There is little that is ordinary about the African elections slated for 2022. With multiple elections intended to restart democratic processes and resume constitutional governance, Africa’s elections in 2022 will be unlike anything the continent has seen in recent years. Libya, Somalia, Mali, Guinea, and Chad are all tentatively scheduled to hold elections that have been delayed or disrupted by coups or conflict. The parameters shaping these electoral processes have yet to be finalized and even the timing of when they will take place remains up in the air.
Africa’s 2022 elections, therefore, will be dynamic and complex. Given the legitimizing authority that a credible electoral process can bring, it is the manner in which these elections are managed, more than the specific outcomes, that will be significant for shaping Africa’s governance and security environment.
Following are some of the key factors to watch in each context and their implications for Africa’s democratic development and security.
Postponed from its initially targeted date of December 24, 2021, the planned Libyan elections are hamstrung by unclear rules regulating the process, including basic questions over the election law and who is eligible to run. The electoral process is also unfolding under a nebulous legal foundation since a 2017 draft constitution was never approved. Consequently, while strong international pressure has pushed for holding early elections with the aim of stabilizing Libya’s tenuous ceasefire, the process is papering over fundamental gaps over just what authorities would be granted the presidency, legislature, judiciary, subnational entities, and other independent bodies like the electoral commission. Libya, likewise, lacks a clear plan for how the many militias dotting the security landscape would be incorporated into a cohesive national security structure.
“The planned Libyan elections are hamstrung by unclear rules regulating the process.”
Absent greater clarity over the rules of the game, premature elections risk generating a victor who lacks legitimacy and is unable to serve as a unifying actor in Libya’s notoriously fractious political environment. Worse, tensions over a perceived winner-take-all electoral outcome that would be dominated by an unaccountable president could trigger a return to conflict and authoritarian rule. The lack of a clear constitutional roadmap echoes the competing constitutional frameworks that characterized the rushed and ultimately failed Egyptian democratic transition effort of 2012-2013.
Libya’s fraught process is a reminder that elections are not a substitute for negotiated settlements to outstanding disagreements and a reconciliation framework.
Emblematic of the confusing electoral environment, over 100 candidates have declared their intention to run. These include highly divisive figures such as one of Muammar Gaddafi’s sons, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity, and Khalifa Haftar, the eastern Libya-based warlord who carried out an 18-month siege of the Capital. Potential candidates also include Abdulhamid Dabaiba, who as interim Prime Minister is technically barred from running. Parliamentary Speaker Aguila Saleh, a key actor in the negotiations over the electoral process and a close Haftar ally, is also running. Libya’s electoral process, therefore, must overcome political rivalries, regional differences, and polarization caused by years of conflict.
Libya’s fragile institutions also make it vulnerable to exploitation by external actors who are backing proxies and attempting to shape the process in their interests. This includes tapping Libya’s lucrative oil wealth and strategic geography in the eastern Mediterranean. Key among these actors are Russia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt who have worked in tandem to support Haftar and are hostile to democracy taking root in the region. Turkey and Qatar have simultaneously supported both the UN-backed efforts and candidates associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Moreover, competing European interests—namely from France, Italy, and Greece—have hampered a unified European position.
Libya must also contend with externally sponsored disinformation campaigns, notably from Russia, that sow confusion, obscure the truth, and escalate polarization. Paradoxically, it may be that the wide array of domestic and international competition in Libya is serving as a crude form of checks and balances on the unbridled usurpation of power by any one individual or entity.
Despite the many challenges surrounding Libya’s electoral process, it is important to not overlook the millions of Libyans who continue to aspire for a democratic government. They remember the authoritarianism, impunity, and human rights abuses of the Gaddafi era and are determined to prevent the reemergence of a new despot. Therefore, while genuine democratic processes are novel, large numbers of Libyans have collected their ballot cards, thousands are planning to run for parliamentary seats, and many more are intent on participating and having their voices heard in Libya’s embryonic democratic enterprise.
