In this Contours episode, host Carolyn Moorman speaks with New Lines Magazine Africa Editor Kwangu Liwewe about some of the most important and contentious elections in Africa in 2024, including in Mali, Senegal, Rwanda, and South Africa.
Hello and welcome to the Contours Podcast from the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy. This is your host, Carolyn Moorman, and today we’ll be diving into just a few of the array of elections that will be occurring this year in 2024, their expected outcomes, and how they are foreseen to impact the African continent and its ongoing security, economic and political developments. I am joined by Kwangu Liwewe, the Africa editor at the New Lines magazine. She has a long and impressive career in journalism, specifically in reporting on African current affairs. She previously was the West Africa Bureau chief for the eNews Channel Africa and the host of Africa360, a current affairs program broadcasting throughout the continent. She currently produces and presents a daily 10-minute segment for the radio station, HOT FM in Lusaka, Zambia, called the African View with Kwangu Liwewe in the Morning Show, which highlights Africa’s top stories of the day. She also produces a weekly current affairs show called Beyond the Headlines, which discusses Zambia’s topical stories.
Nineteen African countries will be having elections in 2024, and we’re going to discuss a few as we go through chronologically, a couple of these elections and what to expect. Kwangu, I’d like to start with Mali. We know that they were supposed to be having presidential elections this month, February, and they were announced to be indefinitely postponed last September due to “technical reasons.” And I think it’s important to note that Colonel Assimi Goïta led a second coup in 2021 after the initial one in 2020 because of the transitional president had begun to organize elections in line with the original date of February 2022.
So I’m wondering, first of all, is your outlook that these elections are ever going to happen or is it fair to say that they’re just going to be pushed back indefinitely so the junta don’t have to take the flak from the international community from announcing that they’re going to be delayed all the time?
Caroline, as you’ve stated, when Colonel Goïta led the coup that removed the then President Ibrahim Keïta, that was in August 2020, he became the vice president in that civilian led administration. So if we take a step back and look at around September 2020, this was a month before the first coup. So the interim government at that stage had agreed to an 18-month transition timeline to return to civilian rule, and they’d said the elections would take place in February 2022. Then of course the second coup happens. He says he’s still committed to the timetable, but this hasn’t happened at all. So there’s been this back and forth with ECOWAS until finally they said, okay, February the 20th, 2024, presidential date was set, but it’s been postponed indefinitely.
Now on the ground, what we are seeing is a democratic space that is just shrinking. It’s shrunk considerably. Political opponents, civil society activists and members and the journalists, they’re just constantly living in fear. They’re always threatened, they can’t do their work. I mean, we’ve seen international local journalists as well. They’ve had their accreditation suspended. Two organizations that come to mind of course are France 24 and Radio France Internationale.
So the atmosphere in the country right now is just not ready for elections, and I don’t see it happening as well. Initially when they talked about why they decided to delay the elections, they said it was due to technical reasons. They stated the adoption of the new Constitution as one of the reasons why they can’t have the elections as well as reviewing the electoral list. So these are the two contentious issues, and I just don’t see the election happening anytime soon.
So we know that since the subsequent coups have occurred in Mali, a lot of the regional institutions such as ECOWAS and the UN, such as the international community, have been putting a lot of pressure on the junta in Mali to engage with elections. And you’ve just said that they’re postponed and the junta have been taking steps within the country to limit press freedom and to really hamper down human rights. And so do you think while we continue to wait for these elections that you said you don’t think are going to occur in the immediate future, that the junta is going to be making political steps towards, for example, distancing themselves from ECOWAS and these other regional institutions and then moving closer to countries such as Niger and Burkina Faso that the junta began to develop relationships with since the coup?
Yes. Well, already we’ve seen in the past couple of days, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, they announced their immediate withdrawal from the regional body, ECOWAS. I mean, they’ve accused ECOWAS of being a threat to its members and these countries that have just mentioned rather, all those have had coups. So the military leadership in these nations, they’ve vowed to tackle the rise of violence themselves, and this is something that they’re not even containing. So they’ve now joined forces and they’ve joined this alliance called the Alliance of Sahel States, which now they will work with, which is just themselves trying just to deal with the insurgency in their countries.
So they’ve pulled out of ECOWAS. Clearly they were not upset with the sanctions ECOWAS had imposed on them. They called them inhumane sanctions. So ECOWAS is no longer a factor when it comes to these three countries. Other countries in the region, of course, Nigeria has spoken and regretted this move. So yeah, let’s see how strong this Alliance of Sahel States will be in curbing the insurgency in their countries.
