This year, a series of high-profile elections will take place across Africa. Voters will decide whether to give incumbents another term to address existing challenges, or take a chance on a new set of leaders. Inflation and interest rates, while improving, remain high, and supply chains are constrained. Progress has been made, but growth in 2023 will be slow, with the threat of a global recession looming. In many African countries, food insecurity will worsen, conflicts remain protracted, climate risk is high, and debt burdens are bordering on unsustainable. Amidst this backdrop, voters in over 20 African countries will take to the ballot box to elect their leaders and local representatives. Among the most consequential elections are Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Zimbabwe, and Gabon.
While elections in these jurisdictions will be significant, their administration and results will be not be ground-breaking. Voting will be tense, with both winners and losers levelling accusations of electoral irregularities. Across the four key countries analysed below, the incumbents, with their engrained advantages, are likely to win.
As incumbents sail to victory, Africa Matters Limited will be paying attention to the aftermath. How populations and international partners react to the polls will determine the political leeway granted to the winners. This will be key as recrowned presidents tackle fundamental political, economic, and societal challenges, and seek further legitimacy.
Nigeria: A fair but contested race looms, with Tinubu likely to come out on top
In Nigeria, elections will be held on 25 February. Bola Ahmed Tinubu of the incumbent All Progressives Congress (APC) is the most likely candidate to win. The race is tight, but he has the edge over the main opposition candidate, political heavyweight Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). The current president Muhammadu Buhari and his state apparatus are – unusually – unlikely to resolutely pick sides in this battle, but incumbent party advantage, reportedly deeper pockets, several key governorships, and the backing of wide network of ardent loyalists, play in Tinubu’s favour. Meanwhile, Atiku is weakened by a rift in his party in a vital region, and by a third candidate – Peter Obi of the Labour Party – in another. A run-off is more likely than ever, but Tinubu is most likely to cross the constitutional threshold.
Much hope has been pinned on new leaders to resolve severe economic and security crises. Fuel subsidies are draining government coffers, foreign exchange is increasingly scarce, and a debt crisis looms. The new president will have a full in-tray. While they are unlikely to bring the country any radical change, in the longer arc of Nigerian history, this election will be positive, continuing the country’s longest unbroken period of democratic rule since 1999. Importantly, the winner would firmly mark a transition away from military rule, after a succession of democratically elected former generals.
Although Nigerian elections – and particularly the primaries that originally chose the candidates – are occasionally fraught with irregularities, the final result itself is likely to be fair. Armed with a new law and new technology, the electoral commission appears to be mostly playing by the rules. In a country with the population and GDP of Nigeria, and a history scarred with corruption, coups, and civil war, these small and steady steps all matter.
DRC: Disenfranchisement looms for the eastern provinces as insecurity rises
In the DRC, President Félix-Antoine Tshisekedi is running for a second term this year, with polls due on 20 December. An unconventional election in late 2018 saw Tshisekedi rise to lead the nation, with many observers expecting a similarly tussled fight this year. The elephant in the room remains persistent insecurity in the east, largely dominated by the resurgence of rebel group M23.
International partners, including some Kinshasa-based diplomatic missions, are calling for a two to three-month administrative delay to the electoral timeline to enable voter registration, the roll out of voting machines, and further UN peacekeeping support for the electoral process in affected provinces. This is likely impossible in the next 11 months. Meanwhile, Kinshasa is refusing a delay, and will push ahead with the existing timeline. Without an administrative delay, it is highly likely the eastern provinces will be unable to access the ballot box in December – even in large cities like Beni and potentially Goma. This will be the second time in a row this region is disenfranchised.
Therefore, there will likely be a partially representative poll, but one that the international community will be forced to accept to maintain a flourishing rapprochement with Kinshasa. We expect a near-guaranteed incumbent win, with Tshisekedi remaining in the top position until 2029. Tshisekedi and his political group, the Union sacrée pour la République, will benefit from the incumbent advantage of control of the state apparatus. But Tshisekedi faces a challenging road ahead. While the DRC is endowed with substantial mineral wealth, responsible investors are quick to shy away. With several reforms already under his belt, Tshisekedi will have to continue to make the case for the DRC on the global stage through sensible, and most importantly, consistent, policymaking.
