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Peaceful Polling: A Case for African Union Action in General Elections

2020 is an important election year for Africa, with citizens voting on important leadership questions in countries as diverse as Burkina Faso, Ghana, and Tanzania. Even as Somalia holds what will be the first election in fifty years, other states, notably Ethiopia and Burundi are already showing signs of an election season marred by violence. For countries battling issues of sectarianism, entrenched leadership, or endemic corruption, general elections risk inflaming and exacerbating these underlying tensions.

50th anniversary of the African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, May 25, 2013. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

Under the leadership of Rwandan President Paul Kagame in 2019 and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa in 2020, the African Union (AU) has become increasingly visible on the international stage. Of particular note have been efforts to lobby for a stronger African voice in the Libya crisis and negotiation of a landmark power-sharing deal in South Sudan. However, even as the institution works to overcome the continent’s historic marginalization in global affairs the AU has continued to distance itself from internal leadership questions. If Ramaphosa hopes to maintain the momentum of the AU’s modernizing agenda, he must be prepared to set clear expectations for member states around election protocol to ensure peaceful transitions of power across Africa.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took power in 2018 with the promise of overhauling the country’s ethnic relations. Early political reforms were met with optimism as pundits and Ethiopians alike greeted moves to release political prisoners and open up the media space as harbingers of democracy. It shortly became clear, however, that these forward-looking policies contributed to inflaming ethnic tensions. While compromise and moderation allowed Abiy to secure a landmark peace deal with neighboring Eritrea, an accomplishment that secured him a Nobel Peace Prize, the prime minister’s efforts to mediate ethnic strife domestically have met with resistance. The Oromo ethnic group that initially supported Abiy’s candidacy as a means of elevating their status in Ethiopia now view his policies as pandering to historically dominant ethnic groups.

After a year of violent movements by the hardline Oromo Liberation Front and calls for semi-autonomous statehood by other ethnic groups, the 2020 general election is being broadly framed as a referendum on Abiy’s leadership. Today, heightened ethnic violence in Ethiopia threatens to unmake Abiy’s presidency, opening him up to claims of ineffective leadership. The president’s response: brutal crackdowns on political dissent. Last year Abiy pushed through Parliament sweeping changes to electoral procedures, banning public servants from standing for office and requiring 10,000 signatures to form a new political party, up from the 1,500 previously called for. In addition to legislative reforms, Ethiopia’s security forces have taken to extra-judicial enforcement, as reports of the arrest and disappearance of opposition politicians abound.

Like its neighbor to the East, Burundi’s upcoming election season has been marred by violence and irregularities. While President Pierre Nkurunziza has announced that he will not seek a fourth term in office (relieving many who endured the bloody repression of his third term), the ruling CNDD-FDD party has nominated General Evariste Ndayishimiye, a close Nkurunziza ally to run instead. Africa-watchers are already warning that Nkurunziza will likely continue to influence Burundi’s politics from outside the presidency, either under the official title of “paramount leader” or as an informal shadow president, such as Kabila’s role in the DRC.

With such critical leadership questions at stake, the CNDD-FDD has taken extreme measures to eliminate any risk of electoral defeat. In urban areas, the ruling party’s youth league is compelling citizens to make “voluntary” donations to funding the election, a measure broadly interpreted as a voter intimidation technique. In rural areas opposition politicians are reportedly being killed and buried in secret graves, acts which have also been attributed to the CNDD-FDD youth league as well as Burundi security forces.

In both Ethiopia and Burundi, ordinary citizens are being subjected to violent oppression as ruling parties fights to maintain power, a situation that will only escalate as we near the general elections scheduled for August and June respectively, provided the COVID-19 virus does not disrupt polling. It is clear that the international community has an impetus to intervene in these cases, not only because of the states’ human rights violations but also because of efforts to subvert democratic processes.

Historically, the AU has deployed election observation missions to member states’ polling sites and produced reports assessing election conditions. While this is an important part of the institution’s democracy promotion mandate, more decisive action is needed in instances that clearly violate international human rights standards. Furthermore, there is a precedent for AU action in such cases. Last June, the organization suspended Sudan’s membership after verifying reports of security service attacks on anti-regime protesters. This unprecedented step demonstrated the AU’s commitment to upholding human rights, withholding Sudan’s institutional privileges for three months until a peaceful transition of power was underway. Comparable action in Ethiopia and Burundi, such as threatening suspension until attacks on opposition politicians and supporters cease would have far-reaching implications. In addition to ensuring a peaceful 2020 election season in highly-tenuous states, suspensions for violating regional norms around electoral processes would send a strong message to other AU states, signaling a continent-wide commitment to democratic practices.

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Kathryn Urban

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