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These are the key African elections to watch in 2021

REUTERS/Baz Ratner
Voting in Kampala, Uganda, Jan. 14, 2021.
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The year 2021 is poised to be a busy political season for the African continent with more than 13 countries heading to the polls to elect new leaders.

The key elections focused on here are presidential and parliamentary races. There are also notable legislative or local elections this year in South Africa, Somalia, Central African Republic, Gabon Madagascar, Cote d’Ivoire, Chad, and Morocco.

Even though long-standing autocrats, disputed elections and, more recently, social media blocks and internet shutdowns continue to grab the headlines, democracy is evolving across the continent.

REUTERS/Rogan Ward (
Election officials count ballot papers at a voting station in Lusaka, Zambia Jan. 20, 2015.

The US, often a champion for democratic values on the continent, is thought by many long-time watchers to have lost some of its positive influence after four years of the Trump presidency. Democracy watchers believe Trump’s authoritarian tendencies and disinterest in Africa has encouraged actual authoritarians on the continent.

For example, this week the US ambassador to Uganda said her office had decided to cancel its observation of Uganda’s Jan. 14 election due to the decision by the Electoral Commission of Uganda to deny more than 75% of the US election observer accreditations requested.

Presidential terms and tenures remain a key controversial issue in several African countries as constitutions get revised to allow incumbents to remain in power. Although there is increasing clamor for change on the continent, most of the incumbents in the upcoming elections are expected to prevail given the firm grip on power they already have.

Uganda (Jan.14)

With the raging Covid19 pandemic, an internet shutdown, brutal crackdown on anti-government supporters and curtailed civil liberties, Ugandans went to the polls on Jan.14. It could be seen as offering a template for authoritarian regimes holding their polls in the coming months. The run-up to the election has been dominated by news of violence and disputes over technology and the internet.

President Yoweri Museveni, 76, in power since 1986, has relied on patronage and repression to limit dissent as more citizens wish him away from office, and failing that he has intimidated rivals and shut down the internet as he did with hours to the election. In an 11-candidate race, Museveni faces strong challenge from musician turned politician Robert Kyagulanyi a.k.a Bobi Wine, 38, whose candidature has garnered considerable international attention and support.

Somalia (Feb. 8)

Somalia’s presidential elections due last month have already been postponed once and it remains unclear if they will even take place on Feb. 8 as planned.  Somalia’s 275 legislators are elected by a select group of delegates with a blessing of clan leaders. Somalia also has a senate of 59 legislators who are elected by state assemblies. These members of parliament and the senators then elect a president who serves a four-year term.

REUTERS/Feisal Omar
Somalia’s president Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo

When the elections are eventually held, president Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo, who is seeking a second four-year term, is expected to face stiff competition from his former prime minister, Ali Khaire, who was fired in July as well as former presidents Sheikh Sharif Ahmed (2009-2012) and Hassan Sheikh Mohamud (2012-2016).

Niger (Feb. 20-21)

Nigeriens will head to the polls to vote in a run-off presidential election next month after December’s race was crowded out with 28 candidates vying for the presidency. No one candidate was able to secure a majority which left the country’s Internal Affairs minister Mohamed Bazoum of the ruling Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism in the lead with 39% in a face-off with former president Mahamane Ousmane of the Democratic and Social-Convention-Rahama party, who came in second with 17%.

Congo Republic (Mar. 21)

President Denis Sassou Nguesso of Congo Brazzaville is on track to join a very short list of African leaders who have ruled their country for 40 or more years. Currently his Central African neighbor, Equatorial Guinea’s president Teodoro Obiang is alone on that list. There is not much to suggest Nguesso, 77, won’t be declared winner in the March polls. If, as expected, he is declared winner, he will be ruling for the fourth consecutive term in office since returning to power in 1997.

REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina
President of Congo Republic Denis Sassou Nguesso

Prior to that, he had ruled the country for two terms from 1979 to 1992. Constitutional encumbrances to his continued stay in power such as the age limit were dispatched in 2015 which gave him an opportunity to rule the oil-rich country for another three five-year terms.