And of course, with the coup in Mali and the ones that you mentioned in Niger and Burkina Faso in the last couple of years, there’s been a lot of attention on just democracy and democratic backsliding in West Africa.
Okay, so I’d like to now move to Senegal where presidential elections were supposed to be happening at the end of this month, and Senegal has had many positive trends towards democracy since 2000, and it was understood that these elections would widely continue this trend. That was until a couple of days ago when President Sall called off these elections three weeks before they were supposed to happen because he’s saying that a dispute between the Constitutional Council and some members of parliament needs to be solved first, and a bill passed yesterday, February 5th, that by a slight majority in Senegal’s parliament, that allows Sall to stay in office and extend his tenure for the time being. We have opposition obviously protesting, civilian protestors clashing with riot police. Kwangu, how are you perceiving this situation? Are you worried? What should we be paying attention to? And what is this dispute between the Constitutional Council and parliament?
Caroline, yes, indeed as you said earlier on, that Senegal has been viewed as a pillar of democracy in the region because if you look at its neighbors, they’ve faced coups, some have civil wars going on, so everybody was applauding Senegal, they’ve always had peaceful elections, and now this happens. So everybody is a bit worried. It’s like, oh, Senegal in uncharted waters.
So what next? The situation on the ground is tense. I mean, you’ve seen the protest that’s been happening, the cut of the internet the other day, and his mandate, Macky Sall, the incumbent president, his mandate has been extended, but very worrying, especially for a region like that because really, I mean this is feeding into what we have seen happen in the other countries, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, we’ve seen coups happen there in the region. And all this comes from the impatience of the people in the countries, the intolerance.
And of course, remember Africa’s got a very youthful population, so that’s one to watch there. In Senegal, the youth are really backing Ousmane Sonko who has been barred from taking part in these elections, so they’re really agitated. So this is something that needs to be watched closely. Yes, it’s not a coup, although the opposition is terming as a constitutional coup, it’s not a coup, but we need to watch the security situation on the ground there. It’s very worrying.
One more thing, Kwangu, before we move on to our next election of note, I’m wondering when we’re looking at the sway of the international community, and a lot of these African regional institutions like ECOWAS as we know, has been very, very active in trying to push back against this wave of authoritarian rule that’s been happening with these coups in West Africa. What do you see as the role of these institutions like ECOWAS in pushing Senegal to end this little problem and return back to the elections that are supposed to be happening this month?
Well, ECOWAS appears to me to be a bit toothless, and this is following what’s been happening in the West African region and the Sahel, which falls under them. As you are aware, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, all pulling out of ECOWAS because they complained about the sanctions and call them inhumane. Now with this recent crisis in Senegal, we have seen them issue a very lukewarm statement. So a lot of analysts don’t have that confidence in ECOWAS in dealing with this issue. The AU as well issued a statement hoping that everything will normalize and elections will be held, calling for a conducive environment in which elections should be held, but not a strong enough message. A lot of people feel that the regional bodies, ECOWAS and the African Union, which is of course the continental body, do not have the teeth to bite when it comes to issues like this.
Absolutely, and I guess that means that we’ll all have to be watching this situation very closely and paying attention to updates and how this unfolds and reacts to more of the challenges with democracy in the region.
And with that, I’d like to move on to Rwanda and their upcoming elections in July, both presidential and legislative. President Paul Kagame is expected to win, and we know his party has been in control of power since the Rwandan Civil War in the nineties, and his party commonly uses tactics such as intimidation, arrests, and even judicial actions to bar opposition candidates from challenging the RPFs rule as the leading party. Is it too simple to assume that this trend is going to continue this year, or do you foresee some kind of change to this?
Well, yes, if you look at the history of what’s been happening since the genocide, yes, Kagame only became president in the year 2000, but prior to that he was still the leader in Rwanda. And if we look at the last election that was 2017, he won with more than 98% of the vote. So that’s almost 99% of the poll and a lot of independent observers, they just said that process was marred by political intimidation. They also complained about the registration process and they just said that election was fraudulent. I mean, it’s surprising that someone can win by such a margin, almost 99% of the vote. But over the past two decades, during the elections that have been held in that country, there’s been a lot of smear campaigns, a lot of intimidation and disappearances and targeted killings. This has generally characterized Rwanda’s political space, especially in run up to elections.
