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Will Africa's 2023 elections strengthen democracy?

Martina Schwikowski
December 26, 2022

Over a dozen African countries are scheduled to hold elections in 2023. Those polls will show whether democracy is flourishing or not amid the continent's various crises, experts say.

A woman prepares to cast her ballot in the Edo State governorship in Nigeria
In 2023, people in 17 African countries will go to the polling stationImage: picture alliance / NurPhoto

Africa will hold state or parliamentary elections in 17 countries in 2023. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, these elections will significantly impact the continent.

The Economist Intelligence Unit also warned the election period could bring volatility in Africa and that there is a high risk of political protests, mass demonstrations and strikes in several countries.

"First of all, it remains to be seen whether the coup drama we saw on the continent in 2022 will continue or whether 2023 will mark a break with this phenomenon, especially in light of the recent coup attempt in Sao Tome and Principe," Fonteh Akum, executive director of the Institute for Security Studies, told DW.

According to authorities, the island nation in the Gulf of Guinea had a failed coup attempt on November 25, 2022. 

One of the critical questions in 2023 will be whether democracy is consolidated or pushed back further.

"The key elections to watch are in Nigeria, South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe, with violence likely in some of these countries," said Alex Vines, head of the Africa program at London-based think tank Chatham House.

A crowd of people at the nominations for candidates in Nigeria
West Africa and the rest of the continent will be closely following the Nigerian electionImage: Uwais Abubakar Idris/DW

All eyes on Nigeria's 2023 election

Nigeria has seen a wave of civic and political engagement by young people ahead of the upcoming presidential election in late February. However, the lead-up to the polls in Africa's most populous nation has been marred by political violence and unrest.

"The Nigerian elections are really important because it's one of the largest economies on the continent and Nigeria is struggling with security issues," said Akum.

The election is also important because of the youth vote in Nigeria, who could shift the balance of power between the major political parties one way or the other.

The political atmosphere in the country of 217 million people is tense ahead of the February vote. Incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari is not running again after two terms in office, making it an election of change, said Akum.

The ruling All Progressives Congress party and the largest opposition party, the People's Democratic Party, will be the main contenders. But Akum noted that a third candidate could significantly impact the contest. Peter Obi, a businessman and presidential candidate for the Labor Party, enjoys massive support from young Nigerians.

Crises persist in West Africa

West Africa is marked by increasing instability and the spread of violent extremism, Akum said. In the Sahel countries of Burkina Faso and Mali, the military recently staged coups — in Mali for the second time in a short period. It will be important to see how their transition unfolds, Akum added.

The continent's crises will persist in 2023, according to Alex Vines. "Especially in the Sahel, particularly in Mali and Burkina Faso, but also in Niger," he said.

Members of the FAMA (Mali Armed Forces) patrol in the streets of Gao
The security situation in the Sahel region remains unstable due to terror attacksImage: Souleymane Ag Anara/AFP

The situation remains worrisome in Cameroon and Nigeria, as there is great insecurity in parts of those countries.

For Vines, it remains to be seen whether the peace agreement signed in November between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People's Liberation Front will hold. In addition, northern Mozambique remains a cause for concern, where jihadi terror is driving people to flee.

Eastern Congo is also considered a trouble spot. The conflict there puts the spotlight on the presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for December 20, 2023.

According to Akum, the decisions of incumbent President Felix Tshisekedi on how to react to the violence by rebel militias in the east could impact the conduct of the election. But he added that what matters in all elections is how the electoral commissions effectively manage the processes and handle electoral challenges.

Tshisekedi is widely expected to run again and could face a challenge from opposition politician Martin Fayulu.

South Africa at a crossroads

In South Africa, the ruling African National Congress that has governed the country since the end of apartheid in 1994 reelected President Cyril Ramaphosa as its leader at the ANC party congress shortly before the new year.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa speaks in parliament
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa is battling accusations of corruption Image: Rodger Bosch/AFP

Public interest in the vote was high, because the ANC president has traditionally been viewed as the top candidate and ultimately head of state since 1994. South Africa's presidential and parliamentary elections will be held in 2024.

Ramaphosa faced an uphill reelection battle. He has been accused of money laundering and corruption, and the opposition has demanded his resignation. The ANC party is now at a crossroads, with its undisputed position of power in elections at stake. Political observers say the blame lies with years of poor governance, contradictory policies, maladministration and corruption on a grand scale.

Zimbabwe: Instability and hyperinflation

In neighboring Zimbabwe, the newly formed Citizens Coalition for Change, the largest opposition party, led by opposition veteran Nelson Chamisa, is likely to run against President Emmerson Mnangagwa in the presidential election slated for next year.

But the brutality with which Zimbabwe's ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front has responded to challenges to its rule in the past raises fears of unrest. The southern African country has been plagued by instability for over two decades. In addition, hyperinflation has impoverished the once-thriving country.

Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe Governor, John Mangudya holds a sample of a gold coin
In 2022, Zimbabwe introduced gold coins in a bid to slow down runaway inflationImage: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP/picture alliance

Rising inflation increases debt

"Africa's economic recovery from the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis in 2022 has been disrupted by a series of shocks," said Vines. These include supply shortages and rapidly rising inflation, also fueled by the global impact of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

As a result, he said, debt repayment remains a problem for many countries. Added to this, he said, are high borrowing costs under the worst conditions ever. "This trend will continue in 2023, but there will still be African economic growth."

The major economies of Nigeria and South Africa are likely to grow more slowly, according to Vines, but commodity prices, particularly for energy products, metals and minerals, will continue to rise.

Investors and buyers are also trying to diversify their supply chains away from Russia. Vines said several countries, including Angola, Nigeria, Congo, Namibia, Tanzania and Zambia, will benefit.

This article was originally written in German