The top five most important African elections to watch in 2021

Kurt Davis Jr.
By Kurt Davis Jr.
Investment banker

Kurt Davis Jr. is an investment banker and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He earned a M.B.A. in finance, entrepreneurship, and operations from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and a J.D. in tax law and commercial law from the University of Virginia School of Law. He can be reached at

Posted on Tuesday, 15 December 2020 13:32
Patriotic Front presidential candidate Edgar Lungu is running for re-election in 2021. REUTERS/Rogan Ward

There are many elections in Africa in 2021, but they won't all be competitive. Some of the countries on the calendar, like Benin, Chad, and the Republic of the Congo, have very strongly entrenched incumbents. The 2021 election calendar in Africa, in comparison to 2020, will also have many international observers from afar and maybe on the ground, as in Libya.

The 2020 election calendar in Africa was a rather quiet one largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic dominating the news. The Ivoirian and Tanzanian elections went as expected, with victories for the incumbents.

A victory by Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo provided the competition that excites political analysts and lovers of politics. It sadly was the only election that attracted much international attention.

READ MORE Ghana elections: John Mahama to fight on after rejecting Nana Akufo-Addo victory

Here are the top elections to watch in Africa and predictions for 2021.


Presidential elections will be held in August 2021. The election will be the sixth (and, he says, last) attempt by opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema of the United Party for National Development to win the presidency. Hichilema was the business-friendly candidate in 2016 who campaigned on fixing the then struggling economy.

Low commodity prices in 2016, especially for copper, battered the economy and was coupled with continuous power outages and insufficient tax revenue collection. Hichilema thus carried significant momentum into the election but could not overcome current President Edgar Lungu’s network on the ground. Not much has changed since 2016 except now the country has defaulted on its sovereign debt.

READ MORE Zambia shows how the West must lend like China, says Mark Mobius

Lungu and Hichilema are again trading the usual digs on who can run the economy and repair the country. Hichilema highlights the challenges of the current economy – a simple argument centred on the country’s current sovereign debt restructuring process and the decimation of the currency, the kwacha.

Zambia’s external debt is about $12bn, which is roughly 80% of GDP. The economy is set to shrink by 4.8% this year, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). And the kwacha has plummeted about 30% since the start of the year. Inflation has already surged past 15% so far this year.

Lungu has unsurprisingly responded with the normal critiques on the mining industry and a failed tax system (or, better said, revenue collecting system for the state from the mining industry).

What does this all mean?

  • First, ordinary Zambians are losing big time. It is not clear if the re-election of Lungu or the election of Hichilema will change this reality.
  • Secondly, the restructuring should be concluded by August 2021 (and may decrease in importance). The consent solicitation in November where the External Bondholder Committee rejected the government’s proposal to defer coupons on its 2022, 2024, and 2027 eurobonds felt like a false start. Now, the IMF mission to the country is re-engaged and, following a likely non-disclosure agreement with the External Bondholder Committee, will be able to help forge a path to a solution that should work for the country, IMF and the bondholders.
  • Third, Zambia could benefit from an election with a clearly mandated winner with no election irregularities and no riots. Zambia will want to avoid a repeat of 2016 where political riots resulted in more than 300 people being arrested and Hichilema having his petition on the elections at the constitutional court rejected due to a technicality. Afterwards, he was also arrested for treason.

Who will win? President Lungu will likely win in a close election. He will negotiate a solution to the debt crisis with the IMF prior to the election because there is no other option. This solution should help the country’s economy. A COVID-19 vaccine should help the global economy at some level by August next year. Hichilema will find it hard to find traction if this is the storyline. That is a big “if”, but it looks like the storyline today.


A date has not been set for Ethiopian elections. The House of Peoples’ Representatives delayed the August 2020 elections due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When the election takes place, many Ethiopians and outsiders will be watching the election to see if Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed retains his mandate to govern Africa’s second-most populous country, especially considering the current conflict.

Ethiopia is sadly embroiled in a major internal conflict in the country’s northern Tigray region. Abiy sent troops to the region after accusing the Tigrayan ruling party of attacking defence posts and stealing military equipment. Fighting has ensued for several weeks, with many Ethiopians being displaced and global leaders calling for a quick resolution.