Chad (April 1)

Chad is a classic example of what elections under authoritarian regimes often look like. There is limited space for competition against the interests of the incumbent Idriss Déby who has a firm grip on all branches of government and other key stakeholders like the media.  President Déby, who has been in power since 1990, will be seeking a sixth term in office. Like his counterparts in Uganda and Congo Brazzaville, Déby, 68, presided over the removal of constitutional limits to his rule.  It is not clear whether legislative elections scheduled for Oct. 24 will be held given the repeated delays since 2011.

Ludovic Marin /Pool via REUTERS
Chad president Idriss Deby

Benin (April 11)

The election in Benin will be a referendum on the country’s democratic credentials and whether the West African country is slowly sliding into authoritarianism. President Patrice Talon who initially showed little appetite for staying in power seems to have had a change of heart. He has been engaged in attempts to decide who opposes him but has also moved to curtail the civil liberties of the population by deploying the military.  Three of his key opponents, including former prime minister Lionel Zinsou, have had to flee to exile.

Djibouti (April)

President Ismail Omar Guelleh has ruled Djibouti since 1999 and there is little to suggest his planned fifth term in office won’t go through. The 73-year-old oversaw the removal of term limits in 2010 despite early promises he would not stay in office beyond two terms. Within the international community there is little appetite to push for reforms in the Horn of Africa country given the its strategic location and importance to major world powers.

REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri
Djibouti’s president Ismail Omar Guelleh

Ethiopia (June 5)

In November, Ethiopia’s federal government went to war with the leadership of the country’s Tigray region after long-running tensions finally triggered a dispute over an election delay due to the Covid pandemic.  Early economic and political reforms in the country spearheaded by its Nobel Peace Prize winning leader prime minister Abiy, who came to office in 2018, gave much hope but that has almost all been dashed away as the scale of the conflict in Tigray starts to come to light.

Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS
Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed

The election to the Ethiopia’s House of People’s Representatives, if it takes place, could set Ethiopia on a path to participatory democracy or could entrench growing divisions in the country and further fragment its fragile federal system.

São Tomé and Príncipe (July 31)

The election in the island nation is expected to be uneventful given the country’s history of organizing free and fair elections  and peaceful transfers of power. President Evaristo Carvalho is not expected to receive stiff competition in his quest for a second five-year term.

Zambia (Aug. 12)

During this year’s election season, president Edgar Lungu will be fighting to get a full second term in office amid concerns as how highly indebted the southern Africa country has become over the last decade to international lenders especially China. Government debt as a share of GDP has risen to 120% on Lungu’s watch.  The incumbent will lead the Patriotic Front to take on Hakainde Hichilema, leader of the United Party for National Development (UPND).

REUTERS/Rogan Ward/File Photo
Zambia’s president Edgar Lungu campaigning in 2015.

Cape Verde (October)

Cape Verde will have two sets of elections in March and later in October. The legislative elections in March will determine the appointment of a prime minister while the presidential election in October will determine who will succeed president Jorge Carlos Fonseca who is stepping down after serving his second and final five-year term. Two parties, Movement for Democracy and the African Party for the Independence of Cabo Verde tussle it for the leadership of the nation.

The Gambia (Dec. 4)

Gambians may have put an end to Yahya Jammeh’s 22-year dictatorship five years ago but the challenges of building a stable democracy in the country remain. President Adama Barrow has already broken his promise to be a transitional leader who would serve only three years. Even the proposed changes to the constitution promised early on did not pass due to what observers say was a two-term limit provision for the president. The election in Gambia could offer a template to politicians and activists fighting repressive regimes on what to do and not to do after such regimes fall.

REUTERS/Benoit Tessier
Gambian president Adama Barrow

Libya (Dec. 24)

Libya has struggled with insecurity and civil strife since the fall of the Muammar al-Gaddafi regime in 2011. Recent events, however, have given hope for a brighter future.  Last November, Libyan politicians agreed on a move to hold elections this year on Dec. 24. The major aim is to bring together warring factions in the hope of establishing a respected government. In the coming months focus will be on maintaining a ceasefire and crafting a shared agenda.

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