If we focus on the last election, which we’ve just talked about in 2017, Kagame then faced, his opponent was a gentleman called Frank Habineza. He’s from the Democratic Green Party. In that election, he just won… Well, I said Kagame got 98 to 99%, so he won 1% of the vote and his party has only two seats out of 53 seats in Rwanda’s Lower House, that is in the Chamber of Deputies. So it just shows that, and he’s standing again in this election. Another contender who will not be standing in this election is a lady called Victoire Ingabire. She’s been barred from running due to previous arrests. I mean she was imprisoned and she served about eight years in prison. She only came out when she was pardoned in 2018. She was arrested and charged for inciting divisions and conspiring against the government. So that’s on the domestic front. So we are just seeing on his opponents and even their likely chances, well, I said Victoire is out of the picture, Frank Habineza won 1%. I don’t see him winning much more this time around.
On the international scene, when we look at Rwandans for instance, those living in exile, I mean they’ve been facing attacks, they’ve been complaining about how even though they live in exile, they’re being targeted. Apart from being attacked, others have actually been killed. So Rwandans both at home and abroad, they don’t speak out very openly. They practice self-censorship and they live in constant fear. Even when you go to Kigali, I’ve been to Kigali a couple of times, you don’t speak openly about what’s happening in the country because they won’t even answer you, the Rwandese themselves, ’cause they don’t know who’s around. They don’t know who’s eavesdropping, and they fear for their lives. There’s just that climate of fear in the country. So even during the election, we don’t expect people to debate the issues of what’s happening in the country openly because they’re always watching over their shoulders. So there’s that climate of fear in the country. So I don’t see that changing in the run-up to this election as well.
I think Rwanda is a very interesting case because you of course have a country that is seen as a jewel in its region as a very fast developing economy, pretty stable government of course compared to neighbors like the Eastern DRC, and it’s seen as having a relatively close relationship with the West, of course with countries like England, with the US. Yet it has election pasts, like what you’ve just mentioned, where lots of tactics such as intimidation, arrests, et cetera, even going after Rwandans living abroad. And so I’m wondering, Kwangu, how you understand the Rwandan government to straddle this fear of being friends with the West, but also using these very non-democratic principles and withstanding that pressure to conduct correct elections.
I mean, it’s amazing how the West is silent when it comes to Rwanda. It makes one wonder if it’s their guilt because during the genocide they turned a blind eye to what was happening during the genocide. Because yes, Rwanda is hailed as a country that is doing so well. If you go to the Capitol, people talk about how clean it is and how beautiful it is. If you talk about its internet connectivity, it’s one of the best in East Africa. Even just to apply for a visa, a business visa, it’s one of the countries where it takes minutes or it takes not as tasking as applying for a business visa in African countries, it doesn’t take that long when you want to apply for one in Rwanda. So it’s given this really good picture, and I’ve already painted for you the other side of Rwanda, but it’s just amazing that the West is quiet about it.
If you look at even the recent discussion about the asylum policy with the United Kingdom that has gone to court several times in the UK, this is about the UK sending asylum seekers to Rwanda to have their asylum applications processed there. I mean, it has come out very strongly that Rwanda is not a safe place to send these asylum seekers, and yet the government, the UK government still wants to send, the conservative party’s government, led by the conservative party, still want to send asylum seekers to be processed in Rwanda. And it makes you wonder why does Rwanda appear to be a darling of the West? And yet time and time again, people have come out in the open and shown how the democratic space has dwindled, if at all it even existed in that country. So it does beg the question of why it is a darling of the West.
And along that same line of analysis, it’s specifically interesting why it’s a darling of the West when it comes to the Eastern DRC as I mentioned. And I’m wondering how you feel foreign policy will play into how Rwandans are going to be voting this year. We’ve seen tensions between Kinshasa and Kigali worsen dramatically since 2022 as the M23, who of course the international community and the Congolese government claim that Rwanda supports, have revamped their insurgency in Eastern DRC in a very, very large way. And a lot of international coalitions have gone into Eastern DRC in attempt to calmness. And Rwanda is repeatedly claimed to have an active role in how the M23 operates, but denies this and is still held in that grace of the West. So I’m curious how you see that situation and how you see foreign policy playing into how Rwandans vote this upcoming election.
