Across Africa, opposition movements are gaining steam
Nigeria’s recent elections have been roundly criticized for featuring both voter suppression and intimidation. It was also one of the most significant votes in the country’s democratic history: Opposition “third party” candidate Peter Obi posted a powerful performance despite claims of rigging, taking 25% of the vote and winning in the capital city of Lagos.
What international commentators have largely missed, however, is the wider phenomenon of African opposition movements gaining ground, even in the face of underhanded tactics from autocratic governments. In recent years, a slew of elections have seen landmark results for parties challenging the status quo in their respective countries. While these movements vary vastly in character- and, it must be noted, often have faults of their own- a broad view of democracy on the continent reveals a strong trend of opposition momentum powered by popular dissatisfaction, along with the impact of younger voters and the rise of social media as a political game-changer.
Southern Africa is undoubtedly the hot-spot. In Namibia, South Africa, Angola, Botswana, and Zimbabwe, parties in opposition are seeing traction in either polls or election results. Zambia’s 2021 election likewise saw a peaceful transfer of power, despite widely anticipated suppression tactics: President Hakainde Hichilema’s UPND soundly defeated the ruling Patriotic Front, in what was hailed as a milestone election on the continent.
Though the limited polling for Namibia’s next general election hasn’t seen much erosion for the ruling SWAPO party, 2020’s local elections brought about a massive upset in the capital Windhoek. SWAPO lost its majority for the first time in the country’s history, paving the way for an opposition coalition to be formed on city council.
In Angola, recent legislative elections were the closest ever between the governing MPLA and opposition UNITA. Similar to opposition reactions in many of the situations mentioned, UNITA claimed they actually won the election, citing electoral fraud committed by the government. Nevertheless, the newly competitive political scene suggests intense campaigns in the future.
South Africa’s ANC, which has governed since the end of Apartheid in the country, has seen significant erosion in recent elections. In the last municipal elections, the party fell below 50% of the vote, a result considered shocking to many political observers. 2024’s general election will be closely watched by analysts wondering whether their decline will be borne out at the parliamentary level.
Zimbabwe is yet another stunning circumstance to note. After Mugabe was overthrown in 2017, a general election the following year had his ZANU-PF party declining to just 51%, compared to the opposition MDC at 45%. With elections looming later this year, many anticipate that the opposition- running under a new name, the CCC (Citizens Coalition for Change)- could capitalize on their momentum with a vigorous effort.
Finally, in Botswana, a new poll shows that the UDC could topple the BDP for the first time ever, and potentially by a massive margin.
Not all of the countries listed above can be considered electoral autocracies, but all feature long-governing parties whose entrenchment is typically considered a fact of politics in the region. Every indication, however, suggests that observers should take opposition movements seriously. Even when they lose, the infrastructure they build and momentum they galvanize can translate into future success.
The through-line? While every situation is different, and every country exhibits its own complexities, there are multiple factors that stand out. Social media may be the most salient. Studies repeatedly show there are more Internet users on the continent than ever before, as mobile phone access and the development of communication infrastructure continues to make headway.
Related to this, Africa has an extremely young population overall, a demographic that has driven mass social media adoption around the world. The combination of these elements portends a perfect storm for political disruption, a phenomenon by no means limited to Africa alone.
Many commentators have pointed out Africa’s ever-increasing geopolitical importance. But to truly appreciate what lies ahead for the continent, it will be necessary to look past “conventional wisdom” to the trends unfolding with each new election.
While Africa’s southern countries appear to be the hub of opposition activity, there are relevant examples heading north as well. In Uganda, musician and activist Bobi Wine attempted to unseat dictator Yoweri Museveni, in an unfair election that still caught international attention. Wine’s performance was the second-best result for a non-Museveni presidential contender, though a manipulated electoral environment still ensured he came up well short.
In Kenya, long-time opposition leader Raila Odinga lost in a very close election to the incumbent deputy president, William Ruto. Raila was backed by President Uhuru Kenyatta in an unlikely alliance, but still represented a starkly different path for Kenyan politics as one of the more liberal political figures in the country. Now, Ruto is being criticized for wielding heavy-handed tactics against opposition figures.
Back in 2016, The Gambia saw dictator Yahya Jammeh defeated after ruling the country for over 20 years. And in neighboring Senegal, the opposition wrested control of the National Assembly from President Macky Sall, a long-time leader who likewise has governed with an authoritarian gait.
Elections around the world often feature slanted fields of play- but every election merits attention.