Strengthening Libyan institutions and sovereignty so that the will and interests of Libyans shape the trajectory of its governing structures and leadership will be the litmus test for the effectiveness of these efforts. Therefore, the priority in Libya may be less the specific date of the election and more the authenticity of the process to get there. This may involve a drawn-out negotiation over the course of the year, which if it advances Libyan ownership, will be well-warranted.
2022 will be a pivotal year in Mali’s efforts to restore democratic rule following the two coups led by Colonel Assimi Goïta in August 2020 and May 2021. The February 27 date for elections was set by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) during negotiations with the military junta to resume civilian rule in this expansive Sahelian country of 20 million people. Goïta, however, has grand ambitions for the military’s role in the Malian government and has made a point of rehabilitating the images of past disgraced military rulers such as Moussa Traoré and Amadou Haya Sanogo, who oversaw ruinous periods of Mali’s post-independence history. Mali, thus, is on course for a high-stakes standoff over vastly different visions of its governance trajectory.
“The security threat has only worsened since the military coup.”
Goïta can be expected to try to ignore the February 27 deadline for elections, and the junta has shown little interest in preparing for the transition. Instead, it has proposed a 5-year transition process that would culminate in 2026. This suggestion has been strongly rejected by the opposition coalition and ECOWAS, precipitating an escalation in sanctions on the junta including the closure of borders and limitations on financial transactions. If these measures are reinforced by international democratic actors, the junta will be further isolated, exposing its lack of legitimacy.
Key issues to watch in Mali, therefore, will be how ECOWAS elevates the costs on the junta for its intransigence and how independently managed elections will be enabled. ECOWAS’s earlier willingness to concede to the junta’s demands and timetables have been shown to be based on false hopes that the junta actually intended on facilitating a transition. The regional body’s stiffened resolve also signals its recognition that if it tolerates the junta in Mali, the norm of coups as a means of succession will be legitimized, inspiring further coups on the continent—a phenomenon that has already started to take shape.
The junta justified its coup as well as its proposed extended transition timeframe on the ongoing security threat posed by militant Islamist groups in the central and northern regions of the country. However, the security threat has only worsened since the military coup—with violent events linked to militant Islamist groups in Mali increasing by a third in 2021 over 2020. The coup leaders’ preoccupation with consolidating their seizure of power has come at the expense of securing at-risk communities.
In the interest of bolstering its hold on power, the junta has surreptitiously contracted to bring in 1,000 Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group at the cost of $11 million per month to further shore up the junta’s position. (Given that Mali’s annual military expenditures are estimated to be around $580 million, the payments to Wagner amount to 23 percent of what Mali spends on defense). While presented as an extraordinary means of responding to a serious security threat, the track record of Wagner deployments in the Central African Republic, Libya, Sudan, Mozambique, Syria, and Ukraine has been to advance Moscow’s interests and prop up their allies rather than enhance stability. These deals frequently also involve granting Wagner access to a country’s natural resources.
“Another critical lesson … is the fallacy of enabling military actors who have seized power extra constitutionally to lead the transition process back to democracy.”
The self-interested motives behind this deal seem all the more evident given the junta’s refusal to accept an additional 2,000 military and police forces (at no cost to Mali) as part of the 17,000 strong peacekeeping force of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).
The Wagner deal exposes the vulnerability a nation faces from an unelected and illegitimate leadership bargaining away elements of national sovereignty in its effort to cling to power. Such an outcome is even more unsavory given that a Russian-inspired disinformation campaign was instrumental in fomenting discontent with President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta and democratic processes in Mali the year leading up to the 2020 coup.
Among the many lessons for democratic development in Africa that can be drawn from Mali’s recent coups, two stand out. One is the importance of strengthening independent institutions to foster the self-corrections that are the bread-and-butter of democratic systems. Many Malians initially justified the coup in 2020 (as they did in 2012) based on the alleged corruption and ineptitude of Keïta’s democratically elected government. Yet, these coups have only further pulled Mali away from a constitutionally based system, exposing citizens to the whims of the latest military actor who has seized power. By strengthening independent democratic institutions (such as the judiciary, electoral commission, and anticorruption bodies), Malians will have more effective means through which to respond to the inevitable governance shortcomings that emerge.
