All but one of the five members of the G5 Sahel counterterrorism partnership in Africa have experienced takeovers since 2021 by military juntas that now talk of making a transition back to civilian rule — Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, and Niger. So has neighboring Guinea on the West African coast. In Chad, Mali, and Guinea, elections are expected in 2024 or early 2025, and international election observation could play an important role in these transitions.
But such missions also run the risk of lending credibility to flawed elections. Without accompanying domestic and international political pressure on military leaders to deliver free and fair voting processes, the results could be little better – possibly far worse – for the approximately 56 million people in just those three countries. And that’s not to mention the potential spillover to fragile democracies that also have presidential elections coming up in 2024, such as Ghana and Senegal.
Historically, transitions from military rule in Africa are drawn-out, disappointing affairs that involve imaginary timelines, repeated delays, and dubious dialogue processes. The data show that post-coup transitions in Africa are just as likely to culminate in one-party rule or a reversion to military rule as they are likely to produce democratic governance. However, many of these fraught transitions do at some point involve elections. (Of the G5 Sahel, Niger has not yet defined the formal duration of the transition, while Burkina Faso dismissed the idea).
More than three quarters – 78 percent — of post-coup elections held in Sub-Saharan Africa since 1991 have been monitored by international observers, according to the National Elections Across Democracies and Autocracies (NELDA) dataset. This indicates that conditions are usually suitable for international election observation in post-coup environments – likely because military regimes seek to create the perception of a credible process, even when this is far from the case.
Ideally, such missions are objective, non-partisan efforts that involve long-term monitoring of all aspects of the electoral process and robust observation of electoral practices, preparation, and conduct during the voting, collation, and results announcement process. The odds that observation missions for the upcoming elections in the Sahel will help or hinder prospects for a post-coup democratic transition will depend on a range of factors.
Observation Missions and Election Credibility
The risk that international observers may lend credibility to flawed elections is a serious concern. As established in the 2005 Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation , the foundational guide for best practices in election observation endorsed by 55 intergovernmental and international organizations:
“An organization should not send an international election observation mission to a country under conditions that make it likely that its presence will be interpreted as giving legitimacy to a clearly undemocratic electoral process, and international election observation missions in any such circumstance should make public statements to ensure that their presence does not imply such legitimacy.”
The lack of conditions suitable for credible elections inhibits the ability of international observers to systematically collect nuanced data on the entirety of the electoral process, and to report their findings to the public and other interested stakeholders. International observers have sometimes downplayed significant irregularities in post-coup elections, such as in Republic of Congo (2002), Central African Republic (2005), Togo (2010), and Guinea (2010). In these cases, in addition to local and international organizations raising serious concerns about electoral conduct (for example, in Congo, CAR, Togo, and Guinea), metrics from third-party organizations such as Sweden-based Varieties of Democracy (V-DEM), U.S.-based NELDA, and the U.K.-based Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU) indicate these elections were highly questionable. For example, the EIU continued to rate all four countries as “authoritarian” in the year following these transition elections (and to the current day, these regimes remain authoritarian).
Election observation is not an exact science. Yet there is a clear tendency for some international observation missions to be overly charitable in their assessments of post-coup elections in Africa. Data shows that most elections in Africa undertaken during ostensible transitions from military rule to civilian government have missed the mark on credibility. Of the post-coup elections held in Sub-Saharan Africa since 1991, 44 percent could be reasonably interpreted as credible or mostly credible (having a score of .3 or greater on the 0-1 Electoral Fairness scale from the V-DEM dataset). Of the majority that were not credible by this metric, international observers failed to note significant fraud or malpractice in 80 percent of the cases, including large-scale results manipulation, voter suppression, and major barriers to meaningful political competition. That potentially lent credibility to deeply flawed elections. However, in all the cases where elections were credible or mostly credible, international observer reports concurred, lending credibility to a positive outcome and increasing public confidence in the result.
The Case for Monitoring Post-Coup Elections
Despite justifiable concerns about the conduct of post-coup elections, there are compelling arguments in favor of monitoring by international observers. To begin with, elections facilitating democratic transition from military rule appear to have little chance of success without three elements: robust domestic and international observation and strong international pressure. The only countries in Sub-Saharan Africa to experience a coup and then recover from military rule and achieve sustained democracy since 1991 are Liberia, Lesotho, Sierra Leone, and Gambia – all of which met these three conditions.
