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2019: Africa heads into an election year

Martina Schwikowski
December 31, 2018

Voters in several African nations, including Nigeria and South Africa, are headed to the ballot box in 2019. But despite the numerous elections, experts don't expect much change on the continent.

Wahlen in Tunesien
Image: Getty Images/AFP/F. Belaid

"Vote not fight" is the slogan that helped to make Nigeria's iconic rapper 2Baba, known previously as 2face Idibia, so popular with young people. He urges his compatriots to vote peacefully when he is onstage and supports various youth organizations' campaigns for peaceful elections in 2019. As previous votes were marred by violence, many Nigerians fear it will play a part in the February presidential vote.

Experts predict a neck and neck race between incumbent Muhammadu Buhari and his main challenger, Vice President Atiku Abubakar. Buhari, aged 75 and frail, has been in office since 2015 and would face another four-year term if re-elected. Atiku, 71, is accused of corruption.

Read more: Nigeria: Atiku Abubakar runs for the presidency once more

"The spike in violence again has meant that while Buhari ran on bringing peace and stability back to Nigeria, he hasn't succeeded," said Sophia Moestrup, deputy director for Central and West Africa at the National Democratic Institute (NDI).

2Face Idibia, BET Awards '11 - Press Room
Nigerian singer-songwriter 2Face Idibia Image: Getty Images/J. Merritt

Fear of violence in Nigeria

The Buhari government is barely interested in young people's concerns, she told DW. Two out of three Nigerians are youths, and a lack of education and prospects along with high unemployment can push them right into the arms of terrorist organizations like Boko Haram, she said.

The government's political offers are in fact slim, Rinaldo Depagne of the International Crisis Group think tank told DW. A young population is ruled by old men who are having a hard time understanding the world of today, he added.

Read more: Experts say Nigeria must change its strategy to defeat Boko Haram

An end to the violence is not in sight, according to Depagne, who pointed out that Boko Haram  is gaining strength in the Northeast of the country, while conflicts between cattle drivers and farmers in central Nigeria are bound to continue in 2019. "Last year, about 1,300 people died in this bloody battle for more land," Depagne said.

Xi and Sall face each other
Sengalese President Macky Sall pictured (right) with Chinese President Xi Jinping, was has been in office since April 2012Image: Reuters/M. McAllister

No political change in Senegal

Neighboring Senegal, which is regarded as a stable country, is preparing for presidential polls in 2019. There is little doubt President Macky Sall will be re-elected, said the NDI's Moestrup, adding that the vote comes at a good time for the incumbent  Senegal's economy is prospering.

That trend could continue over the next few years. Beginning in 2021, Senegal plans to extract oil and gas, which could give the country's economy an additional boost. At the same time, experts have urged developing Senegal's infrastructure even more, as most Senegalese still live in poverty.

Moestrup welcomed the fact that the civil society groups in both Senegal and Nigeria are very active, and want to hold politicians responsible for their actions. She also pointed out as positive that 14 of 15 presidents in West Africa, with the exception of Togo, served no more than two terms.

Weak opposition groups

Southern Africa also faces elections in 2019, none of which are expected to bring much change. Many countries are ruled by former liberation movements that are likely to stay in power. "One of the challenges in this region is that, in part because of the colonial histories, there hasn't been an adequate formation of appropriate political choices across the spectrum," said Paul Graham of the Johannesburg-based Freedom House human rights organization.

In fact, observers are keenly watching South Africa, which is scheduled to hold parliamentary and presidential elections at a date that has not yet been determined. Many experts believe the ruling African National Congress (ANC) will win overall, even if it suffers individual losses.

The former party of Nelson Mandela faces waning popularity that its current leader, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, is trying to turn around. The president has freed the state from some of the corrupt forces that took hold under former President Jacob Zuma, Graham said, but he argued that Ramaphosa faces a great deal of opposition within the party.

Cyril Ramaphosa
Cyril Ramaphosa was picked by South Africa's ruling African National Congress to replace Jacob Zuma as the country's president in February 2018Image: Getty Images/AFP/M. Safodien

Land reform not an election issue

Ramaphosa has also promised to forge ahead with land reform, which promises restitution to black South Africans. Decades after the end of Apartheid, their white counterparts still own a great deal of land. A constitutional amendment is to make possible expropriation without compensation. It is unclear, however, how many voters the ANC can win back with that agenda. Most studies show that land reform is not the reason South Africans vote for someone, Graham said. "They are more interested in jobs, health and increased security."

Jakkie Cilliers, executive director of the Institute for Security Studies, agreed that most white voters are opposed to land reform.

"It's not really a major change in South African law or the constitution. It really is an effort by the governing ANC to pull the mat from under the radical Economic Freedom Fighters and to seize the initiative," Cilliers told DW, referring to Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters party. "I think generally most South Africans are willing to give Ramaphosa the benefit of the doubt and accept that it's going to take a while for him to undo the damage that was done by Jacob Zuma, but these indications are becoming steadily more positive," Cilliers said.

The Namib desert
The questions of land reform and ancestral land are back on the agenda in Namibia since the couhtry's second post-independence land conference in 2018.Image: DW/S. Duckstein

Vague programs, heavy debt

The government in neighboring Namibia has also initiated land reform, but the programs are vague, said Cilliers, adding that President Hage Geingob's government will stay in power after the general election in November 2019.

Read more: Namibia facing financial ruin

The South West African People's Organization (SWAPO) government has not followed through on reforms designed to help poorer Namibians, Cilliers said. Opposition parties hardly stand a chance to assert themselves, and there is very little pressure from the population.

Many observers, meanwhile, take a bleak view of developments in Mozambique. The country is heavily in debt and, according to Cilliers, increasingly threatened by Islamist groups fighting for power in the North – where the militant Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO) opposition is based and greatly supported by the impoverished population.

Read more: Mozambique's debt crisis: Who will pay the bill?

President Filipe Nyusi of the governing Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) is running for a second term in the elections in October 2019. Even if RENAMO leader Ossufo Momade's popularity ratings are on the rise, a change on the political landscape in Mozambique is not on the horizon either, says Cilliers.