Another critical lesson from Mali (as well as other African countries that have experienced coups) is the fallacy of enabling military actors who have seized power extra constitutionally to lead the transition process back to democracy. These coup leaders have already demonstrated their disdain for democratic processes and therefore are least suited to reinstate them. Moreover, so long as they are recognized and have access to state resources, they have few incentives to do so. Removing the processes and timetables for democratic transitions from the purview of military actors and instead entrusting these to an independent, merit-based body is far more likely to lead to the desired restoration of a democratic system.
As Malians navigate a return to democracy in 2022, they have the advantage of experience. While Mali’s previous efforts at democratization may have been imperfect, these experiences provide valuable lessons as a starting point for the improvements to be fashioned and the resiliencies to be strengthened moving forward.
The March date for Guinea’s presidential elections represents the 6-month timetable established by ECOWAS following the military coup of September 2021. Led by Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, the leader of a 300-strong special forces unit, the coup deposed 83-year-old President Alpha Condé who was controversially serving a third term in office. Presidential third terms were barred under Guinea’s constitution until Condé overrode these provisions through what many Guineans considered extralegal tactics and the use of violence against protesters by security forces resulting in fatalities.
While rationalized as a response to Condé’s third-termism, the military junta has not turned power over to a civilian caretaker government. Instead, it has installed Doumbouya as interim President and taken few steps toward elections, appearing to be vying for a multiyear military-led transition.
The focal point of the electoral process in Guinea will be negotiations with ECOWAS to hasten the return of civilian-led democratic rule. Having already suspended Guinea from the regional body and imposed sanctions upon it, ECOWAS and international democratic actors must continue to coordinate their actions to signal to Doumbouya (and other potential coup makers) that his seizure of power will not be recognized or rewarded.
Doumbouya’s claim to need more time to revise the constitution and institute reforms overlooks the fundamental issue that such foundational changes are the prerogatives of democratically elected representatives and not a self-appointed military junta.
The irony of the military claiming the mantle of reform is particularly nonsensical given Guinea’s devastating legacy of military governments renowned for human rights abuses, corruption, and impunity. Military misgovernance was a major factor in making Guinea one of the poorest countries in Africa when the country held its first democratic elections in 2010. Indeed, reflecting the still fresh scars of authoritarian rule, only 52 percent of Guineans say they trust the military, according to the most recent Afrobarometer surveys. In contrast, 77 percent of Guineans are strongly supportive of democracy with the same number saying it was not acceptable for the military to intervene and assume power.
“Military misgovernance was a major factor in making Guinea one of the poorest countries in Africa.”
Given its limited experience with democracy prior to 2010, Guinea exceeded expectations in adapting democratic practices and institutions in the subsequent decade. This included massive and sustained peaceful demonstrations by Guineans opposed to Condé’s efforts to circumvent the constitution to stay on for a third term and his inability to secure parliamentary approval for a revision. Guinea, thus, has an active civil society and political class capable of navigating the transition back to democracy absent the military’s direction.
Guinea’s experience is also a reminder of the instability linked to third-termism in Africa, where leaders who stay on for more than two terms are linked to higher levels of corruption, decreased civil liberties, and increased conflict. Proactively preventing leaders from evading term limits, therefore, will be key to maintaining regular election schedules in Africa and avoiding the need to orchestrate ad-hoc efforts to transition back toward democracy.
Originally scheduled for December 2020, Somalia’s electoral calendar has been repeatedly delayed. Somalia’s indirect presidential election, in which President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (popularly known as Farmaajo) is seeking a second term, was currently slated to be completed by March 31. He faces a crowded field of candidates, including former Presidents Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and former Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire.
Somalia continues to operate under an indirect, multistage electoral system where 54 senators are elected by 5 state assemblies, and 275 members of Somalia’s Lower House of Parliament are selected by 27,775 delegates nominated by clan elders. Collectively, these senators and parliamentarians then select the president among a list of candidates approved by the Indirect Election Commission (IEC).