Zimbabwe: Mnangagwa and ZANU-PF will use old tricks to hold on
Zimbabweans will go to the polls in July or August of this year. President Emmerson Mnangagwa will run for a second term and win, despite widespread frustration towards him and the incumbent ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).
Many met the beginning of Mnangagwa’s first term in 2017 with tentative celebration. It marked the end of infamous Robert Mugabe’s 37-year reign. While Mnangagwa’s promises of democratic and economic reform rekindled some hope that ZANU-PF could turn the country’s fate around, little has changed. Living standards have deteriorated and inequality has deepened. Inflation was 280 percent at the end of 2022. People have had enough. The opposition, mostly united under the rebranded Citizen’s Coalition for Change (CCC), is the strongest it has been in over a decade. Its leader, Nelson Chamisa, was three percent ahead of Mnangagwa in a 2022 poll. However, this will not be enough to sway the election out from ZANU-PF’s control. The incumbent party has countless, well-rehearsed tricks up its sleeves, largely thanks to a biased judiciary and loyal security forces.
When the polls do come around in mid-2023, voter fraud and violence will secure Mnangagwa’s win. Zimbabwe’s economic woes will continue in the short-term, as we see another five years of financial mismanagement and corruption. The country’s real test will come in 2028, when Mnangagwa reaches the end of his second and constitutionally mandated final term, at the age of 85. Will he step aside or follow in Mugabe’s footsteps and cling on further? If not a time for change, this summer’s elections will shed light on just how far Mnangagwa will go to retain his party’s hegemony.
Gabon: Bongo and the PDG heading for another round
Finally, Gabon will hold its general election in August. Dismissing doubts about his capacity to run again after his 2018 stroke, President Ali Bongo is gearing up for a third term in office, while his ruling Parti Démocratique Gabonais (PDG) is looking to retain its control of parliament and municipalities. In their path stand the opposition, which is attempting to form a cohesive front at the polls. But longstanding divisions cast doubt about the opposition’s ability to stay united until August. Exploiting these divisions, and a superior campaign machinery, Bongo and the PDG look well positioned to win.
But things could still get messy. In 2016, Bongo’s narrow victory amid fraud allegations saw opposition supporters take to the streets, clashing with security forces and setting the national assembly building on fire. Similar violence occurred in 2009, after Bongo won the election that followed his father’s – former President Omar Bongo – death in office. If the opposition works past personal egos to field a strong challenger in August, a tight race will again lead to a contested outcome, and a volatile – albeit temporary – post-election period.
A Bongo 3.0 would mean continuity, with Bongo championing Gabon’s green superpower status, and an increasingly diversified economy that remains more resilient than some of its regional neighbours. But a Bongo 3.0 also means continued uncertainty as to what comes next. Like the Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, or Cameroon, recent manoeuvres towards a dynastic succession are fuelling palace rivalries and old guard resistance. With the succession question unresolved, decision-makers are distracted from other issues, be they trimming the bureaucracy or tackling youth unemployment. As central African elections go, 2023 is looking like more of the same – but for how much longer?
Elections will be tense but the barometer for change lies in how leaders manage what comes after
In many ways, elections this year will resemble previous polls, with voting disrupted in some areas, losers contesting the outcome of the vote, and segments of the population feeling disenfranchised. And in the four countries above, the status quo is likely to prevail, with incumbents, or at least incumbent parties, granted another term in office.
But regardless of the vote and its outcome, what matters most is perhaps what comes after, and how those elected or re-elected leaders will govern. From COVID-19 to climate change and the implications of the conflict in Ukraine, African front-runners face increasingly complex and interconnected challenges. The continent is also playing a progressively prominent role in contemporary debates, be they on foreign policy or the energy transition. Across the continent, a younger and more connected electorate is expecting its leaders to stand up to these contemporary challenges and opportunities. While some African elections will certainly make the headlines this year, AML will keep a close eye on what comes after.