Change tack or stay the course?

Ethiopia, Somalia, Zambia: Elections to watch in 2021

By The Africa Report

Posted on February 4, 2021 14:57

People pass by a painting on the wall of the Ugandan electoral commission compound in Kampala © People pass by a painting on the wall of the Ugandan electoral commission compound in Kampala, Uganda 13 January 2021. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
People pass by a painting on the wall of the Ugandan electoral commission compound in Kampala, Uganda 13 January 2021. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Elections for new presidents and prime ministers give populations a chance to think about where their countries are heading. The Covid-19 crisis has been weakening economies across the continent, setting the scene for some hotly contested polls in 2021.

President Patrice Talon had promised to run for a single term but may try to go for a second, having used up his first in weakening and dividing the opposition. After the opposition boycott of the legislative vote in April 2019 and electoral reforms that favour Talon and his allies, the April 2021 vote is likely to be a tense one.

The other main candidates from the 2016 elections, Lionel Zinsou and Sébastien Ajavon, say that they are the victims of trumped up legal cases that prevent them from running. With the playing field tilted in his favour, if Talon does run again he is unlikely to face heavyweight challengers. He embarked on a big national tour in November, suggesting that his ambitions to reshape the country have not been quenched.

Cabo Verde

Social welfare programmes and the country’s reliance on tourism are set to be hot topics in the country’s election of a new parliament and prime minister, which are expected to be held by March 2021. Prime Minister Ulisses Correia e Silva of the left-­leaning Movimento para a Democracia will face off against Janira Hopffer Almada of the Partido Africano da Independência de Cabo Verde, who wants to be the country’s first female prime minister. The Covid-19 crisis hit the poorest families harder and also highlighted the archipelago’s overdependence on tourism.


Chad’s President Idriss Déby Itno is among the long-­serving African presidents who use the power of incumbency to ensure their political longevity. Despite high debts, an oil-price crisis and insecurity surrounding its borders, Déby is likely to win the 11 April polls because the opposition is not united and has not been able to show that it provides a viable alternative to the strongman. With the headquarters of France’s Opération Barkhane in N’Djamena, Déby is seen by the West as an important ally in the fight against insecurity in the Sahel.


Ismaïl Omar Guelleh, in power since 1999, has said he will groom a successor when the time is right. Now does not appear to be that time. In the 2016 polls, Guelleh’s top opponent took 7.3% of the vote and 2021 is not likely to be much different. The opposition cannot agree on whether to compete in the April poll or boycott it. Some in the Union pour le Salut National coalition are calling for protests, and, while there is anger about high youth unemployment, there is little space for freedom of expression in the country.


With the war launched against the northern region of Tigray in November, Ethiopia’s electoral calendar is now in doubt. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed delayed the August 2020 polls until May or June 2021 due to the coronavirus outbreak. Tigray held its own vote and said the Abiy government was illegitimate.

As a sign of his reformist intentions, Abiy appointed oppositionist Birtukan Mideksa as electoral commission chief. Elections are critical for Abiy’s legitimacy and for his plans for the country, which include implementing more democratic reforms. But the Tigray conflict and tensions elsewhere in Ethiopia show that the country’s ethnic-­federalist constitution will be at the heart of political debates well beyond the next vote.


Gambia’s transition since dictator Yahya Jammeh was voted out of office in 2016 has not been a smooth one. President Adama Barrow won a shock victory, promising to stay in office for just three years in order to sweep away the armature of dictatorship and set the country on a new path. He is intending to stay his full term and will run again on 4 December 2021 under the National People’s Party, which he formed in 2019.

He tried to get parliament to approve a new constitution in October, but his own supporters and some of Jammeh’s voted against it. Barrow’s main opponent will be Ousainou Darboe of the United Democratic Party, which backed Barrow back in 2017. There are likely to be intense alliance negotiations ahead of the vote.

Republic of Congo

The election date is set for 16 March and, although Denis Sassou Nguesso has not said he will run again, few expect the 77-year-old president to announce his retirement. Several candidates from the 2016 election are in prison. Pascal Tsaty Mabiala of UPADS, the official leader of the opposition, has called for a postponement and the party has not said whether it will participate. The roster of candidates is likely to be long, with several from the diaspora.


As progress on securing the country has not gone as the government had planned, February’s presidential ballot will not be the country’s first ‘one citizen, one vote’ election, which was one of President Mohamed ‘Farmaajo’ Abdullahi Mohamed’s goals when he took office in 2017.

READ MORE Kenya/Somalia: Tensions rise ahead of February presidential elections

Farmaajo is running for re-election, promising to continue to fight Al-Shabaab and build up the state’s capacity. He will face rivals like Abshir Aden Ferro, a Franco-Somali businessman. Ferro says Somalia’s current indirect system of elections is rife with vote buying. Civil society groups warned in late 2020 that the government might miss the February target. Two former presidents are also in the running.


No one is surprised that Uganda’s long-term President Yoweri Museveni won a sixth term in office, following the 14 January presidential election. However, the real change has been a changing of the guard in the opposition, with long-term opponent Kizza Besigye supplanted as the key political foe to Museveni by Bobi Wine. Both in parliament and as the target for Museveni’s security services.


How low can the economy go without taking President Edgar Lungu with it? After borrowing heavily and developing a conflict-filled relationship with mining firms, Zambia is struggling to pay its debts, with spillover effects on the economy.

READ MORE Uganda elections: Museveni wins, Bobi Wine the rising power in parliament

But opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema will not have an easy time challenging the governing Patriotic Front (PF). While Hichilema highlights his skills as a businessman in taking the country forward, the government could again choose to prosecute him for blocking a presidential motorcade. With the legal threat hanging over him, will he be able to persuade enough of the PF-leaning urban voters to back him after he has lost five times in a row?

This article is available as part of the print edition of The Africa Report magazine: ‘Africa in 2021 – Who will be the winners and losers of the post-Covid era?’

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