The senate selection process was completed in November 2021. The selection of members to the Lower House of Parliament was completed by April 14. Given the politicking built into the selection of both bodies, the processes are subject to vote buying and other means of influence peddling, including by the violent extremist insurgency, Al Shabaab, and external actors.
In response to criticism that the process was being manipulated in favor of the incumbent and threats of an opposition boycott, Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble sacked seven members of the Dispute Resolution Committee for bias. This led Farmaajo to try to dismiss Roble (something only Parliament can do), raising for a time the prospect of open conflict. The federal member states (FMS) leaders, moreover, were resentful of Farmaajo for perceived foot dragging and efforts to undermine the integrity of the IEC, which resulted in multiple delays in the election date. Farmaajo accentuated these suspicions in April 2021, by proposing a 2-year extension of his term, which technically expired in February 2021.
The convulsions of the Somali electoral process reveal the weaknesses of the electoral oversight bodies such as the IEC and Federal Electoral Implementation Team (FEIT), which have allowed the incumbent to delay and influence the proceedings. The ambiguities of the process have fostered distrust and escalating tensions. If not satisfactorily resolved, any leader who emerges from the selection process will lack legitimacy in the eyes of many Somalis, further contributing to instability. The prolonged electoral process has also consumed most of the political energy in Somalia for more than a year, distracting from other governing priorities including security.
A silver lining in the jostling between the President, Prime Minister, and FMS is that Somalia is forging, in fits and starts, a system of checks and balances on its executive branch and an open debate on what a free and fair electoral process entails. Reform efforts should build on this dialogue and push for further institutionalization of these processes. This includes enhancing the independence of the elections commission so that it can conduct future elections on a predetermined schedule, adopting a process of direct elections to limit the influence peddling inherent in the current system, and a clear outline of the roles and authorities of the national government vis-à-vis the FMS under Somalia’s federal system.
The headline of Kenya’s presidential elections is the forthcoming succession from President Uhuru Kenyatta, who is stepping down after two terms in office. The elections, therefore, represent an important inflection point in Kenya’s democratic development and renewal. Despite challenges of ethnic violence and allegations of vote rigging over the years, Kenya has a history of competitive elections and has been an outspoken defender of upholding democratic norms in the region.
Kenya’s democratic evolution is owed, in no small part, to the growing independence of the judiciary, which has emerged as a critical check on the executive branch. This was seen in the rejection of election results due to irregularities in vote tallying in the 2017 presidential contest, requiring a rerun. The judiciary also played an instrumental role in rejecting the proposed Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) that would have revised the constitution to expand the scope of the executive branch, a move that many in civil society saw as a threat to the progressive 2010 constitution and its provisions for more inclusive and accountable government in Kenya.
Among a crowded field of candidates, the leading contenders are shaping up to be Vice President William Ruto and perennial challenger, Raila Odinga. While Ruto had been Kenyatta’s running mate for the past two elections, Kenyatta has endorsed Odinga, the leading contender in the 2017 election. The effect has been a topsy-turvy recasting of political alliances and injection of considerable unpredictability in the outcome.
At the front of many Kenyans’ minds is the risk of political violence that has accompanied many recent presidential elections, notably the 2007 contest that resulted in an estimated 1,200 fatalities and 650,000 displaced. This violence has, at times, taken on ethnic overtones, a result of the polarization and stoking of animosities. A key issue to watch in 2022, therefore, is what efforts leading candidates, parties, and national and neighborhood level peacebuilding groups make to mitigate potential violence during this cycle.
This vulnerability of the Kenyan political process is perpetuated by the organization of political parties around ethnicity and personality rather than ideology, heightening perceptions of what is at stake. It has also perpetuated a seeming stasis of leading presidential candidates from election to election, handicapping prospects for more reformist candidates. That said, neither Ruto nor Odinga are Kikuyu, Kenya’s largest ethnic group, portending a shift in ethnic alliances, regardless of who emerges victorious.
“This vulnerability of the Kenyan political process is perpetuated by the organization of political parties around ethnicity and personality rather than ideology.”
