The African diaspora and the electoral process: what has changed?

The citizen is both the author and joint manager of a new national narrative and, in extenso, a new pan-African narrative. In this regard, the participation of citizens living outside their country in this restructuring of African political societies can be seen as one of the building blocks of the African narrative, which is furthermore entirely new. For nearly a quarter of a century, the African diaspora has taken a growing role in consolidating the democratisation process through electoral participation. 

April 8th, 2015

It is common knowledge that most African countries reached a major turning point in their contemporary histories in the early 1990s, when they broke away from monolithic political systems and set the democratisation process in motion. In addition to its inestimable historic significance, this event has spurred the implementation of a far-reaching institutional programme aimed at enabling the countries concerned to meet one of the greatest challenges inherent in the building of a Nation-State: including all sectors of the citizenry in the building of a new living space - a space shared by all and founded on the broadest consensus. This paradigm leads to responsible participation by all citizens in decision-making, so that each one has an equal stake in their collective destiny. 

Democracy is then considered, as in Benin, a part of the “national heritage”. 

The citizen is both the author and joint manager of a new national narrative and, in extenso, a new pan-African narrative. In this regard, the participation of citizens living outside their country in this restructuring of African political societies can be seen as one of the building blocks of the African narrative, which is furthermore entirely new. For nearly a quarter of a century, the African diaspora has taken a growing role in consolidating the democratisation process through electoral participation. 

Africans abroad, who live in various countries in Africa, Europe and North America, have gradually become direct participants in political events in their home countries, although it should be noted that only some thirty African countries grant the right to vote to their nationals abroad, out of a total of 115 countries that apply the principle around the world. Furthermore, the necessary prerequisites have yet to be fulfilled to ensure the participation of Africans living abroad in every type of election, because in most of the countries concerned, the right to vote only applies to presidential elections. The extension of the vote to all national elections is the subject of ongoing controversy in some countries. The political movements that advocate extension regularly oppose those that consider the right to vote in presidential elections – viewed as the “mother” of universal suffrage – to be enough of a concession to Africans abroad. It should be noted that such debates are usually circumscribed within the political scene inside the countries. Indeed, the issue is not even central to the concerns of the people most affected. However, it remains a part of the “democratic project”, although potential solutions often come up against a major obstacle: how to fund the organisation of all national elections in the diaspora’s multiple countries of residence. It remains, however, that voting rights for Africans living abroad now seems to be an established practice, and it has already brought about profound changes in the relationship between the Africans of the diaspora and their home country.

Over the years, African communities originating from Mali, Senegal, Benin, Algeria, Namibia and Mozambique, among others, granted the opportunity to vote from their new home during election, have reinvented their ties with their countries of origin. In addition to its symbolic value, the vote, as a fundamental expression of democracy, has become a means of reaffirming and reinforcing citizenship. This major change has brought about a feeling of greater closeness to their “native land”. By making emigrant citizens permanent stakeholders in the ongoing history of their country, the right to vote has demolished a significant portion of the psychological barrier that used to exist between them and their homeland. Over the years, in addition to accessing this right, certain members of the diaspora have also chosen to create new tools for mobilisation and involvement in order to amplify their contribution to politics, the economy and society across the continent. Associations, brainstorming clubs and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have been created in numerous host countries with a view to increasing participation in the electoral process in Africa. These members of the diaspora have become more than just voters living abroad: through these initiatives and organisations they have become opinion leaders, and educators who disseminate information on institutional mechanisms and citizens’ participation… in short, genuinely engaged stakeholders, promoting democracy. Another essential element, which even takes precedence over the electoral issue, is the growing economic weight of members of the diaspora in African economies.

Over the last two decades, the granting of the African Diaspora’s right to vote has mechanically stimulated their commitment to democracy-building. At the same time, this “revolution” has laid down the foundations for a new citizen’s representation, sustained notably by the idea, diversely promoted by the diaspora, of a “different management” of political power in African countries… The strong involvement of members of the diaspora in building a “new polity” has been ratified, institutionalised and, so to say, “legitimised” by the creation of ad hoc ministries, and also by setting up systems designed to represent expatriate citizens in national parliaments in a growing number of African countries.
Institutionalisation of concrete participation by the African diaspora in the political life of their country through voting has led, in recent years, to the emergence of a geopolitical space that stretches far beyond national borders. This situation has made it possible to progressively take account of the opinions of the diaspora in national political debate. Election campaigns are now conducted not only with the voters at home in mind, but also with a focus on emigrants in their host countries. Today, thanks to new information and communications technologies, the political debate transcends national borders. Thus, the opinions of the diaspora become part of the various events of national life in real time. In return, national political actors have adapted their communications to the new situation. Furthermore, it should be pointed out that this new configuration of universal suffrage makes it possible to evaluate, in their great diversity, the sociologies of African communities living outside their home countries. This, in turn, promotes a better grasp of the wide spectrum of political and ideological sensibilities and positions characterising Africans living abroad. The spectrum notably includes Africans with dual citizenship, who feel that the right to vote granted by their country of origin acts as a sort of re-legitimisation of their initial nationality, while confirming, as an added value, their belonging to their host community… 

