Washington, DC – Gretchen Birkle, director of Africa programs at IRI, testified today on U.S. election support to Africa before the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations.
In her testimony, Birkle looked at four broad challenges to elections in Africa – the lack of multi-party democracy, the prevalence of those in power to change the rules so they can remain in office, the marginalization of youth and civil conflict and electoral violence.
Despite the progress many African countries have made toward developing and consolidating democracy, Birkle pointed out that “genuine multi-party democracy has yet to take root in most countries,” and goes on to say that, “The limited capacity of political parties to govern…is contributing to increasing citizen distrust and apathy, low voter turnout and a failure of expectations of democracy among many Africans throughout the continent.”
Birkle also spoke about the trend among African leaders to attempt to change the rules of the game, specifically, to change laws and even constitutions to evade term limits, stating “Once in power, leaders often have no desire to foster peaceful political transitions and instead openly work to change the rules to stay in power.”
The marginalization of youth is another challenge that could impact the outcome of elections in Africa. Citing a United Nations African Economic Outlook report and the World Bank, Birkle pointed out that the region has the youngest population in the world and that youth account for 60 percent of all Africans unemployed.
Birkle also noted a Pew Research Center study that shows roughly two in three people surveyed in Africa believe that the government does not care about citizen opinion. “This is a damaging statistic and could signal low turnout among Africans of all ages during the upcoming elections,” said Birkle. She continued, “If people believe what they think does not matter, how likely will they be to go to polls as a means of expressing their opinions?”
The fourth challenge Birkle looked at was civil conflict and electoral violence, saying, “Of the roughly dozen African nations holding elections this year, many are engaged in civil conflicts or are battling terrorism and domestic insurgencies at home. Many also have a history of electoral violence that raises reasons for concern. For the continent, 2015 will be a year of contentious politics where pre-existing tensions will intersect with elections. There is an urgency to devise strategies to prevent and manage electoral violence.”
Looking forward, Birkle highlighted a number of ways the U.S. should support elections and democratic development stating, “United States policymakers and development organizations should continue to provide support throughout the process and not only in the few months leading up to Election Day. The democratic process does not end after the polls are closed. Continued support is needed between elections in order to see sustainable progress.”
Birkle went on to say, “Ultimately, the challenges Africa faces – leaders evading term limits, marginalization of youth, ongoing civil conflicts and potential for election-related violence – are all related to the lack of strong multi-party democratic systems. Once nations fully embrace and adopt competitive, transparent, representative political processes with all of its checks and balances, then these challenges will be better addressed…And where peaceful political transitions can occur, the people of Africa will be freer to pursue their civil, political, economic, social and cultural aspirations.”