Kenyan politics have also been buffeted by a rise in domestic disinformation campaigns in recent years. The most high-profile of these well-organized campaigns—aimed at the justices who struck down the disputed 2017 elections, the BBI, and the Pandora Papers exposé—seem intended to confuse citizens over what is true, thereby muting outrage and collective action.
This has impacted public trust in Kenyan political leaders. Along with the perceived elite domination of the political process and corruption, this has resulted in declining public enthusiasm for the elections. Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission has struggled to increase voter registrations. Disinterest is particularly high among youth, who may not hold much hope for change regardless of which candidate wins. Given that 75 percent of Kenya’s 48 million people are under 35, this disconnect represents an important challenge facing all candidates.
Beyond the modelling benefit that a fair and legitimating electoral process in Kenya can have for strengthening democratic norms in the region, the Kenyan elections also have important regional security implications. Kenya has the region’s most dynamic economy and has been a bulwark of stability in a neighborhood facing an array of security challenges—al Shabaab in Somalia, South Sudan’s ongoing instability, heightened political repression in Uganda and Tanzania, and the devastating civil war in Ethiopia—many of which have governance drivers. A solid election in Kenya, accordingly, will be felt far beyond its borders.
The ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) has maintained continuous control over Angolan politics since 1975 and appears intent on ensuring this remains the case after the 2022 elections when strongman President João Lourenço stands for a second term. The MPLA is systematically pursuing this objective through a series of ham-handed maneuvers maximizing its control over state structures. Through its deep influence over the courts, the MPLA has challenged the selection of new opposition leaders, namely Costa Júnior of UNITA and Abel Chivukuvuku of PRA-JÁ Servir Angola. This creates additional bureaucratic obstacles for the opposition, which has vowed to field a unified coalition in the 2022 elections, the United Patriotic Front.
Citing the pandemic, the MPLA has not held local elections for over 3 years, denying the opposition momentum prior to the presidential elections. (The opposition currently controls roughly a third of the seats in the National Assembly, despite allegations of widespread irregularities benefitting the MPLA during the 2017 vote count). Under a curious formulation, even the composition of the National Electoral Commission (CNE) is stipulated to be proportional to the party representation in the legislature, thereby institutionalizing bias and perpetuating the influence of the ruling party.
“Vote counting for the 2022 polls is to be done centrally rather than at the local level, defying electoral best practice.”
By forcing constitutional revisions through the MPLA-dominated legislature, vote counting for the 2022 polls is to be done centrally rather than at the local level, defying electoral best practice, thereby reducing oversight and accountability of these tallies. Civil society leaders are also concerned that Lourenço will use the constitutional revisions as justification for resetting the term limit clock.
While the MPLA’s control over the institutional architecture may succeed in maintaining its stranglehold over Angolan politics, this is not a sustainable strategy for the country more generally. Angola has experienced 6 years of economic contraction despite its abundance of natural resources. It owes $40 billion of foreign debt (with an annual GDP of $63 billion), of which half is to China. Prices of food and other basic goods have been rising. Perceptions of corruption continue to be among the highest in the world. The combination of political and economic frustrations has led to a series of antigovernment protests in Luanda, which have been forcefully put down by the Angolan security forces using live ammunition.
In short, what could be one of the most consequential elections on the continent—signaling a commitment to genuine reform, more inclusive political participation, and respect for the rule of law—is likely to be little more than a formality.
Chad’s off-cycle 2022 elections are an attempt to move Chad to a civilian-led, democratic government following the death of longtime authoritarian leader Idriss Déby in April 2021. The irregular elections are needed because executive authority did not shift to the Speaker of Parliament after Déby’s death as constitutionally mandated. Rather, a military council of 13 generals seized power, dissolved the government, and selected his 37-year-old son, Mahamat Déby as the country’s new leader. This extraconstitutional, hereditary succession of power amounted to a coup, precipitating a negotiation with the African Union resulting in the 18-month transitional timeframe intended to culminate in the 2022 presidential elections.
