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Who pays for Africa's election campaigns?

Martina Schwikowski
September 21, 2019

Election campaigns are expensive in Africa, too. Since in many countries there are no government subsidies, the parties depend on private donations. But often there are no legal regulations — a dangerous situation.

Posters from the Mozambique elections
Image: DW/M. Sampaio

Mozambique's head of state, Filipe Nyusi, wants to know his limits: He will run for a second term in the presidential elections on October 15. The supporters of the FRELIMO party, which has ruled for decades, hope that Nyusi will beat opposition candidate Ossufo Momade.

But Momade's RENAMO party is also seeing its chances. Although the poor developing country is in the midst of a severe economic crisis, the election campaign is still in full flight.

No transparency

Like many other countries on the continent, Mozambique has a legal system that regulates what state subsidies parties can receive, says Olufunto Akinduro of the South African Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA), a non-governmental organization that wants to promote credible and democratic elections throughout Africa. 

"But as far as private party donations are concerned, there is uncertainty about the amounts allowed, and there is generally little transparency in the financing process of the parties and their candidates," said Akinduro in a DW interview.

For a long time, this was also the case in neighboring South Africa. But civil society there eventually had enough of the situation. Various organizations tried to force the parties by court order to publish the names of their donors. Politicians fought back with all their might.

But President Cyril Ramaphosa recently signed a law to regulate the private financing of candidates and their election campaigns.

Cyril Ramaphosa (L), the South African president, and president of the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), greets young local residents during a door-to-door campaign visit in Clermont township
South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa is said to have accepted controversial donations Image: Getty Images/AFP/R. Jantilal

According to the bill, donations to politicians or their parties should be disclosed starting at 100,000 rand (about €6,000). This rule was not yet in force during the last parliamentary elections in May 2019. Now the suspicion has arisen that Ramaphosa himself raised donations from a controversial entrepreneur. He has promised to allow himself to be interrogated by a commission investigating corrupt practices in South Africa's politics. 

More control needed

Olufunto Akinduro emphasizes that in many African countries there are no regulations in place to monitor the flow of funds to political groups: "There are usually many private donations, and there must be better mechanisms so that money from corruption processes does not flow into political electoral processes," she says.

At the same time, not enough attention is paid to existing laws, criticizes Magnus Ohman of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), a US non-governmental foundation that, according to its own statements, promotes free elections all over the world.

 "Transparency is limited everywhere in the world, but more so in Africa. We do not have official data on who funds the campaigns. However, we know that businessmen and wealthy people, but also people from the diaspora, influence the process," said Ohman in a DW interview.

Bank notes in an envelope
In many African countries, parties are dependent on private donationsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Pleul

Being rich helps with the election

His conclusion: "It really helps to be rich. Compared to Europe, there is a difference. This has to do with the fact that the political parties in Africa have little money. African political parties rely on the funding of their candidates instead of funding them."

Because many parties often lack their own funding systems, elites have a great influence on the outcome of the elections, says Ohman. It is not always about supporting the same party, but mostly about similar groups and interests, he says. However, this has consequences: Only a few people can participate in the political processes. And they do not include those who have little money, says the IFES expert.

Not everything carved in stone

What role does the state play in this? While parties in many European countries often depend on state subsidies, such financing systems exist in only two-thirds of African countries. But the amounts there are very low; the states are often small, with few capacities.

However, financial circumstances do not always determine the outcome of the election. "In Gambia, the 2017 election defeat of Yahya Jammeh, a long-time dictator, came as a complete surprise," Ohman says, pointing out that election results in Ghana, Senegal, Zambia and Nigeria have also already changed the usual outcomes.

A woman marks her finger after casting her ballot for Senegals presidential elections at a polling station in Thies
Polling station in Senegal: African countries lack transparency in party financingImage: Getty Images/AFP/M. Cattani

But there would have to be more monitoring bodies to ensure transparency, he says. The election commissions are often under enormous political pressure; civil society and the media are important in terms of providing information. Ohman sees a particular opportunity in the growing middle classes in some African countries: "If they also promote candidates and parties more strongly, this could limit the power of the elites. However, this is a slow process," he says.

Creating fair conditions

Olufunto Akindur points out another problem: How well party financing can be monitored also depends on the strength of the respective financial system. In South Africa, for instance, money flows can be easily traced because it is an almost cashless society.

In other African countries, on the other hand, it is difficult for the election commissions to keep an eye on money sources and expenditures because many financial systems there are based on cash. She is calling for more laws from the African Union and regional organizations. "Currently there is little that regulates the funding of parties and their candidates and thus ensures fair competitive conditions," she says.

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