OPINION | SA needs to learn from Nigerian and Zimbabwean elections to avoid democratic collapse | News24


The recently concluded Nigerian election has left a sour aftertaste acrossthe west African country and has triggered a necessary conversation about democracy and electoral credibility in southern Africa, writes Stevens Mokgalapa.

As things stand, there is no valid electoral act to regulate the upcoming 2024 elections in South Africa. The president has not signed the Electoral Amendment Bill, as it sits on his desk accumulating dust. In addition, there is a very important election coming up in Zimbabwe, and there are already concerns about the electoral environment and the independence of the Zimbabwean electoral commission.

Nigeria has been going through a period of high inflation and currency shortages, which has added to the long-standing issues in Africa’s largest economy, that include insecurity, poverty, unemployment and poor infrastructure.

The stakes were high during the elections in Nigeria because the country is going through a tumultuous period. Nigeria has increasingly become unsafe and the country is currently facing a range of security challenges, including insurgency in the northeast, kidnappings and ethno-religious conflicts in the Middle Belt. These security challenges have resulted in the loss of many lives and property and created millions of internally displaced persons who live in refugee camps.

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Nigeria is also home to a large number of people living in multidimensional poverty. This is poverty that is multifactorial in its nature and relates to income, infrastructure and education. Poverty in Nigeria is particularly acute in rural areas, where the majority of the population lives. 

Unemployment is a significant problem in Nigeria, with over 40% of young people unemployed. Nigeria’s infrastructure is in dire need of improvement. Power supply is erratic, roads are in poor condition, and public transportation is inadequate. These infrastructure challenges make it difficult for businesses to operate efficiently and hinder economic development.

In light of all these challenges and the increased political activism of the youth, many people around the world have been paying close attention to this election.

Lack of trust in Nigeria elections 

The turnout of these elections was, however, very low, with only 24 million people voting out of 87 million registered voters. Bola Ahmed Tinubu from the incumbent APC received 8.87 million votes, Atiku Abubakar of the PDP obtained 7 million votes, and Peter Obi of the Labour Party got 6.1 million votes. In fact, this turnout was the lowest in the history of Nigerian elections. Not only was the turnout low, but the election is also going to be challenged by both the runner-ups. 

Effectively, this reflects a lack of conviction in the power of democracy by the voters and a lack of trust in the election by the participants. If the voters of Nigeria still had confidence in the democratic process they would have turned out in larger numbers. If there was trust in the credibility of the process and the vote itself, there would be no legal challenges.

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The reduced trust in Nigerian elections is a result of multiple irregularities; for example, children distinctively under the age of 18 were seen voting in the north, and some results were announced which did not correspond with what was announced at the voting station. In addition, there were multiple instances of violence, intimidation and vote buying. These kinds of practices do have the cumulative effect of watering down electoral enthusiasm and democratic credibility. 

We have to seriously ask ourselves as people who believe that liberal democracy is superior to alternative forms of governance, if African democracies are in good shape. When the public stops viewing democracy as a viable system of government, this opens the way for authoritarian opportunists and for even military dictatorships. While there are inadequacies with representative democracy, the system is still preferable to civil war, preferable to dictatorship and to military coups.

We have to think about these things soberly because they are not so far off in our own country. South Africa is facing a moment where the liberation party may lose national power for the first time since the dawn of democracy, and that is often a moment of democratic fragility. We have seen from what happened in Zimbabwe that when a party that feels entitled to rule until Jesus comes back faces real prospects of losing power, all hell can break loose. 

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Before the Movement of Democratic Change was formed, there were no real challengers to Zanu-PF and the Robert Mugabe hegemony. However, when faced with the prospect of losing, Mugabe unleashed thugs to destabilise the country and remained in power for 17 more years until he was removed by a military coup by his long-time right-wing man Emmerson Mnangagwa. This period of authoritarian rule in Zimbabwe led to an exodus of skilled workers, investors and created a refugee crisis in SADC.

Important lessons for South Africa ahead of 2024 

South Africa has to think about both the 2024 election and the 2023 election next door. South Africa has a role to play in the upcoming Zimbabwean elections, and if we fail to use our influence to make sure there is a free and fair electoral environment in Zimbabwe, there will continue to be a mass migration out of that country into surrounding SADC countries especially South Africa, Namibia and Botswana. As more migrants arrive in neighbouring countries, this creates an opportunity for ethno-nationalism and far-right political leaders to emerge. Typically these leaders are anti-democratic and do not believe in the rights-based constitutional frameworks that have been established. 

The elections of Nigeria are important because it is the biggest economy and has a large population size. Democracy should be seen to be practised, credible and prevalent in this oil-rich country. They are also important because we have to learn from them in South Africa.

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Nigeria faces similar challenges to South Africa, we too have a very significant problem with youth unemployment sitting at 71.1% for ages between 15-24 and sitting at 49.5% for young people aged between 25-34. South Africa has high levels of inequality and poverty, especially for rural populations. Like Nigeria, South Africa is facing challenges of high levels of crime and the murder rate has increased along with violent gang activity in major cities. South Africa also has a challenge of youth apathy to voting and a decreasing electoral turnout. In 2009, the turnout was 77.3% which fell to 73.5% in 2014 and fell further to 66.1% in 2019.

Looking at what happened in Nigeria, we have to make every effort as South Africa that the election in Zimbabwe and the elections in South Africa meet democratic muster, otherwise, we will lose a generation and potentially democracy altogether in the region.

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What does that look like in real terms? For South Africa, it means the president must sign the Electoral Act immediately; it means that we need to do more work in our universities and high schools to encourage the youth to register to vote; and to improve their understanding of civics. It means that South Africa must send an observer mission to Zimbabwe at this point to monitor the electoral environment and, if there are any issues, to raise those issues on the diplomatic forums and to the broader African and global community.

They say evil prevails when good people do nothing, I would add that democracy dies when those who believe in democracy do nothing.

– Stevens Mokgalapa is an MP and the DA’s head of international relations and cooperation 

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