With many hailing the Appeal Court as obviously more mindful of the legitimacy and survival of the system in the way they handle election petitions in Nigeria of late (with many expecting more from them over the many sensational election petitions still pending), critics of Prof Attahiru Jega are sure to swoop on him for cutting into the election – democracy nexus through a focus on election management bodies (EMBs) in that process in a major essay just published. But the empirical blitzkrieg upon which the essay stands will present such critics a formidable wall to break down.
Mercifully, the essay just published in the South African Journal of International Affairs (SAJIA) is an Open Access stuff, meaning that journalists, civil society actors, operatives of an election management body such as INEC in the case of Nigeria, members of the judiciary handling election petitions, politicians and sundry researchers can feast on it. The more queries, the better for the authors, the essay and the continent at large.
The authors, Nigeria’s Attahiru Jega and a University of East Anglia academic, Sonali Campion, seemed to have set out in the essay with controversy as a companion. One pointer to this is what the word ‘backsliding’ could be doing in the title. When did democracy mature in Africa for backsliding to come in?
But the authors appeared to anticipate critics and took time to deal with that. By backsliding, they were referring to the “democratic recession/authoritarian resurgence” that they said had started to set in from the mid-2000 not only in Africa but globally too. It is backsliding in that democratic recession contrasts with the 40 countries that got on the democratic train in the 1990s by abandoning the pathway of one-party or one-man or military dictatorship that was prevalent. In other words, there was a wave of constitutional rule which, by 2015, for instance, saw 46 countries as customers of regular elections as opposed to just nine of them between 1985 and 1989.
So, statistically, the concept of backsliding seems a clear, situated reading of the dynamics since electoral integrity had, according to the authors, risen to be the provocation for pre and/or post-election violence in over half of Sub-Saharan Africa between 1990 and 2014. Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Nigeria, Sudan and Togo are particularly noted.
However, the puzzle the authors set to unravel is how the backsliding has impacted on election management bodies, those being the institutional enablers of electoral integrity. Electoral integrity is the concept which offers a more holistic notion of when an election passes the test. Its own criteria of eligibility is beyond the mantra of ‘free and fair election’ or voting day drama. It wants more, particularly an election whose conduct is “… professional, impartial and transparent in its preparation and administration throughout the election circle” (p. 3). The essay subsumes everything the EMBs do to organising, monitoring and certifying.
It was to put EMBs with the capacity to carry out organising, (pre-election activities such as voter and candidate registration, procurement, civic education, and temporary election worker recruitment and training); monitoring (enforcing regulations, for example relating to candidate eligibility, campaigning, political finance, and media election coverage) and certifying (dealing mainly with the results) that explains the move from election management bodies that were no more than extra ministerial departments under military dictators or one – man rule in those days to truly independent EMBs.
The authors reveal the existence of 43 of such across Africa in this wake. That is EMBs that are theoretically independent and have that legal status while there were 10 that are of the ‘mixed model’ variety – that is where the EMB exercise independent oversight but it is run as a government department. But, in all cases, it was leaving behind the colonially inherited election management arrangement which a mandarin of African political science such as Adele Junaid had dismissed as inherently unfit for the postcolonial moment.
In general, what the authors call putting independent EMBs into democracy was substantially achieved in the 1990s as EMB leaders struggled to build capacity and with financial and technical support from international election observation, recommendations and donors. Training programmes, improvements in the recruitment and engagement of EMB staff and temporary poll workers, as well as knowledge and experience sharing among EMBs across national boundaries facilitated by international and regional organisations also contributed. It has been such that EMBs, especially Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa have been at the forefront of introducing technology in their efforts to enhance the efficiency and transparency in electoral processes.
Then What Happened?
Reviewers of data from the Perceptions of Electoral Integrity (PEI) index for elections in 28 African countries between 2012 and 2014 reported that electoral authorities in Africa generally performed better than the global average even as the region had lower overall levels of electoral integrity, comparatively speaking. They were also scored to have performed okay on key operational tasks of EMBs: electoral procedures, counting and the tabulation and declaration of results. “In line with global patterns, scores were lowest for campaign finance, voter registration and media balance”.
But this did not mean freedom from manipulation by the powers that be. Here, there is a categorical declaration that “the performance of individual EMBs in Africa has often been weak or inconsistent, whether due to resource constraints, partisanship, or external pressures” (p. 4). The authors itemise how the power brokers do it and the section below in their own words:
- Political interference in the appointment (and/or removal) of electoral commissioners and other EMB officials
- Intimidation/targeting of electoral officials to ensure desired outcomes
- Obstruction of legal reforms to extend EMB powers (for example to strengthen oversight of campaign finance) or more broadly provide for more inclusive electoral processes
- Introduction of rules that enable fraud or manipulation, for example through weak regulations around registration or voting procedures, or strategic changes to electoral laws which significantly favour incumbents
- The withholding of funds and other resources from electoral operations
- Attempts to discredit the EMB.
It is by these practices and tactics that powers that be erode the institutional integrity of an EMBs, facilitate wider electoral fraud in which the EMB is complicit, such as the uneven application of candidacy rules, gerrymandering, the strategic exclusion or denial of voting rights to certain citizens, ballot box stuffing and/or the manipulation of results. The authors continue: They may also weaken the integrity of an election simply by limiting the capacity of the EMB to the extent that processes are riddled with problems and errors, so the results inspire little public confidence and are vulnerable to legal challenges”.
Does this mean that EMBs are therefore consumed by the backsliding phenomena? Interestingly, the statistics do not support that. One reason for that from the authors is that even as bleak as the picture of backsliding generally may be, the diversity of experiences of manipulation and backsliding is such that prohibits such a conclusion. For instance, they advance the position from the 2023 V-Dem Democracy Report that while Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest number of autocratising countries – 12, it still has democratising.
So, it is not just that backsliding itself is an incomplete process – witness the argument that while breakdowns still occur, conventional coups are no longer a strategy of choice as elected leaders prefer much more subtle hollowing out of democratic institutions and practices in a manner so gradual that they are hardly noted by observers – the manipulation approach itself is incomplete too. All the key data sets consulted or whose statistics were relied upon speak of no statistically significant decrease in the overall integrity of electoral authorities over the past decade.
The variations are revealing to. Just one example from the cases of Mauritius, Ghana and South Africa where relatively steady decline of EMB autonomy since the early 2010s is reported of the only countries with scores consistently over 3.5 for the first decade of the 2000s. But the reverse is the case in Morocco and Madagascar which are recording relatively steady. There is no certainty about countries such as Nigeria and Togo improving or declining from where they are currently, theirs being variegated.
Perhaps, this is an essay everyone should read by and for himself. The statistics are inviting just as their interpretations can be. One particularly interesting one is the set from The Economist: The Economist Intelligence Unit notes a decline in the democracy score of sub-Saharan Africa from 4.38 in 2015 to 4.14 in 2022, but finds that between 2021 and 2022 a total of 14 countries improved their scores while 22 stagnated and only 8 declined”. A statistical outlay of this sort in a context of backsliding on a global scale and in the African context can be interesting as it can be misleading.
In the concluding part of this report, we shall look at the case studies used by the authors to clarify some of the inferences drawn on the statistics. It is an interesting essay if only for the key phases or waves it has highlighted in the democratic implosion across the world, how they relate to Africa and the statistics they have assembled. That makes it the sort of essay that researchers would relish in. finally, for those for whom currency is an issue, mostly students and their literature review, this is an unbeatable outing.