in a run-off, Tinubu may find that only electoral manipulation will guarantee him success.

Many other leaders will also be relying on a divided opposition to ease their election troubles, most notably President Felix Tshisekedi in the DRC.

Having lost the election of 2018 and only secured power when polls were manipulated in his favour in a last-minute political deal, Tshisekedi faces a massive challenge from the real winner, Martin Fayulu.

As in 2018, however, a divided opposition vote will empower Tshisekedi, not least because it will make it easier to conceal electoral manipulation.

There are several countries in which political fragmentation is unlikely to save the government.

These include Madagascar, where former president Marc Ravalomanana remains a powerful opposition figure; Gabon, where Jean Ping won almost half of the vote in his defeat to President Ali Bongo in 2016; and Liberia, where presidential elections have generally gone to a run-off in which opposition support can congeal around a common candidate. Other countries include Sierra Leone, where the gap between the two principal leaders was less than 3% in 2018, and Zimbabwe, where the opposition has largely reunited behind Nelson Chamisa and his new political vehicle, the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC).

In these cases, where the opposition may make every vote count, the prospects of governments holding on to power will be shaped by the independence of the electoral commission and the politicisation of the security forces.

Violent repression

Surveys show that Chamisa is ahead in Zimbabwe, for example. However, President Mnangagwa and ZANU-PF appear bent on using violent repression and outright rigging to retain power […].

Taking into account where electoral commissions and the security forces are more willing to allow political change, the greatest prospects for opposition victories appear to lie in Liberia, Nigeria, Madagascar and Sierra Leone.

However, while all these countries have experienced power transfers in the past, governments enjoy so many benefits of incumbency that it is never wise to bet your house on an opposition win.

What does this mean for the future of politics in Africa? The defeat of a ruling party does not guarantee reform and democratisation.

Governments may do a successful job in power and so win legitimately.

Moreover, several opposition parties have proven to be just as corrupt and inept as the governments they replaced.

Even so, over time, repeated power transfers, alongside respect for presidential term limits, can simultaneously strengthen democratic institutions and norms while accelerating economic growth and development.

Unfortunately, next year, as in the past decade, the divide between the countries benefiting from this “virtuous circle” and those that are not will continue to grow.

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