As with other recent military coups in Africa, however, the junta in Chad does not appear to be in a hurry to organize the transition or give up power. The military has long played a role in Chadian politics, with Idriss Déby himself having seized power in a coup 31 years prior to his death. During his tenure, the Chadian government was characterized by its political exclusion, repressive actions against opposition political leaders and media, corruption, and repeated bouts of instability involving a host of rebel groups regularly mounting attacks to overturn the government.
Claims by the junta that they will hold an inclusive national dialogue in February 2022 have been met with considerable skepticism within Chad. Opposition groups and leading civil society actors, including members of the citizen movement Wakit Tama (Chadian Arabic for “the time has come”) who have challenged the legitimacy of the junta, have not been a part of this dialogue. Moreover, protests over the exclusionary nature of the transition have been forcibly put down, including with live ammunition. In November 2021, however, the junta released nearly 300 jailed political dissidents.
The junta has also signaled that it intends to control the transition on its terms by rejecting the African Union’s designated Special Envoy to mediate the Chad crisis, Ibrahima Fall. The junta has also floated the idea that the 18-month transition may be renewed and have not committed to barring any members of the transitional government from running in the elections when they are held. Mahamat Déby has also suggested that “conditions” be met before a transition could take place, including that “Chadians get along” and that the transition receive international financial support. This sort of brash brinksmanship has led many Chadians to fear that Mahamat Déby is simply trying to replicate his father’s long hold on power in Chad.
Despite its inauspicious authoritarian track record and dismal development performance, Chad has garnered international political capital over the years from the deployment of its armed forces in the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin as part of regional efforts to combat militant Islamist groups.
Inclusion of a genuine political opposition in the transitional process, opening of space for civil society and the media, and the establishment of an independent electoral commission to oversee the elections without further delays will all be indicators of the junta’s seriousness in supporting a transition and the credibility of the 2022 polls.
While not officially recognized by any state, one of the most democratic presidential elections to be held in Africa in 2022 may well be in Somaliland. Since 1991, Somaliland has held regular presidential and legislative elections that have resulted in periodic alternations of power. This was the result in the May 2021 Lower House and Local Council elections, in which the governing Kulmiye Peace, Unity and Development Party won fewer seats than the opposition alliance of the Waddani National Party and the Justice and Welfare Party in a close election. The results were quickly accepted by Kulmiye leaders and the opposition alliance was subsequently able to select the new leader of the House of Representatives.
“Somaliland has navigated a positive democratic trajectory because of the strong democratic culture that has been embraced by its nearly 6 million residents.”
These local elections may be a harbinger for the presidential elections where Somaliland President Muse Bihi Abdi of the ruling Kulmiye party is seeking a second 5-year term. Analysts suggest Bihi will need to govern more inclusively if he hopes to win in November, paying particular attention to shoring up constituencies in the east of the territory where turnout (amounting to 64 percent overall) was relatively lowest. At the least, the results show the competitiveness of Somaliland’s three-party electoral system and the accountability it holds for incumbent leaders.
Somaliland has navigated a positive democratic trajectory because of the strong democratic culture that has been embraced by its nearly 6 million residents. This is backed by consensus among all three parties on the importance of resolving differences through negotiation without disrupting the territory’s cherished reputation for stability.
Somaliland’s institutions, however, remain underdeveloped and in need of strengthening. This includes establishing more clarity and consistency in the timeframe for holding elections. The previous election for the House of Representatives was in 2005 and for Local Council in 2012. The Upper House of Elders, also known as the Guurti, is generally considered to have played a valuable moderating role in finding consensus around political disagreements. However, its members were last selected in the early 2000’s and its seats are passed by hereditary succession. The Guurti elections of May 2022, therefore, will go far in reinvigorating Somaliland’s democratic tapestry. To avoid fragmentation, Somaliland also has a stipulation limiting the political arena to three parties. Party licenses are awarded every 10 years based on elections. This process is set to take place in December, capping off what will be a busy electoral calendar in 2022.
Joseph Siegle is Research Director and Candace Cook is Research Assistant at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.