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July in Africa: Contentious and contested elections on the continent

Mali and Zimbabwe held elections mired in controversy and marred by violence, while political turmoil in Comoros intensified amidst their recent controversial referendum. Against the backdrop of these electoral disputes, the Tanzanian authorities' crackdown on criticism of the president continued with threats of legal action against an independent research organisation that released a survey exposing President John Magufuli's waning popularity.

Acrobats perform outside the headquarters of Mali's incumbent president and candidate for re-election in Bamako, 13 August 2018, one day after a presidential runoff vote
Acrobats perform outside the headquarters of Mali's incumbent president and candidate for re-election in Bamako, 13 August 2018, one day after a presidential runoff vote


July was the month of contentious elections, leading to results being disputed in both Mali and Zimbabwe. This played out alongside a polarizing constitutional referendum on the island of Comoros. Adding to the political incidents for this month, Twaweza, an independent research organisation, was given seven days to "explain itself" for releasing results of a survey indicating Tanzanian President John Magufuli's declining popularity amongst citizens.

Malian election marred by irregularities

The first round of Mali's election, which saw incumbent President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (known as IBK) win 41.4% of the vote and his closest rival Soumaila Cisse come a distant second with 17.8%, was so heavily flawed with violence and electoral irregularities that the subsequent presidential runoff was held amidst heavy security.

Polling day in the capital Bamako was reportedly peaceful but there were parts of the country where voting was halted because of reports of violence, including polling stations being set on fire. In total 105 polling stations stayed closed because of security concerns. Several presidential candidates accused the government of fraud and ballot box stuffing. Opposition leader Cisse's campaign director described an incident where in a "village of 150 inhabitants, 3,000 people voted". Other claims alleged people were being paid for their votes with fertiliser and cash.

The first round of elections took place against a backdrop of years of insecurity caused by divisive ethnic conflicts and insurgencies in the north of the country by militant extremist groups. The fraught and tense atmosphere continued as the opposition warned of anomalies in the electoral register and restrictions on freedom of expression. An opposition demonstration in early June was brutally halted before it started. A subsequent demonstration by Mali's main opposition coalition, calling for a transparent presidential vote and better and equitable coverage, took place a few days later without incident. Around the same time, election organisers ended their two-week strike over poor working and living conditions.

Mindful of these conditions, the electoral campaigns of IBK and the 23 other contenders - of which only one was a woman - focused on stabilisation of the country, revitalisation of the economy and employment creation. Despite being ranked as the world's third largest gold producer, Mali remains one of the poorest countries in the world with an expanding youth population facing few promising opportunities.

For August's second round of the presidential run-off, in which Keita is seen as the clear favourite, the hopes of the Malian people remain the same - food, jobs and education and, of course, security.

Violence follows hotly-contested Zimbabwe election

Zimbabwe's election at the end of July was one of the most closely watched on the continent in recent years. It also turned out to be as hotly contested and eventful as Mali's presidential election. A high turnout in a relatively peaceful and calm atmosphere on voting day slowly deteriorated, culminating a few days later in a demonstration that was violently shut down by the army. Six people were killed and 14 people were injured when demonstrators took to the streets after an announcement that the ruling Zanu PF party had won a two-thirds majority in the legislature.

This election was characterised by a number of significant new developments for Zimbabwe: President Emmerson Mnangagwa and his team opened borders to previously excluded regional and international observers; and former President Robert Mugabe was missing from the ballot papers for the first time since independence, having been removed from office by an army intervention in November 2017. Another first was the absence of Mugabe's main political adversary, the late Morgan Tsvangirai, as the leading oppositional figure in this particular election. Prior to the election, the opposition MDC split into the MDC Alliance, led by Nelson Chamisa, and the MDC-T, led by former deputy president of the party Thokozani Khupe. Khupe was one of a number of female candidates who faced a barrage of abusive and aggressive insults online.

Zimbabwe's pre-election environment was charged with accusations of illegal postal voting, an apparent assassination attempt against President Mnangagwa, voter intimidation tactics, and an election-related breach of personal information.

At the centre of most of the controversy was the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) which was repeatedly accused of pro-government bias. The ZEC spent most of the pre-voting period fumbling its way through several embarrassing blunders, further undermining confidence and trust in the institution. Registered voters were concerned when they received personalised campaign messages on their mobile phones from ruling party candidates standing for office in their local areas. Eyebrows were raised further when the chair of the ZEC, Priscilla Chigumba, admitted that a request for the Biometric Voters Roll (BVR) to be audited by external chartered accountants had been turned down.

These and other numerous issues, most of which are centred on the electoral landscape, are now the subject of a Constitutional Court challenge by MDC Alliance leader Nelson Chamisa, who contends that he is the legitimate winner of the presidential election and that he has been cheated of his victory.

For more on Zimbabwe's election, check out my Zimbabwe Election Watch diary.

Comoros constitutional referendum

On July 30, voters in Comoros went to the polls for a controversial constitutional referendum, that enabled President Azali Assoumani to extend his presidential term. President Assoumani's referendum win also allows him to dissolve the Constitutional Court, bring to an end a system of rotating power among the archipelago's three main islands, and eliminate the positions of the three vice-presidents of these islands.

