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Electoral Integrity
A Burundian man casts his ballot during the presidential and general elections at the Bubu Primary school in Giheta, central Burundi, on May 20, 2020. (Photo: AFP)

CONFERENCE: COVID-19 and Democracy in East Africa

Protecting Voters, Protecting the Vote

On 19 and 20 November 2020, the Kofi Annan Foundation and the Society for International Development (SID), supported by the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF), held an online conference on democracy in East Africa in the context of COVID-19. The event explored the challenges the region is facing and sought to identify opportunities for protecting and promoting democratic norms and ensuring electoral integrity.

In 2021, the Kofi Annan Foundation published a report with the key takeaways from the conference and suggested approaches for strengthening electoral integrity throughout East Africa.

Click the image to see the report

 “It is natural that people look to their health and to their wallets first, but they must not lose sight of the pandemic’s impact on their politics.”

H.E. President Goodluck Jonathan

The conference brought together over 40 influential actors from Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, including experts on democracy, civil society representatives, and political party leaders. Across the two days, the speakers engaged in discussions aimed at helping put into context the many complicated questions facing East Africa. Speakers expressed their views and engaged in constructive debates linked to the future of democracy in the region.

“Some governments are using COVID-19 as an excuse to shift the balance of power in their favour.”

Graça Machel

The sessions brought into focus how certain governments have used the pandemic as an excuse to crack down on the opposition and undermine democratic principles and human rights.

Current events in East Africa have only confirmed the relevance and timeliness of the conference. The panel discussions on day one highlighted some of the background, trends, and challenges facing democracy in the region, like the pandemic itself, the formation and functioning of political parties, the role of institutions, the use and abuse of identity politics, and social media.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated and exacerbated the threats to essential freedoms of democracy.”

Elhadj As Sy

Day two explored the judiciary’s critical role in building acceptance and tolerance for democracy in the manner through which it addresses electoral disputes and how political finance contributes to the distortion of democratic processes.

Annika Savill photo “I am very happy that the UN Democracy Fund can support the conference, which is important given the new challenges COVID-19 has added to the preexisting issues democracy was facing.”

Annika Savill

Panellists also explored how best to support civil society and approaches for promoting youth inclusion in political processes. The conference concluded with a discussion of the role and limits of the international community.

“Democracy should not be taken for granted.”

H.E. Jane Marriot

The discussions emphasised that democracy is always aspirational, a work in progress, and a shared responsibility. Most participants expressed a sense of hope for a brighter future where elections in East Africa are free, fair, and peaceful, and where democratic norms and the rule of law are upheld.

“You cannot have democratic elections if you don’t have a democratic state. This will only come out of a political struggle – mobilising the population.”

Tundu Lissu


Click the session to watch it again

Thursday 19 November 2020

Welcome Remarks & Opening Address

Elhadj As Sy, Chairperson, Kofi Annan Foundation

Annika Savill, Executive Head, UN Democracy Fund

Keynote Address

Ms. Graça Machel, International advocate for women’s and children’s rights, former freedom fighter and first Education Minister of Mozambique

H.E. President Goodluck Jonathan, former President of Nigeria and Chair of the Goodluck Jonathan Foundation

The state of democracy in East Africa today

All countries in the region have transitioned to multi-party democracy, but most polls show high levels of dissatisfaction with the democratic systems. This is more apparent now in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic, where East African countries are experiencing democratic backsliding. What has gone wrong? What can be done to fix it?

  • Fatma Karume, Former Head, IMMA advocates -TANZANIA
  • Nicholas Cheeseman, Professor of Democracy, University of Birmingham, Fellow of the Institute for Global Innovation – UK
  • Comfort EroAfrica Program Director, International Crisis Group – KENYA

Are elections giving democracy a bad name?

All countries in the region organise regular elections, yet democratic freedoms are in retreat. What is going wrong? What can be done?

  • Seema Kiran Shah, Expert, Electoral Integrity, Africa Centre for Open Governance (AfriCOG) – KENYA
  • Tundu Lissu, Chief Legal Officer of CHADEMA and Former Member of Parliament for Singida East constituency – TANZANIA
  • Arthur Muliro, Deputy Managing Director at the International Secretariat of the Society for International Development (SID) – ITALY

The guilty party? The role of political parties

Political parties in East Africa have at times been defined more by individuals and ethnic or religious identities, than ideas or institutions. They are also not always very democratic internally. Is this where the problem starts? Can party reform lead to further democratisation?

