(Rare) splendours and (frequent) miseries of African electoral commissions

Behind most of the elections organized in sub-Saharan Africa, we find the famous Ceni or Cena. However, they have largely demonstrated their ineffectiveness, and it is high time to replace them.



A Zambia Election Commission (ECZ) agent at a polling station in Lusaka on August 12, 2021.


© Patrick Meinhardt / AFP
A Zambia Election Commission (ECZ) agent at a polling station in Lusaka on August 12, 2021.

In Alpha Condé – a certain idea of ​​Guinea, his book of interviews with journalist François Sudan, published in 2019, the Guinean president who has since started a third presidential term the following year, said this about the third tenure in power that he was preparing to run against thick and thin: “I have no firm ideas on this subject. It depends on the context of each country. There are heads of state who have been in power for too long without the country making progress. The battle then consisted in organizing national conferences. It was a given moment in the history of Africa. We must now see if we are still there or if this moment has changed. The national conferences resulted from the impossibility of achieving alternation in power, quite simply because the elections were neither free nor democratic. Since then, things have changed. The debate is open at the level of Africa. “

Slay the Ceni totem pole

He forgets to say that the national conferences brought in their caravanserai, even for the countries which had not organized one, the famous Ceni or Cena [Commission électorale nationale indépendante ou autonome], supposed to guarantee the transparency and the sincerity of the electoral ballots.

To read Mali: should the Ceni be abolished?

Yet we are here at the heart of the sub-Saharan political question. Because things have clearly not changed. The camps still trust each other. And if the third mandate is a taboo that can (must?) Cease, the Ceni and Cena of French-speaking countries above all are a totem that must be cut down like an old worm-eaten tree.

Anglophone Africa is not left out. Speaking of the “Anglos” however, a pleasant surprise came to us recently from Zambia. On August 16, the local Ceni (Electoral Commission of Zambia) announced the victory of the opponent Hakainde Hichilema, 59 years old. The latter was still in his sixth presidential candidacy.

In Zambia, the election management body is independent

A victory announced by the Electoral Commission and not by any constitutional court or by a constitutional council. In Zambia, the electoral management body is independent: it delimits the electoral districts according to demographic trends, it manages the registration of voters on the lists, it receives the minutes from the polling stations and announces the results. Finally, it has electoral conflict management committees that can hear disputes over votes, even if these committees do not have the judicial power to settle disputes, nor that of proclaiming elected candidates, which falls to the Electoral Commission. .

Quirks and failures of electoral machines

Coming back to French-speaking Africa, there are so-called independent election management bodies in the following countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon (Elecam), Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Madagascar, Niger, Mauritius, DRC, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, Togo – not to mention Tunisia in the Maghreb.

This alleged “independence” of the body does not prevent hiccups of importance, not to say colossal failures in the machine, which is anything but oiled: the results of the last presidential election in Guinea-Bissau, Togo, in Cameroon and Niger were strongly contested by the challenger who came second, and gave rise to post-election violence.

To read Guinea-Bissau: ECOWAS recommends checking the minutes of the contested presidential election

Between December 2010 and April 2011, the president of the Ivorian Ceni, one and the same man, certainly inspired by the civil war of the time, successively proclaimed president-elect Laurent Gbagbo, then Alassane Ouattara!

In Benin, during the last electoral contest, the outgoing Patrice Talon himself chose his (too rare) opponents, in favor of a new law on a minimum of signatures of elected officials to be able to run for the supreme magistracy.

Same electoral subterfuge of the minimum number of voters’ signatures to be presidential set up in Senegal by the legislative majority of the incumbent for the February 2019 ballot, in a country which has a mixed electoral management body: the Cena. Mixed, as is the case in Cape Verde, Djibouti, Gabon, Mali, Mauritania, CAR or Comoros.

“Incompetent” and disparaged wise men

Clearly we have, on the one hand, a Cena responsible for the organization and supervision of the electoral process, which includes the management of electoral lists and files as well as files linked to candidates and parties and, finally, the management of minutes.

On the other hand, to make a tandem supposed to guarantee transparency, there is a DGE [Direction générale des élections, démembrement du ministère de l’Intérieur] which is responsible for the application of the electoral law, the creation and distribution of voter cards, the smooth running of the elections, the training and coordination of electoral employees and the management of electoral financing. Together with the Cena, the DGE is also responsible for the management of electoral files, electoral lists, electoral material, the archiving of these, the delimitation of electoral districts and civic education.

The Ceni and Cena haven’t settled anything in thirty years

France supports this so-called mixed scheme in Africa, the election management body in France itself being mixed. Except that in France, no Ceni or Cena: the Ministry of the Interior is the governmental branch of this system of mixed electoral management, its independent branch being the Constitutional Council. But the African Constitutional Councils whose wise men, appointed by the Head of State, are so quick to declare themselves “incompetent”, in the event of referral by the opposition, are so decried …

In any case, it is to a minimum of republican orthodoxy and confidence in government institutions that we must return. The Ceni and Cena haven’t settled anything in thirty years. Summum of the ubiquitous, in the DRC, where it is necessary to seek the representatives of the religious congregations to designate the president and the members of the Ceni, one still did not see white smoke at the end of August 2021. It was already the same situation in 2018 in this country.

To read Ceni in the DRC: what do religious denominations really weigh?

In short, the Ceni, supposed to improve the elections, itself adds to the electoral imbroglio. In this regard, should we recall that the DRC has not organized municipal elections since 2006?

Restore confidence … but not without control

In the work quoted at the beginning of this column, Alpha Condé, “the man of the three mandates” (co-holder of the title with the Ivorian Alassane Ouattara), is surprised: “What is the strangest, for me who spent forty-five years in opposition, who was sentenced to death and served in prison, who fought for democracy, is that the very people who organized the most fraudulent elections in the history of this country today claim that there is no democracy! “.

No, President Condé, this is not strange: the level of demand that you opposed to those in power yesterday must be opposed to you today. This level of requirement must even be higher in terms of democratic standards. The barricades you put up yesterday are the hurdles you must be able to jump now that you are in power.

To read Liberation of opponents in Guinea: “There is no more indulgent than Alpha Condé”

The organization of the elections should be the responsibility of government bodies, with the possibility of launching all the audits desired by the political actors throughout the process, if necessary by requesting the presence of international observers during the various stages of the ballot. And the vanquished, even the outgoing one, must recognize his defeat. It may be (and certainly!) A long process to come to this situation (or to come back and stay there) where the regime in place admits its eventual defeat. But it won’t take the thirty years that the ineffective Ceni and Cena lasted.

It is to this Belgian neutrality that the sub-Saharan countries must arrive and return

Which makes us think that in Belgium, the electoral management body is entirely governmental and made up of civil servants: this is perhaps the reason why this country has been able, several times, to stay for more than a year ” without government ”, the outgoing cabinet being just responsible for dealing with current affairs. Without the sky falling on the heads of the Belgians.

To read Mali: who are the pillars and relays of power for Assimi Goïta?

Yes, it is this Belgian neutrality that the sub-Saharan countries must arrive or return to. Political actors from opposing camps must (re) learn to trust each other. Confidence which, as we know, does not exclude control. Elections, even presidential ones, are not a question of the life of politicians… or of the death of men!

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