The six African elections to watch this year—and why

Zambians wait to vote outside a familiarly named barbershop
Zambians wait to vote outside a familiarly named barbershop
Image: (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)
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This year, 11 countries across Africa are holding key national elections, significant since it wasn’t too long ago that the vast majority of the continent was run by a mix of military dictators and “president-for-lifers.” And yet it is clear that the economic development everyone is counting on will not be possible without political stability.

Indeed, even though few African countries have attained wide recognition as full-fledged competitive democracies, investors are lining up. According to the World Bank, foreign direct investment (FDI) grew 16% to a “near-record $43 billion in 2013.”

The first major polls opened last week in Zambia, and Edgar Lungu, leader of the ruling Patriotic Front party has been declared the winner with 48.3% of the vote. It was a tight election, with him winning by just 27,000 votes. It’s among the six really worth watching closely over the next year.

1. Country: Zambia

Population: 15 million
GDP: $26.8 billion
When: Jan 20
Who: The presidential by-election came 90 days after the death of the populist Michael Sata in October. The race was down to two front-runners. The ruling party’s Patriotic Front and current Defense Minister Edgar Lungu has been declared the winner. He was challenged by the leader of the opposition party United Party for National Development Hakainde Hichilema.
Why you need to pay attention: At the centre of the election debate is the future of mining, the country’s biggest and most important economic sector. The current Patriotic Front-led government’s institution of a 20% hike in mining royalties has raised concerns with investors. The opposition has promised to roll back the tax rise.
What they’re saying: “It is going to be difficult for whoever comes in. They are going to either have to backtrack on promises or, if they go ahead with them, they will quickly see a lot of problems, which could feed in to a weaker exchange rate, rising inflation and higher interest rates.” - Tobias Rasmussen, the International Monetary Fund’s representative in Zambia.

2. Country: Nigeria
Population: 178.5 million.
GDP: $521.8 billion.
When: Feb 14
Who: The incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan has until recent weeks been seen as favorite to retain power. However, retired general and former head of state Muhammadu Buhari is presenting the most serious challenge to the People’s Democratic Party’s (PDP) stranglehold on power since the end of military rule in 1999.
Why you need to pay attention: Africa’s largest economy has been struggling with high unemployment, plummeting oil prices, a devalued currency, and mind-boggling corruption scandals. On top of that is the deadly threat of Boko Haram, whose recent attack is feared to have left 2,000 people dead. There’s a growing concern the Nigerian problem, thus far contained to the northeast, will spread across the country and deeper into neighboring countries.

What they’re saying: “I do not want him to grow up in a country where brothers are killing themselves… where people cannot afford to travel to parts of their country out of fear.” - Akin Oyebode, a finance analyst and former soldier speaking of his 19-month-old son.

3. Country: Sudan
Population: 38.8 million.
GDP: $66.6 billion.
When: April 4
Who: The incumbent President Omar al-Bashir came to power in a coup in 1989. The only sitting head of state with a standing warrant from the International Criminal Court, due to alleged war crimes in Darfur, he had indicated he would step down but changed his mind. The former Prime Minister Sadiq Al-Mahdi is the leading opposition figure challenging al-Bashir for the presidency.
Why you need to pay attention: Once Africa’s largest country by land area, Sudan is holding its first election since parting ways with South Sudan in 2011. But will the election be truly free and fair? The opposition have said unless political freedoms and basic human rights are improved elections will prove to be cosmetic. There’s increasing talk that they might not take part in electoral process.

What they’re saying: “[T]he political parties should join the free competition, be honest, clear and serious and avoid launching prejudgments on the results of the elections before they are conducted.” - president Omar al-Bashir

4. Country: Ethiopia
Population: 96.5 million.
GDP: $47.5 billion.
When: May 24th, 2015
Who: Hailemariam Desalegn, the incumbent prime minister who inherited the post after the death of long-term leader Meles Zenawi, is expected to easily secure victory. It is unclear who will challenge him for the post, with the opposition recently suggesting that they are being blocked from taking part in the process.
Why you need to pay attention: Ethiopia is one of the fastest growing economies in Africa. However, it has an atrocious human rights record and regularly imprisons journalists. In an ironic twist, some have accused the country of leveraging its position as an important US ally in the war on terrorism to avoid criticisms for some its egregious undermining of political freedoms.

What they’re saying: “The reason why there’s so much repression, the reason why there’s so much muzzling of the press, the reason why the Ethiopian government is arresting opposition figures inside the country is precisely because they know that this is a despised government. It cannot last a day in an environment of freedom.” - Berhanu Nega, professor of economics at Bucknell University and former leader of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy in Ethiopia.

5. Country: Tanzania
Population: 50.8 million
GDP: $33.2 billion
When: October 2015
Who: The ruling party Chama Cha Mapinduzi, which has ruled the country since independence in 1961, is expected to remain in power. The internal party nomination for the presidency is the most open it has ever been. Former prime minister Lowassa is considered a front-runner. But stiff competition in the form of the current PM Mizengo Pinda, foreign minister Bernard Membe and deputy minister of science and technology January Makamba should keep things interesting. The opposition has said that they aim to unify behind a single candidate with Wilbroad Slaa, the losing candidate in 2005, likely to be the nominee.
Why you need to pay attention: The second biggest economy in East Africa has enjoyed strong economic growth, averaging more than 6% annual GDP growth in the last few years. It is a strong diplomatic and security ally of the US as demonstrated by president Barack Obama choice of Tanzania as one of the three countries he visited on the continent in 2013. An emerging oil and gas economy, analysts argue, however, that the pace of reforms for a better business environment has been slow.

What they’re saying: “One reason Tanzania has difficulties attracting investment is the inefficiency of the government.” - Lu Youqing, the Chinese ambassador.

6. Country: Burkina Faso

Population: 16.9 million

GDP: $11.6 billion

When: November, 2015

Who: Following the forced resignation of long-term President Captain Blaise Compaoré by a popular uprising, the country has been governed by a transitional government lead by the former foreign minister Michel Kafando. It is not yet clear whether the 72-year old will run for the permanent role. Compaore’s old party Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP) will compete in the elections. So too will other opposition parties.

Why you need to pay attention: This a chance for democracy to be re-established in Burkina Faso following Compaore’s 27-year rule. Burkina Faso is an important ally of the US and France in their fight against violent extremists in the Sahel. The fifth largest gold producer on the continent, analysts are curious to see whether the election will settle the uncertainty that has gripped the country since October 2014.

What they’re saying: “The insurgency has restored dignity to Burkina Faso. Our dear country will now know a before and an after October 31st, 2014.″ – Lieutenant-Colonel and current prime minister Yacouba Isaac Zida who briefly assumed power in the aftermath of former president Blaise Compaoré’s resignation.