The dilemma of electoral assistance in Central Africa
The dilemma of electoral assistance in Central Africa
Watch List 2021 – Autumn Update
Watch List 2021 – Autumn Update
Commentary / Africa

The dilemma of electoral assistance in Central Africa

Election fever has spread across Central Africa. For the second time since the end of the disastrous civil wars in the region, electoral processes have been launched in Burundi, Rwanda, Central African Republic and the Congo.

National governments have taken over a process that the international community had previously designed, financed, secured and driven. This year’s ballots are thus the first real test for the democratic consolidation in Central Africa. The biggest challenge for local peace-builders today is how to ensure free and transparent elections without outside help.

The 1990s were characterised by mass violence, with the Rwandan genocide, the civil war in Burundi, recurring insurgencies in Central African Republic, and manifold rebellions in the Congo. The past decade has been one of political transitioning, the end of dictatorial rule, and democratisation, with the exception of Rwanda. The current electoral processes are thus the direct result of the latter period.

Burundians started the electoral cycle with local elections on 24 May, which will be followed by presidential and legislative ballots in June and July respectively. Despite the end of the civil war in Burundi, ethnic cleavages that nurtured the conflict continue to play an important role in politics today.

Central African Republic, which has had a shaky national reconciliation process, is only slowly emerging from instability. In order to be re-elected after the coup that brought him to power in 2003, General François Bozizé tried to rush the elections. The apparent irregularities and technical blunders, however, drew the attention of the opposition and the international community. President Bozizé was forced to accept one postponement after the other. Elections were initially planned for April but got postponed to May, and now, they are scheduled for October.

In the Congo, the preparations for the presidential elections in 2011, which had been delayed considerably, have taken a start in an atmosphere of controversies. There are rumors around the revision of the constitution, the voting registration, and electoral laws, as well as the murder of Floribert Chebeya, the leader of the main Congolese human rights organisation.

Rwanda is a country that does not follow the regional pattern and that needs assistance in opening up democratic space. Since the end of the genocide in 1994, President Paul Kagame has dominated the political sphere. As the country is approaching presidential elections in August, the regime is becoming more insecure despite, or maybe because of, its 95% victory in the last ballots. Arrests of politicians from the inner circle of power and acts of aggression against political opponents have multiplied. Critical voices have been silenced as made clear by the eviction of Human Rights Watch and the suspension of two newspapers, accused of inducing public disorder.

A rapid electoral check-up shows how far these regimes have come, but at the same time it reveals how fragile their democratic gains are.

In Burundi, out of many political struggles, relatively independent electoral institutions have been created. The opposition was able to influence the composition of the current electoral commission, which had previously been packed only with loyalists of the regime. Improvements in the electoral registration process have prevented the worst manipulations. Registering voters, which used to be conducted by local partisan officials and which required an identification card that had to be purchased, has led to outcries by the opposition. The international community has come to the rescue by financing the documents.

However, authoritarian tendencies remain. Some officials loyal to the government.  have interrupted meetings of the opposition, closed some of its offices, and arrested some of its members. Acts of aggression against political figures and clashes between party youths show that the political pacification process is incomplete in a society traumatised by 13 years of war, where weapons are widespread and where many youths and demobilised are unemployed.

The situation has deteriorated after the elections, which national and international observers had qualified as fair. The opposition has denounced massive fraud and disowned the electoral commission. Candidates are retreating from the presidential elections on 28 June, leaving the President Pierre Nkurunziza as the sole contestant. While a return to war is unlikely, the electoral impasse has the potential to undermine the democratic gains that have been achieved.

In the Central African Republic, the Libreville Accord in 2008 was the start of a period of political pluralism, despite the fact that the president came from the ranks of the military. A diversified opposition and a free press have been consolidated during the Bozizé regime. However, the path to elections is still long and chaotic. The electoral commission, which is loyal to the president and widely dysfunctional, remains a point of contention as it has slowed down electoral preparations rather than advancing them.

Manipulations of voter registration are numerous, including demographic projections, tilted in favor of the president’s party. Lastly, the struggle for electoral victory has made the peace process of secondary importance. Only minor advances have been achieved with regard to the demobilisation and reintegration of rebels. The insecurity that prevails in a country in which 8 out of 14 prefectures are occupied by armed groups is a major obstacle to the organisation of electoral campaigns and polls.

Political violence, questionable outgoing government officials, and unequal power relations make a change of government highly likely. The current elections could either lead to a consolidation or to a deterioration of democracy — to avoid the latter, the international community faces the difficult task of ensuring electoral democratic standards without interfering in the electoral process, which nowadays is the full responsibility of national actors.

The mistrust, or even resentment, of the governments in Central Africa towards the international community makes an engagement even more difficult. The Rwandan president has openly criticised the international community for lecturing 11 million Rwandans about their rights and what is supposed to be good for them. In Burundi, the government has arranged for the replacement of the representative of the UN mission, which has been accused of being too close to the opposition. In the Congo, the desire to see the UN mission, MONUC, leave has much to do with the attempt to get rid of the “indiscrete eyes” of the international community during the 2011 elections. However, while the outgoing leaders denounce the interference of the international community, the Congolese opposition sees its presence as a crucial element to ensure a fair process.

The international community should lend its support to all these electoral processes, but in a more consultative and coherent way. They should focus on ensuring that the democratic gains are not reversed, while making sure that they leave full responsibility to the national governments. In short, the international community must guide, but not decide.

More specifically, this means that the international community needs to thoroughly evaluate the political situation before providing any electoral assistance. Once they are ready to give support, they should offer their expertise to election organisers and financial support for technical preparations (eg, voter registration, divisions into constituencies, civic education, logistics, etc). During the preparatory phase, the international community should play an advisory role, and during the implementing phase, an evaluative role by deploying a temporary police force to help secure the vote if necessary and an election observation mission to remain in the country until the election process is completed.

While the international community is more or less fulfilling its tasks in Central Africa, it does so in a cautious and sometimes even reluctant way — all without any particular coherence. It is often ready to finance, but rarely to evaluate (Rwanda, Central African Republic); and it is often ready to advise on preparations, but rarely to participate in securing elections (Burundi). Given the fact that the international community is only involved in certain parts of the process, it is easy to point to its failures, however. A more coherent approach would allow the international community to improve its dual role of advising and evaluating and in doing so strengthen its contribution to the democratic consolidation of the region.

In short, this year is a test for both the national and international actors. The former are responsible for the outcome of the elections. The challenge for the latter is to find the right balance of providing support for the electoral process without encroaching on national sovereignty. For that reason, neighboring countries and African institutions (regional or continental ones, such as the African Union) need to play the primary role: the regional initiative for peace in Burundi, made up of Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda, is an example to consider. For the time being, the difficulty for the international community is to support the implementation of elections without taking over the responsibilities of national institutions.

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