Gavels bang down on Africa's rigged elections

For the second time, a court in Africa has annulled a presidential vote over anomalies. Judges with high civic principles may be crucial for democracy on the continent.

Opposition supporters celebrate in Lilongwe, Malawi, after a court annulled the May 2019 presidential vote that declared Peter Mutharika a winner.

In 2020, African nations will hold at least a dozen presidential or general elections. This will be a big test for the continent’s steady if uneven progress in democracy. So far the year is off to a good start.

On Monday, Malawi set the second precedent in sub-Saharan Africa of a court annulling a presidential election. The country’s top judges ruled that the integrity of a vote last year had been “seriously compromised.” In a 500-page decision read over 10 hours from the bench, they noted – among other irregularities – the frequent use of white correction fluid to alter vote tallies. They ordered a new election by July 2 and urged parliament to replace the electoral commission.

Around much of Africa, people will be inspired by the courage of Malawi’s court in overturning the reelection of President Peter Mutharika. In 2017, Kenya’s Supreme Court also annulled the election of a sitting president over voting anomalies. It too ordered a rerun. Together the two rulings will help promote the legitimacy of separation of powers in governance and the need for checks on powers, such as an independent judiciary, journalists, and civil society groups, not to mention neutral bureaucrats in managing elections.

Corruption remains a particular problem in Africa. Of the 50 countries considered to be most corrupt by Transparency International, 29 are on the continent. It is rare for a candidate who loses an election to ask a court to determine if the electoral process was fair.

Many rulers rely on rigging the system to stay in power. Yet, as a result of international pressure and the rising aspirations for clean democracy among young Africans, the continent is seeing more elections that are competitive and conducted under rule of law. “The days of politicians playing fast and loose with electoral law are clearly numbered,” writes South African analyst Gary Van Staden, after the Malawi ruling. Perhaps it will be judges who, in demanding the highest civic principles in elections, lead the way.

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