It’ll be interesting to see how Rwandas vote in terms of this conflict. If at all, it’ll have a bearing on how they vote in this poll. I mean, the DRC recently held elections, that was in December last year. And there the atmosphere was really, really tense during the run-up to elections and sometimes it was violent as well. But amid all of this, I mean there’s that war happening with the M23 rebel group and President Tshisekedi on his campaign trail, he made several references to the M23 rebels who he said is being backed by Kigali. And then he even said that if he was reelected and Rwanda continues backing the M23 rebels, he’d go to parliament and ask for them to authorize a declaration of war. So we could see that Tshisekedi during the campaign spoke a lot about this because of course it was one of the sticking points in the run-up to election the DRC is going, especially in the east of the country. There’s so many atrocities happening there.
But it’d be interesting to see if this is going to be a talking point in the election that’s happening in Rwanda and whether Paul Kagami will even touch on it. Remember that the DRC is the one who’s bearing the brunt of this war. They’ve had about 7 million displaced and thousands have killed. But on the flip side, Kigali is also blaming Kinshasa for backing the democratic forces for the liberation of Rwanda, the FDLR. So let’s watch and see if Kagami is even going to talk about this in his campaign trail. But I highly doubt it because as I’ve said, the DRC are the ones who are bearing the brunt of this war. And that’s why it was one of the talking points for President Tshisekedi who has been reelected. And let’s see how this is going to pan out now with this fight against the M23 rebel group.
And now that we’ve touched on Rwanda, I’d like to turn lastly to one of, again, one of the many countries that’s going to be facing elections in Africa this year, which is South Africa. We know that they’re going to be facing general elections for the National Assembly and the legislature in each province from May through August. And in the past, the African National Congress, the ANC, has dominated pretty much every South African election since the nineties. But some believe that this won’t be the case and perhaps minority parties like the Economic Freedom Fighters and the Democratic Alliance will stand a chance. And so, Kwangu, I’m wondering what has caused the ANC’s popularity to decline and what role does the party’s rumored internal divisions play in this decline of power?
Okay, so their last election, South Africa’s last election was in 2019, and then the ANC got 57.5% of the vote. Now you’re asking what has led to a decline in their popularity. If you look at what’s going on in the country now, president Cyril Ramaphosa has basically failed to keep the lights on. And when I talk about keeping the lights on, I’m talking about load shedding and power outages. The country has been going through this problem for a couple of years, and it’s really adversely, of course affected the economy. It’s chronic load shedding that’s going on in the country, and a lot of South Africa nationals have been affected by this, and they’re very upset about this. And it’s also that apart from the load shedding, we’ve also seen corruption within the ANC ranks, within the ANC top leadership. So that has also really annoyed their followers in the country.
Apart from corruption as well, we can look at the poverty levels in the country and just looking at how the division between the rich, the haves and the haves not continues to widen. So all these things is what’s really affecting South African citizens. When apartheid ended and they had their first democratically elected president Nelson Mandela, there was so much optimism in the country that things would get better for the Blacks and this simply hasn’t happened. It’s only happened for a few. And those few are politically aligned to the ANC and people are watching all of this, and that’s why the ANC has lost its popularity.
Currently, the internal divisions in the party, just recently, former president Jacob Zuma said he will not support the ANC and that he was going to support a newly formed party. And now he has been suspended from the party. Zuma has quite a bit of following, especially from the KwaZulu-Natal area, from where he comes from. You will recall when he was arrested a couple of years ago, on top of my head, I think it was about two years ago, the riots broke out and we saw people go and loot. There was massive looting happening in the country. So he does have his support. So there’s that division of course in the ANC.
Then you mentioned of course the EFF, which is the Economic Freedom Fighters. That’s a breakaway party led by firebrand Julius Malema. His popularity, of course, is that he’s advocating for the exploration of land without compensation, give the Blacks back their land and do not compensate the whites. He is also talking a lot about nationalization of the industry. He’s talking about building more homes, mass house building. So I mean, these are the messages that the people in South Africa want to hear.
Another party, of course, is the Democratic Alliance, which is led by John Steenhuisen. He’s the lead of the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, which has been the main opposition party in that country for a very long time. That’s also one party to watch closely.
There’s also Action SA. This party was founded by an entrepreneur. He was the former Johannesburg mayor, his name is Herman Mashaba. He’s a capitalist crusader, that’s what he’s described as. He’s also an advocate for the death penalty.
