What’s at stake in Africa’s 2023 elections?

Some of Africa's big hitters – including the continent's largest economy Nigeria – will go to the polls in 2023 in vital elections that will have wide repercussions.


Image : Yasuyoshi CHIBA/AFP

Nigeria (February)

Millions of Nigerians will head to the polls on 25 February to elect a successor to President Muhammadu Buhari, who is stepping down after the conclusion of his two-term limit. The contest will pit Bola Tinubu, Buhari’s successor as presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress and former governor of Lagos state, against veteran challenger and former vice-president Atiku Abubakar, who will again be running on behalf of the Peoples’ Democratic Party after losing to Buhari last time.

However, what might be expected to be a two-horse race has been enlivened by the strong campaigning of the Labour Party’s Peter Obi, who appears to be having some success in attracting the youth vote in a country where the average age is 18. Early polls showed him in a commanding lead, and while that might be hard to sustain – a kingmaker role is perhaps more likely than the presidency – the former Anambra governor’s positioning as an insurgent candidate pledged to shakeup the country’s complacent political system has won adherents. His frugality as governor and career in banking give him some credibility, although detailed plans are harder to come by.

After several years of government control of the economy under Buhari – defined by import restrictions, strict foreign exchange controls and border closures – there appears to be a consensus among his would-be successors for the need for economic change. The three main candidates have all committed to the removal of the multi-billion-dollar per year petrol subsidy. Former accountant Tinubu has pledged to delegate more power to the states and overhaul the failing power sector. Abubakar, a private-sector evangelist, promises to end restrictions on investment in infrastructure projects such as refineries, rail and electricity.

Still, none of the candidates, all of whom are veterans of the political scene and none of whom are younger than 61, represent a truly radical break from the status quo. And for a country that grew at just 3.2% in 2022 despite huge unemployment challenges and years of policy and pandemic-induced drift, tinkering around the edges may not be the substantial change of direction the country requires.

Sierra Leone (June)

Sierra Leone’s President Julius Maada Bio will seek a new mandate in June less than a year after anti-government protests led to the deaths of six police officers and at least 21 civilians. The highly unusual outburst of violence occurred after hundreds took to the streets to protest economic conditions and a perceived failure by the government to tackle inflation which had been running at around 28%.

In an address to the nation, Maada Bio characterised the events as an attempted coup rather than a legitimate expression of economic grievance. “This was not a protest against the high cost of living occasioned by the ongoing global economic crisis. The chant of the insurrectionists was for a violent overthrow of the democratically elected government,” he said.

The election will be the public’s first major chance pass their judgment on Maada Bio’s interpretation of the tragic events. Opposition candidate Samura Kamara, a former governor of the central bank, minister of finance and minister of foreign affairs, will be hoping to make hay out of his troubles. 

Zimbabwe (estimated July/August) 

Elections in Zimbabwe are typically moments of high peril for the country, with violence, vote rigging and contested outcomes all features of recent contests. In 2023, 44-year old lawyer Nelson Chamisa will again take on 80-year-old incumbent Emerson Mnangagwa, the veteran Zanu-PF insider who has ruled the country since deposing long-term ally President Robert Mugabe in a 2017 coup.

While Mugabe’s removal appeared to hold out the hope of a better future for ecstatic Zimbabweans, Zanu-PF has largely reverted to type under Mnangagwa’s leadership. The pattern was set in 2018, when Mnangagwa defeated Chamisa in the first post-coup election, which was defined by the violence and irregularities familiar under Mugabe. This time, Chamisa will run under the banner of the rebranded Citizens Coalition for Change as he seeks to re-energise his support base and ensure a strong enough turnout to dial up pressure on the ruling party.

Meanwhile, post-pandemic growth remains muted, and Zanu PF’s relations with Western powers continue to be defined by sanctions. The US recently told Zimbabwe what would be expected if sanctions are to be revoked – but hopes are low that the offer will result in a transparent electoral process or anything other than a Zanu-PF victory.   

Liberia (October) 

Liberian president and former football star George Weah will seek to persuade citizens to give him a second term in office in polls on 10 October, but surprisingly, he has not spent a great deal of time on the campaign trail.

In December, Weah concluded a 48-day world trip with a stop at the US-Africa summit in Washington, DC. The enormous tour, which included trips to Morocco, Egypt, France, and Qatar – where he proudly watched his son Timothy play for the US in the World Cup – has offered opposition politicians an effective line of attack against the absentee leader. While the trip may have boosted his global profile and reminded World Cup fans of his former greatness on the pitch, they are betting that it will not go down well with the electorate.

An opposition coalition, Collaborating Political Parties, also hope to benefit from a series of government corruption scandals that even prompted sanctions from the US Treasury. Still, Weah will be hoping that his everyman appeal and international profile as the world’s best known Liberian will again shepherd him to another winning result. 

Madagascar (estimated late 2023)

Malagasy President Andry Rajoelina is running for a second five-year term as leader of the island nation, which has been hit by the tailwinds of the pandemic, a severe cyclone season and the enduring impacts of climate change.

The political environment has been hardly less stormy – over the summer, anti-government protestors massed in Antananarivo over the summer to protest against the rising cost of living, leading to the arrest of several activists. In a September update, the IMF expected stalled 2022 growth of 4.2%, with annual average inflation projected to accelerate to 9.8% fuelled by the surge in international oil and food prices.

Rajoelina will be hoping that a global agreement at Cop27 on a climate change loss and damage fund for developing countries will persuade the electorate that the government’s attempts to solve the biggest crisis facing the island are bearing fruit.  

DRC (December) 

In November, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) announced that it will hold presidential elections at the end of 2023.

As usual, the exercise – expected to cost $600m – will be far from simple in the nation of 80m. In the country’s east, the M23 rebel group, which DRC alleges has Rwandan backing, has seized large swathes of territory. The Independent National Electoral Commission says major challenges will include transporting ballot materials thousands of kilometres, health concerns about Ebola and Covid-19, and political violence and dislocation. Electoral delays are not unknown – the last contest, scheduled for 2016, was not held until the end of 2018.

The ever-shifting political landscape is also likely to throw up complications. Incumbent Félix Tshisekedi could face numerous challengers, including a major one from old rival Martin Fayulu, who claimed victory in 2018 but was denied by the courts. Tshisekedi will point to a strong economic recovery with projected growth of over 6% in 2022, spurred by strong global commodity prices. But the majority of Congolese, who remain among the continent’s poorest people, are unlikely to experience the full benefit of their rigged resource economy – or an expensive election – unless the winner of the 2023 poll is able to demonstrate significant political courage and vision. 

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