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which is the region’s main political party, has increasingly become frustrated with Ahmed’s leadership, and tensions ultimately boiled over when the elections were delayed. The Tigray leadership ignored the COVID-19 warnings and went forward with their regional elections, which the federal government said were illegal.

The conflict may be resolved by election time, but the tension between the TPLF and Abiy will still be a storyline of the election in 2021. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) was dissolved in December last year. Most of the member parties in the EPRDF merged into the ruling Prosperity Party (under which Abiy governs), including the Amhara Democratic Party, Oromo Democratic Party and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement.

The TPLF refused to join the Prosperity Party. That decision surely weakened the TPLF’s power at the federal level, considering previous leaders of the EPRDF had been Tigrayans. The TPLF does not have an alternate alliance to join nor is it on path to creating a formidable opposition alliance to the Prosperity Party. Thus, the election discussion may become less about winning a federal election and more about the powers afforded to regional governments (i.e., federal versus state rights).

READ MORE Where next for Abiy’s Ethiopia after Tigray operation ‘completed’?

Who will win? The Prosperity Party is big and influential. Unless parties break away from the Prosperity Party, Prime Minister Abiy should retain power.


The Libyan participants at the United Nations-led talks in Tunisia last month agreed to hold national parliamentary and presidential elections in December 2021. The agreement follows a precarious ceasefire deal in October between the two major parties in the country’s ongoing civil war – the internationally recognised Government of National Accord led by President Fayez al-Sarraj and the eastern-based Libyan National Army led by military commander Khalifa Haftar.

READ MORE Libya: Before power-sharing deals, Libyans must define a national vision

The country has been embroiled in conflict and chaos since the overthrow of long-time leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. And, as 2021 approaches, it is not clear who could lead the country 10 years after Gaddafi. The most likely scenario is there will be some unexpected names that come up during the next 12 months that could change the outcome of the election.

Who will win? If the peace agreement holds and the election happens without violence, then Libyans will win.


President Yoweri Museveni and his National Resistance Movement (NRM) party were supposed to feel the heat of a tight election back in 2016. Some Museveni critics went as far as suggesting that long-time opposition candidate Kizza Besigye, who represented the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), could win the election.

Yet, at the end of the vote, Museveni had a commanding victory with more than 60%. Opposition candidates alleged fraud and voting irregularities. The US and the European Union acknowledged that the election process lacked transparency and was frustrated by the detention of opposition candidates.

READ MORE Uganda: Can Bobi Wine unseat Yoweri Museveni?

The story of 2016 creates a lens through which 2021 must be analysed. First, the opposition’s chances appear bigger than they are. It is a harsh statement, but there is a track record of Museveni victories to support it.

Well-known musician Robert ‘Bobi Wine’ Kyagulanyi is leading the National Unity Party as the opposition party, having formed an alliance with Besigye.

  • Wine continues to gain notoriety and support each time he is arrested and parlays that into public protests and international discussion. This strategy, however, is not a campaign strategy.
  • But the backdrop to the Uganda election will favour Museveni. The COVID-19 pandemic has been managed well by Museveni’s administration. With a little more than 200 deaths, many Ugandans are happy with efforts against the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of the government’s pandemic efforts, it has provided radios, televisions, money and food to some citizens. The administration is surely helping its vote count with those donations.
  • The structures and networks that govern elections and get voters to the polls still favour Museveni. Wine has more charisma and energy than previous contestants against Museveni. But his rise from the Ugandan ‘ghetto’ to Ugandan prominence has not necessarily convinced the old guard that he can beat Museveni and run the country. His youth, at age 38, has not exactly helped against the 76-year-old President who, at some level, is using his 34 years as president as a positive in the debate.

Who will win? Museveni will win, like usual, with a bigger margin than some analysts predict.


The election is scheduled for December 2021. The candidate list remains very much unknown. President Adama Barrow is planning to run for re-election. He defeated former president Yahya Jammeh, who governed for 22 years, in 2016.

READ MORE Gambia’s President Barrow chooses mandate over constituents

Backed then by a coalition of seven political parties, Barrow promised to serve only three years and resign…he unsurprisingly did not keep that promise. So far, it is not clear that there is anyone with the popularity and leadership skills to provide a strong challenge to him. But then again, that was the story with Jammeh in the last election, and we all know how that went.

Who will win? This is a hard one…let us see who challenges Barrow.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options