So this election going in, I anticipate the ANC will win, but they’re not going to win a majority. And that is what is crystal clear. Everybody is expecting them not to win a majority, but they will win. And they’re used to getting 50% and more, but this time around it’s very highly unlikely that they’ll get that 50% and more.
So you appeared in a Contours episode last year in which we talked about how… Well the episode was, about the ICCs arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin around the time that the BRICS summit was supposed to be happening in South Africa. And in that episode we talked about how the ANC has had a long historic relationship with China and Russia. And so in what you just talked about with the ANC winning of these elections, but not winning by as big of a majority as in past years, do you think that could impact the relationship that South Africa has with Russia and/or China? I mean, the Democratic Alliance is widely believed to have close relationship with the US and the West, and could the ANC’s loss of the majority that it has enjoyed in the past years, speak to declining popularity of Russia and China in South Africa among the population?
So recently, if you look at what’s been going on with South Africa and its international relations and its foreign policy, especially last year, they had a very, very interesting 2023 when it comes to these issues. You will recall that there was also an issue about the joint naval drills with Russia and China. That was in February 2023, and we could see the people in the West, especially the United States, frowning upon this when the Russian warships took part in exercises with the Chinese and South African navies. You’ve mentioned the ICC and the Vladimir Putin arrest warrant, and whether South Africa would arrest him if he attended the BRICS Summit. He didn’t attend that one, he attended it virtually. Then again, there was the Lady R Ship saga in which South Africa was accused of sending weapons to Russia during the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
Then we move on to, of course, the Israel-Palestine issue. South Africa’s foreign affairs minister, Naledi Pandor, when she put through a call to the chairperson of Hamas, the political bureau, that was frowned upon by the West. And of course the recent one, the ICG case about Israel and genocide.
So all this, South Africa, as I said, has had a very, very interesting foreign affairs and foreign policy year, and this is obviously under the ANC led government. When you look at its ties with Russia, which we discussed in the last podcast, strong historical ties with Russia, and therefore they tried to mediate in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. That didn’t work out well. But again, we are seeing them trying to mediate again in the Israel-Palestine issue by taking this issue to the ICJ. So ANC-led South African government has been very active this past year, year and a half in its international relations and foreign policy. Whether this will go on with the new government, which I’ve just clearly stated that the ANC is coming back.
So we expect to see them get more involved in international affairs as they’ve done in the past year, year and a half. They did receive a lot of criticism for not working out stuff in their own backyard, that’s on the African continent. If you look at what’s happening in Sudan, now even in South Sudan, there’s a problem in Abyei. If you look at the atrocities happening in Darfur, they’re silent about that. They’re not doing anything about that, but more interested in what’s happening beyond African borders. So as I said, yes, we do expect to see the ANC bounce back without a majority, but I expect to see them carry on with this very interesting way of getting involved in international affairs. And the foreign policy is another one that we should watch in coming years.
Absolutely, and I think it would be very pertinent to end this episode by talking about larger trends that you think will appear in the African continent. Through all of these elections, thinking mainly great-power competition, anything with strategic competition, minerals, anything along those lines, if you can think of any trends of note that you’ll be watching throughout this year as all of these countries head to the polls.
As I said earlier on when I was talking about Senegal and Mali and the elections, there seems to be a common theme, which is very worrying, actually, a common theme running through African elections, which is stifling the media, opposition complaining, civil society activists complaining. We had elections last year in the DRC, Zimbabwe. These are the ones that come to my mind. These are the constant complaints we always get. And surprisingly enough, if you look at South Africa, which we’ve just been talking about, that’s a shining example for the continent.
In South Africa, we don’t hear about those complaints, about stifling the media, opposition complaining, tax on media, no free airwaves, registration problems for voters, ballot papers arriving late. These are the things we hear about on the continent in and out during the election period, an unlevel playing field. And it’s worrying that these themes keep on coming up when it comes to elections on the continent. So that’s of a great concern, and I just wonder when we’ll be able to sort that out. I know it’s a continent of 54, 55 countries, each have their own unique ways of doing things, but it’s a common thread which should be stopped and which should be tackled.
Well, Kwangu, I’d like to thank you so much for coming onto this Contours episode today. We’ve really enjoyed listening to you break down a lot of these elections and what we should all be looking for. To our listeners, thank you so much for listening to this episode of the Contours Podcast. You can make sure to subscribe to SoundCloud, iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts. You can also check out further analysis into geopolitics at www.newlinesinstitute.org. Thank you and all the best.