However, in many countries, electoral participation by voters from the diaspora is still extremely controversial. For example, in Guinea Conakry, the opposition’s call for the right of expatriate citizens to vote in legislative elections, has been one of the subjects that has fed the political crisis faced by the country for the last several years… The question became even more interesting in light of the fact that, in 2013, for the first time in its history, Guinea organised democratic legislative elections under universal suffrage. In early June 2013, after long months of tension and political violence, the Guinean authorities, encouraged by a college of international facilitators, finally acquiesced to the opposition’s demand to grant the vote to Guineans living abroad. Thus, for the first time in the history of the country, some 123,000 voters registered in 18 different embassies and consulates were able to participate in the legislative election in late September 2013. And what happened, in substance? Whereas the opposition had made the right to vote for citizens living abroad one of the conditions for its participation in the election, the authorities resisted the idea for some time, based on legal arguments. According to the authorities, in addition to legal and even constitutional arguments, the political crisis prevailing in Guinea made it particularly difficult to manage the administrative sphere entrusted to the consular offices abroad. But it should also be noted that, in a country marked by ethnic divisions that have structured its political space, in addition to their formal arguments, the authorities, while they did not say so openly, dreaded an uncontrollable reproduction of “ethnic” reflexes in the vote. Their fear was justified, since, contrary to common belief, considerations underlying the vote on the national territory are often reproduced, extended or reflected among voters abroad. Because, while many Africans abroad are permeated, over time, by a “dual culture”, the great majority of them prefer to maintain, or even exalt, their original social references.

Although the diaspora’s vital contribution to the economy is constantly pointed out, the subject of emigrant citizens’ right to vote remains taboo in many places. Among the common reasons given is the mistrust of certain regimes towards African communities living abroad, viewed as permanent hotbeds of protest. Despite this apparent mistrust of the diaspora, the issue is lately a central one in political rivalries everywhere. While the right to vote has become an inseparable part of the democratisation process, it should not be the proverbial tree hiding the forest of the many abuses that have studded the construction of this new political space, after years of single-party government. Although elections alone are no guarantee of optimum quality in a pluralistic system, the issue of elections remains inseparable from the idea of progress in the democratisation process. The participation of Africans abroad in the democratic life of the country has been shown, over time, to be an integral part of such progress. And yet, it must be noted that many countries have yet to successfully place themselves on what was described in the 1990s as the “democratic hall of virtue”. And obstacles to the process have multiplied over the last decade in many countries on the continent. How, then, can we measure the impact of the diaspora’s actions on the evolution of political situations in the countries concerned? What was the specific, even qualitative, contribution of these Africans to the “era of democratic renewal”, thanks to their background, the experience they have built up abroad, their perspective, and the demands they often express forcefully with regard to African political arenas? In reality, although their voices increasingly count in the concert of public opinion, their influence remains relative, for a number of reasons. Among these, we take note of the fact that, despite the geographic distance, the structure of political and ideological choices and schemas of determination in relation to political events do not differ fundamentally from those observed in national contexts. In short, people do not become radically different when they live abroad. And, even taking account of the imprint of the environment of their country of residence, their identification with their original sociological spectrums colours their political opinions and choices. 

Thus, members of the diaspora have been seen engaging in competitions in their country of origin and reproducing reflexes that seemed to be the sole prerogative of “homeland politicians”. Indeed, on returning to their native land, some candidates for the office of Deputy who are based in Europe choose to address only members of their own ethnic group, or inhabitants of their village whose soil they have not trod for ages… Others, on the contrary, behave like tourists, plying for the votes of the population while ignoring their references and cultural codes, countering them with references drawn from their experience abroad. And, often forgetting to take account of the time lag that has grown up between them and their fellow citizens at home, even those who have maintained close contacts with their home country from abroad often run up against a wall of incomprehension and disillusionment. Political actors “from home” hammer them with this implacable sentence: “they have no idea the realities on the ground…” Are Africans living abroad who wish to get involved in politics in their home countries taking the wrong tack? Perhaps. In addition to returning to their home countries, do they need a patient re-immersion in local life before they can hope to make a more efficient contribution to public life? Undoubtedly. The purpose of the right to vote is not to turn all Africans living abroad into political actors, but to strengthen citizens’ awareness and their feeling of belonging to a collective destiny. In this regard, rather than focusing the spotlight on candidates for political office, we should salute the numerous humanitarian initiatives launched by Africans abroad who discreetly make up for the failings of the State in a great many areas. However, we should not underestimate the growing impact of actions of all kinds carried out by the diaspora in the area of policy making. While the influence of the “opinion of the diaspora” remains relative, it is not secondary. It imperceptibly influences political situations and decisions. Their opinion is not intended to be essential, but it is a contribution, confined as it is within its objective limits.

As can be seen, on the continent, as within the diaspora, the democracy-building project is subject to various ups and downs and multiple adjustments. For nationals of countries where the democratic project is having difficulty getting off the ground, the right to vote is still a quest whose outcome remains uncertain. However, despite the obstacles and various forms of resistance or even circumvention of the democratisation process, one fact is irresistibly obvious: the participation of all citizens in the construction of a new political space for the majority has taken a place at the heart of the political debate in the form of an unwavering demand in the ongoing history of African nations.

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