The absence of observer missions can also muddy the waters on highly flawed contests. For example, in the 2020 Guinea constitutional referendum with parliamentary elections and the subsequent presidential election that year, western observers were absent, but monitors from the African Union and ECOWAS were present. They assessed that the elections were carried out “properly” despite substantial evidence to the contrary. The lack of other international observer assessments gave added weight to such reporting.
In contrast, during Nigeria’s 1999 transition election from military rule following the death of General Sani Abacha, and Zimbabwe’s 2018 transition election following the coup that ousted President Robert Mugabe, international observers noted widespread and significant irregularities in both cases. (For example, the Carter Center report noted the Nigeria elections were marred by irregularities and sometimes by outright fraud, while the EU report noted the Zimbabwe elections were not held on a level playing field.). Those observations were consistent with objective third-party datasets. In the case of Nigeria, the assessment by international observers helped to improve the credibility of future elections. In the case of Zimbabwe, the criticism likely resulted in international observers being denied access during the 2023 elections. However, an honest assessment about a deeply flawed process that results in observers being denied access in future elections only serves to reveal the true state of democracy in a country.
In the case of a process that is objectively credible, international observers’ assessments can build confidence in the electoral process, helping to not only improve the process on Election Day, but to improve citizen confidence and involvement in future elections. That, in turn, may help increase the likelihood of eventual democratic consolidation.
Burkina Faso’s 2015 elections are a good example of international observation bolstering confidence in an objectively credible transition election. After a citizen uprising in 2014 that ended the 27-year rule of President Blaise Compaoré, the military took charge of the transition period. The 2015 elections were monitored by international and local observers, and were assessed as the most credible in the country’s history. The elections resulted in Burkina Faso reaching a democratic highpoint in 2016, when it ranked on par with Ghana, Senegal, and South Africa. Sadly, this democratic hiatus was short-lived in Burkina Faso – a reminder that credible elections alone are insufficient to guarantee democratic consolidation.
Finally, international pressure can be particularly significant in encouraging credible transition elections. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, the international community has unfortunately deprioritized assistance to Africa, including democratic assistance. Still, the recent U.S. decision to remove serial human rights abusers and countries “failing to make progress toward democratic rule” from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) trade agreement with the continent reveals a continued willingness to exert policy pressure for political reform. While using the leverage of trade agreements like AGOA to penalize countries that fail to transition to democracy is not the norm (usually, countries are expelled from agreements like this for only the most egregious of human rights abuses), it is a practice that should be expanded to further disincentivize autocratic stagnation.
What to Expect from the Upcoming Elections in Guinea, Mali, and Chad
Looking ahead to potential elections in the Sahel and West Africa, elections in Guinea present perhaps the best opportunity for a successful transition to democratic rule. In Mali and Chad, there are significant obstacles to a democratic transition, yet conditions on the ground are rapidly evolving, and it is too early to write off the potential for credible elections there as well.
In Guinea, the 2021 military coup followed years of democratic decline and the growing unconstitutional consolidation of executive power, troubling trends that were in evidence during the 2020 referendum and presidential elections, which were marred by accusations of fraud, protests, and government repression. The level of violence experienced during that election period — with more than 230 incidents and 80 reported fatalities — was an order of magnitude worse than the country’s citizens experienced during the 2015 or 2010 elections.
Guinea’s 24-month transition plan is supposed to result in national elections at the end of 2024. Of the four miliary regimes in West Africa, Guinea is the only one situated on the coast, where it borders numerous fragile democracies with upcoming presidential elections (Senegal in February 2024 and Cote d’Ivoire in October 2025). Guinea is the only military regime in the region that has not yet experienced a violent extremist insurgency, yet it has many of the same risk factors. The longer military rule endures in Guinea, the harder it will be to reverse democratic backsliding in Coastal West Africa, and the greater the risk that jihadist insurgency will gain a foothold in Guinea and threaten neighboring democracies.
Even though the military regime has a difficult and tense relationship with regional institutions such as ECOWAS, it does not appear at this point that the regime’s current president, Mamadi Doumbia, will seek the presidency. Furthermore, Guinea has not joined the Alliance of Sahel States, a mutual defense pact between Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger that is intended to counter ECOWAS and prevent military intervention against juntas in the region. Despite these positive signs, various changes the regime is making, including cutting ties with traditional partners such as France, signals that it likely will support a candidate who will maintain those policies.
Mali’s national elections were originally scheduled for February 2022, then re-scheduled for February 2024, and were recently delayed again, and could occur at some point next year. Mali was considered a model of democracy and stability in West Africa after the 1991 pro-democracy coup that led to a short transition and democratic elections. However, the country has been unstable since 2010, suffering rebellion in the north, the incursion of militants from Libya, and the emergence of various terrorist groups that now control swathes of territory across the north and center of the country.
From 2020 to 2021, Mali registered two coups d’état and is now ostensibly undergoing a transition led by the military officers who perpetrated the overthrow. After the constitutional referendum held on June 18, 2023, for which the turnout rate was only 38 percent, the country is set to organize presidential elections in early 2024. The referendum, which authorized a dramatic expansion of presidential powers, was marred by controversy and lacked international observation, making it difficult to assess the credibility of the process. All eyes are now on the transitional president, Colonel Assimi Goita, who is expected to seek the presidency during upcoming elections.
The relationship of the Malian military leaders with the international community is strained. Following the second coup in May 2022, military leaders denounced the French presence in Mali and ended relations with the former colonial power. (The French had been present in Mali since 2010, helping the army fight terrorist organizations.) In addition to breaking off military and diplomatic relations with France, the junta banned Radio France Internationale and France 24 after they reported on the possible involvement of the Malian army and Russia’s Wagner Group mercenaries in the murder of civilians.
Responding to the demand of the Malian leaders, the United Nations’ Multidimensional Integrated and Stabilization Mission (MINUSMA) has also begun withdrawing from the country, with a deadline of Dec. 31, 2023, for ending the mission, according to the terms of U.N. Resolution 2690 (2023). The deterioration of relations between Mali and the international community casts doubt on whether conditions will be suitable for international election observation, let alone credible elections.
In Chad, the presence of international media is limited, local media is highly censored, and prospects for a credible election are remote. These conditions underscore the importance of international election observation. Two years after the former president, Idriss Déby, was killed in April 2021 , a group of military officers led by Déby’s son, Mahamat Idriss Déby, who were fighting rebels on April 20, 2023, took control of the country and defined an 18-month transition period for a return to civilian rule. A crucial element of the transition timetable was the promise of an inclusive national dialogue, tasked with forging a national consensus on constitutional reform, election plans, and other contentious political issues.
After numerous delays, the long-awaited National Inclusive and Sovereign Dialogue got underway on Aug. 20, 2022, though it was boycotted by part of the political establishment and prominent civil society leaders. One of the main conclusions of the dialogue was that the leader of the military council, the son of the former president, would be allowed to both oversee the transition and to seek the presidency in future elections. The protests that followed the dialogue, organized by the opposition parties and some civil society organizations, were violently suppressed in February this year, leaving 128 dead and hundreds in jail. The military leadership has now promised elections in 2024.
On the diplomatic front, Chad has maintained cordial relations with the international community, especially France, which sees support for Chad as necessary for stability in the Sahel and Central Africa. These relatively good relations could be leveraged to allow for robust domestic and international election observation in Chad. As in Mali, at this point the outcome of the presidential election in Chad appears to be a foregone conclusion – yet the situation is not hopeless. In October, the transitional government allowed Chad’s main opposition leader, Succes Masra, to return from exile. Even though the main opposition civil society organization, Wakit Tama, dissociated itself from this agreement, the return of Masra could make a difference in the elections. His participation in the electoral process will make the democratic process more competitive and justify the necessity for the international community to observe the elections in order to prevent any post-election crisis.
The Way Forward
Domestic and international election observation efforts alone cannot facilitate transitions from military rule to sustained democracy. Strong international pressure for a credible outcome is also a critical element. The inadvertent bias of some international observers toward positive assessments of post-coup elections may be due in part to willingness by the international community to lower the bar for post-coup elections, as well as their reluctance to exert pressure on fragile electoral processes.
At their most effective, international pressure and robust domestic and international election observation efforts can be mutually reinforcing, enhancing the transparency of elections through a multi-faceted approach. So, election observation efforts should strive for better coordination among regional and other international observation missions to ensure accurate assessments.
For the upcoming elections in Guinea, Mali, and Chad, the current absence of international pressure – such as strong public statements from executive branch officials and their foreign ministries and credible threats of sanctions for abuses and malfeasance — for a credible election process and outcome should be a red flag for the diplomatic community. Vigorous international involvement can deter violence, malfeasance, and restrictions on election observation, and provide political, diplomatic, and economic support to domestic and international observation efforts.
And for Burkina Faso and Niger, neither of which have committed to election timelines, the international community should use all available tools at its disposal to encourage them to agree to specific timeframes. While this is by no means a guarantee the elections will be free or fair, without such basic conditions in place, further deterioration in the prospects of restoring democratic rule is all but guaranteed.