Divide and rule? The instrumentalisation of identity politics

The instrumentalisation of identity politics is polarizing societies and threatening peace across the region. What can be done?

  • Joyce Nyairo, Independent Researcher – KENYA
  • Zein Abubakar, Founding Directors, Orature Collective – KENYA
  • Abdullahi Boru, Senior Officer Policy and Advocacy-Africa at International Rescue Committee (IRC)
  • Mshai Mwangola, Researcher, African Leadership Centre – KENYA

Anti-social media? Have the internet and social channels become a threat to democracy?

Once championed as tools of democratic participation and expression, social channels are increasingly decried as weapons of disinformation, hate speech, and foreign interference. To what extent is East Africa concerned, and what is the right approach to take? This debate will turn on the recent report of the Kofi Annan Commission on Elections and Democracy in the Digital Age (KACEDDA) and its recommendations.

  • Ory Okolloh, Former Managing Director Omidyar Network and Luminate Group in Africa  & KACEDDA Commissioner – KENYA
  • Maxence Melo, Digital Rights Advocate and Executive Director, Jamii Forums -TANZANIA
  • Akua Gyekye, Regional Program Manager EMEA, Africa and MENA Elections, FACEBOOK
  • Charles Onyango-Obbo, Journalist and Writer Curator “Wall of Great Africans” Africapedia Limited – KENYA

Friday 20 November 2020

Settling electoral disputes – strengthening the judiciary’s hand

The judiciary has a critical role to play in building acceptance and tolerance for democracy in the manner through which it addresses electoral disputes. What is the record so far? What more needs to be done?

  • Prof. Patrick Loch Otieno Lumumba, Advocate of the High Courts of Kenya and Tanganyika. Founder of the PLO Lumumba Foundation and a Consultant at Lumumba & Lumumba Advocates
  • Martha Karua, Leader of the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) – KENYA
  • Donald Deya, CEO Pan African Lawyers Union (PALU) – TANZANIA
  • Arthur Muliro, Deputy Managing Director at the International Secretariat of the Society for International Development (SID) – ITALY

Civil society, uncivil environment?

Civil society in the region is vibrant, but often under attack. It is sometimes politicised. What can be done to protect and support it? What can it do to instigate change?

  • Brian Tamuka Kagoro, Director Programme Support Division, Africa Regional Office (AfRO), Open Society Foundation (OSF) – ZIMBABWE/SOUTH AFRICA / KENYA
  • Leonard Okello, CEO, The Uhuru Institute – UGANDA
  • Gladwell Otieno, Executive Director of the Africa Centre for Open Governance (AfriCOG) – KENYA
  • Maurice MakOloo, Director, Eastern Africa, Ford Foundation – KENYA
  • Aidan Eyakuze, Executive Director of Twaweza East Africa

The next generation? Youth inclusion in politics

The median age in Eastern Africa is 18.1 years, yet youth is largely excluded from power. What future do young people want and how can they increase their participation in politics?

The sinews of democracy: financing elections and election campaigns

Electoral financing is one of those issues that has a fundamental impact on electoral outcomes, yet one that doesn’t attract much attention or interest. The shadowy networks of local and international interests, which underwrite election campaigns, need to be unmasked and better understood if we are to fully appreciate the role they play in our elections and in potentially distorting democracy.

  • Eddie Kayinda, Programs – Political Financing and Civic Engagement, Alliance for Campaign Finance Monitoring (ACFIM) – UGANDA
  • Khushbu Agrawal, Programme Officer-Political Participation and Representation, International IDEA
  • Seema Kiran Shah, Expert, Electoral Integrity, Africa Centre for Open Governance (AfriCOG) – KENYA
  • John Githongo, CEO, Inuka Trust – KENYA
  • Gladwell Otieno, Executive Director of the Africa Centre for Open Governance (AfriCOG) – KENYA

With a little help from my friends: the role of the international community

States have long benefited from international assistance in organising and financing elections. Political parties and civil society have traditionally set much store by international support for human rights and democracy, sometimes in vain. What are the limits on the international community and what can – and should – we expect going forward?

Closing Remarks

Corinne Momal-Vanian, Executive Director, Kofi Annan Foundation

      SPEAKERS        PROGRAMME   

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An event organised by the Kofi Annan Foundation and the Society for International Development:

Funded by the United Nations Democracy Fund: