This year, over 20 African countries will hold presidential, parliamentary, and municipal elections. At a time where democracy is on the decline, these elections matter significantly insofar as what they mean for the consolidation of democracy in African countries. Each of these elections raise concerns as to whether the process will be peaceful or plagued by violence. Of these elections, eight (Egypt, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Mali, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Libya) have been highlighted as ones to watch as they mark critical political shifts in these countries.
In Libya’s case, the African Union (AU) has already expressed its concern regarding the country’s preparedness to hold elections this year. Despite also acknowledging the “complex political, security and legislative challenges to holding such a vote”, the United Nations (UN) expressed its willingness to assist with the process due to the “support for elections among Libyans”. For Zimbabwe, this will be the first election in 37 years in which Robert Mugabe will not be participating following his resignation in November 2017. Though his resignation was not considered a coup by the AU, Mugabe has claimed that his removal from the presidency was “unconstitutional” and that the upcoming election would not be free and fair. The irony of this escapes no one. Here is a man that sat in office for 37 years and systematically destroyed his opposition where the only one willing to stand up to him was, the now late, Morgan Tsvangirai.
Mugabe reiterated his claim that he was ousted by unconstitutional means when he met with AU Commission Chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat, in Harare. He called Mnangagwa’s government illegal and for the AU to help “restore normalcy and democracy in Zimbabwe” which he later reiterated at his 94th birthday party. According to Mugabe, the issues surrounding Zimbabwe’s upcoming elections, given the illegitimacy of the government, along with the presence of the military in politics, will undermine the freedom and fairness of the process. This is the tense political background against which the 2018 election will take place.
Still, the African Union (AU) remains firm in its position that what occurred in November was not a coup and has promised to provide assistance in preparation for Zimbabwe’s election. The AU has assured the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) that it will “send a team to work with ZEC before and after the elections” and “mobilize partners to finance the process and give technical assistance to help prepare and run the elections between 30 and 45”. Mahamat stated that he was encouraged by the fact that the Mnangagwa has expressed the country’s commitment to holding ‘free and fair’ elections. Keeping in mind the AU’s role, it seeks to take the lead on this process indicating its continued commitment to rebuilding Zimbabwe’s democracy. However, the reliance on external partners harkens back to the question of the AU’s capacity to do so.
The AU’s Election Observation Manual establishes that all elections on the continent, in response to Kenya’s experience in 2008, would be subject to election monitoring, regardless of whether a formal invitation from the member state was received. Given this mandate, the continental body has regularly monitored elections in Zimbabwe. What makes this election even more unique is that President Emmerson Mnangagwa has welcomed the monitoring by Western election observers: The European Union, Commonwealth, and the United Nations. This position is a direct challenge to Mugabe’s longstanding ban of western election observers who he called “imperialists”. Concerns regarding Mugabe’s government were met with strong reactions by his regime where, in 2008, spokesperson George Charamba went as far to say that “[The Western countries] can go and hang a thousand times, they have no basis, they have no claim on Zimbabwe politics at all”. Last year, in reference to west-funded non-governmental organizations monitoring the 2018 elections, Mugabe told journalists: “We don’t need them. We are saying no. We are going have elections in 2018 and we are going to say no to the whites”. In addition to welcoming observers, Mnangagwa mentioned the country’s willingness to rejoin the Commonwealth following Mugabe’s departure in 2003 after the organization suspended Zimbabwe following its problematic elections in 2002.
What this situation calls into question is whether the AU will take a position on this after lauding Mugabe’s departure as “an act of statesmanship that can only bolster President Mugabe’s political legacy” and welcoming Mnangagwa as having been chosen by the people. For an organization that is clear on its position towards non-constitutional transitions of power, the lack of forthrightness on this issue raises many questions and reminds us to pay careful attention to the other elections being held in difficult states and how this reflects upon the AU’s expressed commitments. In preparation for the 2018 elections, there is considerable pressure on the AU to maintain an objective stance on Zimbabwe. The organization’s verdict on the election will be critical in establishing Zimbabwe’s democratic trajectory and as an indicator of the AU’s relevance and resilience.