2015 elections in West Africa: turbulent times ahead

13th March 2015
West Africa is heading towards turbulent times right from the onset of 2015. Citizens in Nigeria, Togo, Benin, Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso are getting ready to go to the polls, in many cases against a backdrop of political instability.

In Nigeria, where general elections were scheduled for 14 February but have been postponed, the intensification of the Boko Haram insurgency is dominating the political scene. The radical Islamist group controls many areas in the states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa, which has led to nearly a million people being displaced within and outside of Nigeria. These displaced people and refugees might not be able to participate in the February elections, which could affect the legitimacy of the poll results and lead to contestation.

Additionally, the formation of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in 2013, following the merger of three opposition parties, has significantly changed the political landscape. Unlike the previous presidential elections, which it had won relatively easily, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) will this time face an opponent with a nationwide base. This has contributed to intensified electoral campaigning amid a charged atmosphere, marked by radicalised political discourse and an increasing number of violent acts.

It therefore seems important that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) accelerates its efforts to finalise the preparation of the ballot, particularly in distributing permanent voting cards and ensuring that displaced people are included in the vote. Nigerian defence and security forces, with the support of the international community, must increase efforts to ensure the security of the vote, especially in regions affected by the Boko Haram insurgency.

In Togo, Faure Gnassingbé will likely be a candidate for a third time in the presidential elections scheduled for March. However, his candidacy is contested by some members of the opposition, who are calling for a return to the 1992 constitution, wherein Article 52 limited the number of presidential terms to two. The constitution was modified in 2002 to take out the term-limit clause.

Discussions on constitutional and institutional reforms, which had started in the National Assembly in June 2014, are still in a deadlock. Reinstating the term-limit clause is the main point of contention, since it would restrict the current president. Additionally, political actors disagree on the introduction of a two-round poll and the reform of electoral institutions, whose legitimacy is being questioned by the opposition (these are the Independent National Electoral Commission, the Constitutional Court and the High Authority for Broadcasting and Communication).

This lack of consensus – in a context where the balance of power seems to favour the ruling Union for the Republic party – could affect the legitimacy of the vote and lead to the results being contested by the opposition. Togolese actors should agree on how political reforms are to be implemented, especially those related to the upcoming polls, to pave the way for free and fair elections.

In Benin, the revision of the permanent digital electoral list (Liste électorale permanente informatisée or LEPI), which has been dominating the political debate since 2011, has made some progress. Following an injunction of the Constitutional Court on 9 January, the Orientation and Surveillance Council of the LEPI delivered the first corrected version of the electoral list on 15 January.

The Constitutional Court also determined the date for the parliamentary elections (26 April 2015) as well as the local elections (31 May). These new developments end nearly two years of political deadlock, and constitute progress towards an electoral list that is accepted by all parties. Political actors had called for this after the 2011 electoral list had been contested. The conduct of the 2015 local and legislative elections (as well as the 2016 presidential elections, which would be another step towards democratic consolidation) will depend on whether all parties accept the definitive electoral list, which is expected on 25 February.

In Côte d’Ivoire, citizens are getting ready to go the polls in October, five years after the violent post-electoral crisis that engulfed the country following the 2010 presidential elections. While everyone is working to avoid a repetition of that scenario, the political climate is tense due to differences regarding the electoral framework, as well as unresolved questions around ethnicity – which had caused the 2010 crisis.

The political scene is also characterised by increasing tension due to infighting within political parties. The Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire is still divided following the decision of its leader, Henri Konan Bédié, to form a coalition with Alassane Ouattara’s Rally of the Republicans party.

Opposition parties such as the Ivorian Popular Front, which is also facing a leadership crisis, have condemned the lack of payment of funding to political parties, the detention of some of their members and their lack of access to media. This is in addition to the deadlock in the reconciliation process and political dialogue in general.

Furthermore, the security context remains fragile given that 30 000 former combatants have still not been demobilised, and thousands of weapons have not been recovered. Given this situation, the Ivorian authorities should encourage the participation of the opposition in the democratic process, and expedite the disarmament of the former combatants, to prevent the political and security situation from deteriorating further.

In Burkina Faso, citizens are getting ready to draw the outlines of a new governance model following the 11 October 2015 presidential elections. The transition government, which was installed following Blaise Compaoré’s departure on 31 October 2014, has so far opted for dialogue to solve the challenges surrounding the organisation of the elections.

In addition to the presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for 11 October, the transitional authorities have decided to suspend the participation of foreign-based citizens. As regards the INEC, apart from some dissenting voices who want it to be a depoliticised structure, the consensus is to maintain it as is. But there are concerns over its funding, especially since the transitional government declared having only 25 billion West African franc, out of a total 50,6 billion planned budget, for the electoral process.

Besides the funding issue, the transition government is under pressure from the population to initiate deep reforms in the governance of the country. These aim to improve the living conditions and ensure that justice is better administrated. The transitional authorities must, however, remember that it is up to the authorities elected in October to initiate structural reforms, despite some necessary responses to pressing social demands. Furthermore, partners should provide immediate financial support to the electoral process, including the reviewing of the list.

In Guinea, the presidential elections scheduled for November 2015 are being prepared amid the health crisis ensuing from the Ebola outbreak. This casts doubts as to the proper conduct of the electoral process. President Alpha Condé, who will certainly be a candidate, will face an opposition whose main leaders, Cellou Dalein Diallo and Sidya Touré, contested the results of the 2010 presidential elections, denouncing many irregularities. They always seem to doubt the will of the current government to hold free and fair elections, despite the recruitment of a new operator for the revision of the electoral list according to their requirements.

The organisation of local elections, which were last held in 2005, and the reform of the INEC continues to divide the political class. The June 2014, dialogue between the opposition and the presidential camp failed to reach consensus on these issues. This situation, if it persists, could exacerbate already-deep political and ethnic rivalries. Politicians should also find a minimum agreement on the electoral system. The Economic Community of West African States, the African Union and the European Union could play the role of facilitator between the various protagonists.

This year promises to be critical for the consolidation of democracy in West Africa, a region marked by political and security instability in recent years. However, national ownership of the electoral process and support from international partners can help to clear the cloudy horizon.

[This article was written by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) and originally published on the ISS website.]