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Comparing American and African elections

- Bob Wekesa

Perspectives from the 2020 polls in the US, Côte d’Ivoire, Tanzania and Guinea.

The heavy, wall-to-wall focus on the United States (US) elections every four years often has the consequence of muted attention by global populaces towards elections in other parts of the world. Save for a coterie of political scientists, journalists, international civil scientists and Africanists, the level of interest in African elections in 2020 remained comparatively low key. There is room to argue that American elections blank out concomitant elections on the continent. This phenomenon is attested by African media coverage of the 2020 US electoral campaigns vis-à-vis electioneering in the 12 or so African countries that hosted presidential or general elections last year. In this analysis, I focus on elections in three African countries – Guinea, Tanzania and Côte d’Ivoire – in comparison to the US'.

It is probably valid to argue that the popularity of the US elections is a function of its role as a superpower, one that analysts around the world watch with rapt attention. On the other hand, most African countries attract comparatively lower attention because they are peripheral backwaters that are ostensibly insignificant on the global stage.

Based on these by no means exhaustive distinctions, it becomes almost incomprehensible to place the US and African countries that went to the polls in 2020 on the same analytical weighing scale. Similarly, African nations that have or will hold presidential elections in 2021 – Benin, Cape Verde, Chad, Djibouti, The Gambia, Libya, Niger, Republic of Congo, São Tomé & Príncipe, Somalia, Uganda, and Zambia – will not garner as much attention as the US did last year. In the popular comparative analysis lingua, to compare the US and African countries is akin to comparing apples and oranges. Yet, the 2020 election season served as a turning point of sorts in terms of opening possibilities for analysing the US and African countries based on a similar set of variables. Moreover, all elections matter when grasped as crucial moments in a nation’s life with far-reaching ramifications for people, wherever they may come from.

In some respects, the comparability of US elections and African elections is due to the latter having become progressively competitive over recent years. In the post-independence period largely between the 1960s and the early 1990s, African elections were often mere rubber stamps for incumbents. For instance, Guinea's founding leader Ahmed Sékou Touré led from independence in 1958 until he died in office in 1984. Similarly, Ivorian leader Félix Houphouët-Boigny led Côte d’Ivoire from independence in 1960 to his death in 1993. In Tanzania, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere ruled from 1961, voluntarily handed over power to Ali Hassan Mwinyi in 1985, but remained the de facto leader until his death in 1999. Over roughly the period of these three African leaders’ presidencies, the US had nine presidents. Representing the Republican party were Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. The Democratic Party had John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. This reminds us – despite the underlying reasons and factors – that US politics has had a longer arc of competitiveness over the past 60 years compared to Africa.


This changed in the early 1990s when African elections progressively become competitive as part of the so-called second liberation, which was, in turn, a consequence of the collapse of the socialism-communism. In principle, therefore, candidates in the 2020 US, Guinea, Tanzania, and Côte d’Ivoire elections are roughly on the same slate as far as fighting for their careers is concerned. What may differ are the tactics and strategies employed. This raises the question: with the stakes high across the board, what are the points of comparability and distinction between the US and Africa?

Term limits

A key area of consideration is the extent to which democratic ideals are adhered to, because – broadly speaking – all the four countries subscribe to variations of the Westphalian democratic political system writ large. However, one quickly encounters fundamental headwinds on the African end of things. In Guinea and neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire, electioneering was marred by violence largely due controversial constitutional changes that gave incumbents third terms in office. In Guinea, which went to the polls on 18 January 2021, 82-year-old President Alpha Conte – in power since 2010 – pushed through the amendment in March 2020 claiming he had an unfinished development agenda. In Côte d’Ivoire, President Alassane Ouattara was set to retire, having been in power since 2011 until his would-be successor, Amadou Gon Coulibaly, died in July. He then re-entered the race by tinkering with the term limit clauses in the constitution.

In the US, a two-term presidential limit in place since the constitutional amendment of 1951 has remained sacrosanct. Not even the coronavirus pandemic could necessitate any form of first term extension for the incumbent Donald Trump let alone any thought of three terms for any past and ostensibly future president. Nonetheless, not all African countries are at the mercy of sitting presidents in terms of presidential term caps. In Tanzania for instance, it does not seem probable that the constitution will be tinkered with given the term limit tradition established in the early 1990s and the collegiate nature of the ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM).


Quite interestingly, age has come up as a factor across the four nations. Let us set aside the rhetoric of “age is nothing but a number” in politics and focus on the demographics. In the US, Donald Trump was 74 years old when he left office while President Joe Biden, who entered the White House a few weeks ago, is 78. In Guinea, President Alpha Conde is 86 while his competitor, former prime minister Cellou Dalein Diallo, is 68. Cote d’Ivoire’s President Alassane Ouattara is 79 while one of his opponents, former president Henri Konan Bedie, was 86 when he contested in 2020. It is only in Tanzania that we see relatively younger leaders: incumbent John Pombe Magufuli is 61 and leading opposition candidate, currently in exile in Belgium, Tundu Lissu is 53. In the US, Trump and Biden are outliers because the average age of US presidents at inauguration is 55 years. Indeed, Trump became the oldest president at inauguration in January 2016 at the age of 70, a record now broken by Biden. By contrast, both Ouattara and Conde arrived in office past the 60-year mark, at 68 and 72 years respectively. 

Recent US presidents were either in their 40s or 50s when they took office: Bill Clinton (46), Barrack Obama (47) and George W. Bush (54). The relative youth of American presidents is worth noting because America’s median age is about 38 years, meaning older people are willing to give younger politicians a stab at federal leadership. On the other hand, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire should have younger leaders as the median age in both countries is 19 years.