According to the New York Times: "The present constitution requires the presidency to rotate every five years among candidates from the country's three main islands, an arrangement intended to promote stability and power-sharing in a country that has had more than 20 coups or coup attempts since it declared independence from France in 1975."

The opposition, who described the referendum as a power grab and power retention strategy by the president, have already come under fire. Days after the national referendum, several members of the opposition in Comoros were arrested for boycotting the referendum, while others have gone into hiding. In May of this year, opposition leader and presidential predecessor Ahmed Abdallah Sambi was placed under house arrest.

The political turmoil which has always haunted the country intensified in the weeks before the referendum, with opposition parties taking to the streets calling for the re-establishment of democratic institutions and demanding the removal of President Assoumani. The clashes were swiftly and forcefully quashed by police just days before the referendum, when there was a failed assassination attempt on Moustoidrane Abdou, one of Comoros's three vice-presidents.

His "win" at the referendum may be debatable but what is undisputable is that, for now, President Assoumani's powers have been significantly expanded.

Creeping authoritarianism in Tanzania

Tanzanian President John Magufuli, known to many as The Bulldozer, was once hailed for acting ruthlessly against corruption and inefficiency by instantly dismissing government officials accused of those offences. President Magufuli is equally intolerant of dissenters. He has acted on his authoritarian instincts by swiftly and harshly dealing with his political opponents and anyone critical of himself and his policies. Tanzania has become a country where opposition politicians are shot at and journalists disappear.

In the latest clampdown, Tanzanian authorities threatened to take legal action against Twaweza – an independent research organisation - for publishing the results of an opinion survey on the state of democracy in Tanzania. The survey, entitled Speaking Truth to Power? showed Magufuli's approval rating had dropped to 55% - the lowest recorded rating for a president in the country's history.

In what has been regarded as a swift and retaliatory response, Costech, the public body responsible for science and technology, said the organisation's survey was not certified and gave Twaweza seven days to explain itself or face legal action. A few weeks later, the Tanzanian authorities confiscated the passport of Twaweza's executive director, Aidan Eyakuze, and barred him from travelling outside the country.

Ugandans take to the streets to protest social media tax

Ugandan police used teargas and rubber bullets to shoot protestors demonstrating against a newly imposed tax targeting social media users. Angry over the prohibitive tax, campaigners initially started broadcasting recorded messages from loudspeakers urging users not to pay the levy. Two protestors were arrested during the demonstrations after a scuffle in which some policemen were allegedly assaulted.

The mandatory daily levy of USD 5 cents for over-the-top (OTT) services, including messaging and voice calls via WhatsApp, Facebook, Skype and Viber, came into effect on July 1. Freedom of expression advocates are not buying the explanation from President Yoweri Museveni that the new taxes on social media usage "will generate revenue for the Pearl of Africa nation." The African Freedom of Expression Exchange "believes it is a systematic attempt of censoring numerous Ugandans who may not be able to afford the new daily levy". They also view the tax as an attempt to stifle internet freedom and online expression.

Surprised by the pushback from citizens, President Museveni asked parliament to review the controversial mobile money and social media tax, but it ruled in favour of keeping it.

Three journalists who were covering the demonstrations were also arrested for "covering an unlawful assembly without police permission". At the police station they were pressed to surrender their recorded material and reveal the identities of the organisers of the protest, but they declined to do so. They were detained for refusing to cooperate and were released two hours later after mounting pressure from media practitioners and lobby groups.

Journalists expose surveillance of the media in South Africa

With a strong constitution and deep-rooted human rights protection, South Africa is known for upholding and promoting freedom of expression and privacy. The same constitution also limits the powers of the security agencies, yet journalists in South Africa are still being targeted by state spies.

This is especially true of journalists investigating and exposing corruption in state institutions. The reason behind this surveillance is to uncover journalists' sources, which is why the R2K Campaign released their report titled Spooked: Surveillance of Journalists in SA.

In publishing the report, R2K want journalists "to have a better picture of the threats they face so they can better defend themselves, and to rally the broader public to join the campaign to end these abuses and the bad policies that enable them." The report looks at 10 case studies of surveillance against journalists, showing members of the public that spying is something that should concern everyone, not just members of the media. "While it has always been known that the law requires service providers to store logs of everyone's communication activity, in 2017 we discovered those logs get handed over to state agencies vastly more often than was previously thought."

Swazi police shut down workers' rights protest

In a month characterised by the brutal suppression of street protests across the continent, the Swazi police were no exception, with their violent attack on protestors taking part in a peaceful march organised by the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA).

More than 500 members of TUCOSWA took to the streets to highlight the issue of workers' rights in a country where rights are commonly trampled. The demonstration was violently dispersed by the police using rubber bullets and stun grenades.

The demonstrators were planning to deliver a petition to the Deputy Prime Minister's office, calling for the introduction of a minimum wage, amendments to the employment act, and other protective rights.

In the same month, the Swazi Health Minister, Eswatini Sibongile Ndlela-Simelane, ordered police to arrest a journalist for photographing government ministers' cars outside the Deputy Prime Minister's office. Ndlela-Simelane also demanded that the photographs be deleted, which the journalist did. The media outlet the journalist was working for had previously published a report about government ministers' BMW cars being in a bad state of repair. It was checking a government claim that the vehicles had been repaired and were back on the road.

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