Elections in Gabon and Zimbabwe: A Continued Threat to Democracy in Africa

The recent general elections in Gabon and Zimbabwe continue to raise the concerning pattern of deliberate undermining of the principles of fairness and transparency that underscore the ethos upon which sustainable democracies are built all around the world. Indeed, the coup in Gabon on August 30 demonstrates the consequences of undermining democracy and stresses the need to protect democracy in Africa by insisting on democratic processes that are transparent and devoid of manipulations (Citizen Digital). 

The situation begs for a deliberate response from the African Union, which has essentially disappeared on matters of recent unconstitutional change in governments on the Continent. Indeed, the recent coup in Gabon demonstrates the African Union’s disparate response to civilian-led coups vs. military coups. For instance, the African Union was silent when President Ali Bongo manipulated the election in his own favor but took much more rapid action when military leaders staged a coup in the country and even suspended Gabon’s membership (Africa news). For the AU to have weight, the response to electoral fraud – or civilian-led coups – and military coups should be the same. 

Electoral fraud in Gabon and Zimbabwe was significant and hindered the democratic process for ordinary citizens in favor of the ruling political elites. In Gabon, voters were met with internet shutdowns, removal of candidates’ names from the ballot, and a ban on international observers and journalists. Electoral disruptions were also widespread in Zimbabwe, where voters were met with confusion at polling stations and long delays for ballot delivery, particularly at polls in Harare and Bulawayo. 

Meanwhile, the African Union remains silent on matters of electoral fraud or manipulation and Western media has pushed a narrative of relatively minor election interference in both countries – and still has not gone far enough to acknowledge the role of stolen elections in the recent coup in Gabon. For instance, the AU immediately released a statement following the August 30 coup in Gabon and even suspended Gabon’s membership in the AU but remained silent on President Ali Bongo’s attempts to manipulate the election (Vanguard). We cannot be silent when democracy is under threat. Indeed, the hijacking of the people’s will by desperate politicians on the African continent, and in this case, Gabon and Zimbabwe, should be treated with the same urgency as military coups. These actions by the political elites are not mere electoral interference or mismanagement but are instead deliberate brazen attacks on the will of the people.

The African Union and international community have increasingly scrutinized military coups in Africa, but it has left the door open to an increasing incidence of electoral fraud – or civilian-led coups. This year’s earlier election in Nigeria is one that provided many unanswered questions by the electoral umpire as the level of transparency promised by the electoral body was brazenly compromised by the same body in a manner some have described as a civilian-led coup (Guardian). The most recent elections in Gabon and Zimbabwe have only furthered the trend. 

Gabon and Zimbabwe have both experienced decades-long leadership under repressive, authoritarian rulers. In Gabon, President Ali Bongo has already been in power for two seven-year terms and seeks a third, which would extend his control of the government that began with his father in 1967 (Al Jazeera). Similarly, ZANU-PF has been in power for 43 years in Zimbabwe. Recent elections were merely a sham for continued authoritarian rule. In Zimbabwe, election observers alleged voter intimidation and have also highlighted the arrest of 41 civil society members, in addition to other electoral discrepancies. Indeed, ballots expected to be delivered early in the morning did not arrive until late into the afternoon: “I see this delay as a deliberate attempt to disenfranchise me,’ said Fortune Sikireta, who had been waiting to vote since dawn in the middle-income Harare suburb of Tynwald. By late afternoon he had yet to vote but was determined to see it through.” (Reuters).

Democracy is no longer only under threat by military coups, but also by civilian-led coups and unconstitutional changes in government. When the Nigerian military overthrew the democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum at the end of July 2023, the African Union and ECOWAS quickly released statements condemning the coup and even threatened military action (AU).

By contrast, the African Union has failed to address recent deliberate institutional violations of guaranteed citizen’s rights to choose its political leaders and are instead congratulating declared winners of such injustice to the people. This failure to condemn civilian-led coups points to a neglect of democracy and a misguided focus on the exercise of an election itself vs. an election that genuinely reflects the people’s civic participation in their government and democracy. Stronger condemnation is needed, along with the recognition that military and civilian-led coups both pose existential threats to democracy. In addition, as this week’s coup in Gabon suggests, civilian-led coups can very easily turn into military coups – when military leaders overthrow politicians who have done everything they can to hold onto power, including undermining democracy, impoverishing their own people, etc. 

Policy Recommendations & Call to Action: 

● The African Union should release a statement condemning unconstitutional changes in Zimbabwe and call for a new, civilian-led election in Gabon. 

● AU should mandate Gabon and Zimbabwe to respect the relevant AU Protocols, particularly the Accra Declaration on Unconstitutional Changes of Government in Africa, and deploy appropriate sanctions where there is failure to comply. 

● The US government should not minimize election fraud and should use stronger language, like civilian-led coups, in response to recent cases. 

● AU, US government, etc. should ensure the protection of opposition leaders, human rights defenders, and civil society more broadly in Gabon and Zimbabwe. Civil society and the diaspora should partner with those challenging election results through the court and other means.