Can we hypothesise that term limits result in relatively or comparatively younger leaders? It seems probable given that the US, with its ironclad term limits, has on average younger presidents. This is also the case in Tanzania where term limits have remained in place and where previous leaders took presidential mantles while young – Benjamin Mkapa at 57 in 1995 and Jakaya Kikwete at 57 in 2005 – and left the scene before their seventieth birthdays. It can equally be surmised that countries where term limits are tinkered with end up with older contestants and ultimately older leaders. 

Presidential power plays and personality politics

Why do leaders globally and in Africa cling onto power? Besides the allure and trappings of power, it appears fear of retribution for errors of omission and commission during their tenures is a great motivation. This seems to be the case more in Africa than in the US based on the 2020 election cycle. Guinea’s Conde had defeated his main challenger, Cellou Dalein Diallo, in two previous elections making the case for a long-running political feud. In fact, Diallo was a minister and prime minister in a former regime that imprisoned Conde. In Côte d’Ivoire, the entanglement of personality politics and enmity is even more toxic and pronounced. In a nutshell, the 2011 rivalry between Ouattara and former president Laurent Gbagbo ended up in a civil war, which Ouattara won with the support of the international community. Gbagbo was arraigned at the International Criminal Court at The Hague, only to be released after the collapse of the case against him in late 2018. Accusations have been levelled at Ouattara, first for ostensibly instigating the barring of Gbagbo and then for changing the constitution to gun for a third term. It is probable that Ouattara was keen to secure his interests against potential retribution from forces allied to Gbagbo. In Tanzania, such personality-based politics do not seem to run too deep and adherence to presidential term limits as well as CCM’s longevity in power is one explainer for why the country bucks the trend of leaders clinging to power.

It is interesting that a semblance of personality politics has crept into the US body politic this past election season. Old rivalries were apparent as Trump frequently pushed conspiracy theories and falsehoods about his predecessor, Barack Obama, whom Biden deputised. More broadly, and due to his demeanour, Trump has been equated to an African big man of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe ilk for whom losing an election was inconceivable. This has provided fodder for comedians and political satirists across the world, including South African host of The Daily Show, Trevor Noah, who equated Trump to African dictators Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and Idi Amin of Uganda. With all this being said, the US constitution, institutions and political culture have sufficient guardrails to ensure the politics of personality do not trash an established tradition. It is for this reason that the January 6 insurrection on the US Capitol by right-wing loyalists not only unravelled but ignominiously dispatched Trump out of the White House. 

Related to the issue of the politics of personality is the extent to which incumbents use state resources for personal political ends. Across Côte d’Ivoire, Tanzania and Guinea, leaders have been critiqued for slanting the playing field in their favour by tapping state resources for campaigns that ought to be personally funded. This is a common charge during elections across the continent. In the US, the heavy deployment of public resources for campaigns is not feasible due to federal campaign laws and regulations. In fact, during his election campaign last year, Trump, a self-declared billionaire with links to contacts with deep pockets, had less campaign cash at his disposal than Biden, who is ostensibly less endowed by virtue of being a career politician and having limited corporate involvement. In Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire and Tanzania, incumbents had extensive money and campaign logistics at their disposal by dint of controlling the national purses.

Election unrest

The mantra that an election is free and fair if no major incidents of violence are witnessed is often repeated. On this note, many commentators have argued that the 2020 US elections began to resemble African ones. The violence that greeted the death of George Floyd in May 2020 became a subtext to the 3 November poll. Right-wing vigilantes and militias started forming and Americans, especially African Americans, reported fearing for their lives. These examples of unrest accompanying elections in the US differ from those in Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire only in scale rather than substance. For the first time in recent history, fears of election-related violence in the US were expressed. About 25 people died during protests after the death of George Floyd, an event which, as we have noted above, was intertwined with the electioneering process. Five people died in the January 2021 Capitol Hill attack by riotous and violent pro-Trump supporters who rejected the 2020 US election results.

Finally, there is the question of the integrity of the election results themselves. From an African viewpoint, received wisdom has been that US election results cannot be put in disrepute. Due to COVID-19, the uncertainties surrounding the US elections in 2020 gave rise to massive speculation, dispute and innuendo. The pandemic necessitated the mail-in-vote approach, which in turn spawned a narrative of election rigging by Trump and his adherents throughout the campaign period. This laid the groundwork for the over 50 lawsuits that the Trump campaign filed after the November 3 elections. This is no different from the claims of election rigging or failure to respect the people’s will in Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire and Tanzania.

As Biden makes plans for a global democracy summit, America would do well to draw from the electioneering experience in several African countries. One of the lessons of 2020 is that, just as elections in Africa are high-octane events that can inflame deep-seated animosities and set off civil strife, America is not entirely immune to the same possibility. Just as African strongmen and their appetite for longevity in power is often the bane for stability, it is possible for populist American leaders who do not accept the will of the people through the ballot to instigate violence. Africa would do well to look at how America overcome the electoral turbulence of 2020. The undemocratic forces in the US that entertained the possibility of taking power by force were defeated thanks to the strength of American institutions, from federal agencies and the judiciary to the legislature and numerous non-state organisations. These considerations should be on the agenda during the proposed summit.

Dr Bob Wekesa is partnerships, research and communications coordinator at The African Centre for the Study of the United States, Wits University.

This article is part of the African Digital Diplomacy series, published in partnership with the African Centre for the Study of the United States (ACSUS) at Wits University and featured on Africa Portal - a research repository and an expert analysis hub on African affairs.