Americans believe that free, fair and credible elections are essential to democracy. They also assume that citizens are free to vote as they please, and that election results therefore reflect the will of the public.
Voting is also seen as a civic responsibility, something that all eligible Americans should do, even though they are not required by law to do so. And for Americans, the determination of suffrage should be based on factors such as citizenship, residence and age, not race, gender, income or religion. Free elections go hand in hand with other basic freedoms, such as speech, religion, and assembly.
Town meetings and elections in the state of Vermont, as painted by the artist Norman Rockwell, are the image that many Americans have in their minds of what government, including elections, should be – and usually is. Although no human endeavor is ever perfect, Americans view their election as free, fair, and credible. President Donald Trump’s accusations that the presidential election in 2020 could risk widespread fraud appear to have little traction outside its base.
Since the wave of decolonization and independence in 1960, successive presidential governments have long predicted American assumptions about democracy, government, and elections across Africa. The assumption is that elections in Africa are part of a path to democracy and the rule of law. The U.S. federal government has spent large sums of money on U.S. taxpayers’ money to promote and facilitate African elections. American civic organizations were also involved in the education of Africa and election logistics. There is little American recognition that the binary nature of elections – there are only winners and losers – does not fit well with the emphasis on negotiation, dispute resolution and consensus that is characteristic of many traditional African societies.
Almost all African states hold elections – this is what ‘modern’ states do. But generalization about Africa’s more than a billion people and fifty-four legally defined states is risky. American assumptions about democracy and voting are definitely shared by many Africans. Election results in, for example, South Africa, Botswana, Mauritius, Cape Verde or Senegal do indeed reflect the popular will and occur in a democratic context characterized by the rule of law.
Elsewhere, however, elections are difficult and serve mainly to consolidate the position of a ‘great man’ and his cronies or to promote legal elites who survive on their own. In recent days, for example, President John Magufuli in Tanzania has used the election process crushes his opponents. President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda is doing the same and arrested Bobi Wine, an opposition figure as well as an international entertainment star.
In Ivory Coast, President Alassane Ouattara moves to a third term, the constitutionality of which is was interviewed. Elections in those countries, and elsewhere, are part of a stagnation or step back from what was once a democratic orbit. The highly respected non-governmental organization Freedom House annually evaluates the political rights and civil liberties in nearly two hundred countries around the world.
Elections and their actions are important. In Africa, only South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Ghana are in the same category as the United States, Western Europe, Japan and South Korea.
Perhaps the core of American policymakers should be that one size does not match everyone with the African election. Policies should reflect a detailed understanding of the governance of each African country, rather than the assumption that election is by definition always “a good thing”.
Blog posts represent the views of CFR associates and staff and not those of CFR, who do not hold any institutional positions.