On November 4th 2008, Senator Barack Obama became the first African American to be elected President of the United States. His historic victory was the culmination of one the most thrilling election campaigns in modern history.

His campaign made politics appealing and accessible to most and people all over the world had taken a keen interest and were gripped by election fever. Obama’s election campaign was a unique one and the interest it stirred was partly because of his willingness to embrace and utilize technology to reach young people. While other campaigns made use of the Internet and technology, few used Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other social platforms so extensively. The website barackobama.com, launched and coordinated by Chris Hughes – one of the original founding members of Facebook, was used by individuals to organize their communities on behalf of Obama, fundraise and create volunteer groups. Obama’s legendary “Yes We Can” speeches struck a chord with voters who had endured the Bush administration, the war in Afghanistan, a global financial crisis and were in desperate need of fresh hope. Obama’s campaign ignited something in Americans and people all over the world, especially in Africa.

African election campaigns are far less glamorous affairs and often fail to rouse national, much less international, interest. Perhaps it is because the concept of true democracy, political tolerance and multi-party states is less of a reality in many African nations and as such elections feel to most like an exercise in futility. Over the years however, a number of elections (and the campaigns leading to them) have attracted attention and captured our imaginations – each one for different reasons.

Liberia: Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf – Africa’s first elected female head of State.

On November 4th 2008, Senator Barack Obama became the first African American to be elected President of the US. His victory was the culmination of one the most thrilling election campaigns in modern history.

Liberia was founded by former American slaves and was Africa’s first republic. The country’s past is one of military coups, presidential assassinations and a bloody civil war, which saw young children being turned into drug, addicted soldiers who raped and murdered on command. The war ended in 1997 and Charles Taylor was elected President in July of that year. His greed and mismanagement resulted in fresh rebellion and in August 2003 he agreed to step down and he went into exile in Nigeria. Taylor siphoned Liberia’s funds into his personal coffers (an estimated US$100million), bankrupted Liberia and left it the world’s poorest nation. In 2003, the various rebel groups agreed to appoint businessman Gyude Bryant to the position of Chairman of the National Transitional Government and he ruled until democratic elections could be held. In 2005, Liberians were finally given the opportunity to exercise their democratic right to vote. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who was contesting elections for the 3rd time – she ran for Vice President in 1985 and ran against Charles Taylor in 1997 - put herself forward once again. In her campaign, Johnson-Sirleaf who was a mother and grandmother said she wanted to become President “to bring a motherly sensitivity and emotion to the presidency” in order to heal a nation which had endured so much brutality and pain.

This “sensitivity and emotion” though did not mean she was a soft on issues. Even before she was elected president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and several female lawyers had set out to address the issue of rape and the prescribed sentences and they were taking on the legislature of Liberia. Johnson-Sirleaf had never been afraid to take anyone on and voice her criticisms. She was imprisoned for publicly criticizing the Doe administration and twice had to flee her country and go into exile as her life was threatened.
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s 2005 presidential campaign appealed mostly to women and gender sensitive men (one man was quoted as saying only a man could be strong enough to deal with Liberia’s problems) and women turned out in droves to vote. This was part of her desire in daring to run for the presidency: to empower women and inspire them to run for office.

“The Iron-Lady” as her supporters affectionately call her, is currently serving her second term as President and slowly Liberia is rebuilding itself.

Zimbabwe: Robert Mugabe – Africa’s oldest and third longest serving elected head of State.

Robert Mugabe came to power in April 1980 after the Rhodesian Bush War which started in 1964 and ended in 1979. Mugabe and his previously banned ZANU party won the first democratic elections resoundingly: they were, after all, the party, which had fought for Zimbabwe’s independence and attained majority rule. Mugabe’s first term sought to reassure Zimbabweans, black and white, that the country belonged to them all and they should work together to build it. In the 1985 elections, ZANU and Robert Mugabe increased their majority and Zimbabwe continued to enjoy prosperity and Mugabe was the darling of the world. ZANU united with their main political rival ZAPU, which had contested previous elections as Patriotic Front, led by Joshua Nkomo and became ZANU PF in 1987. In this way Robert Mugabe had shut down the competition and Zimbabwe essentially became a one party state.

Up until the Parliamentary elections of 2000, Zanu PF faced no real opposition. The emergence and popularity of MDC woke Mugabe and ZANU PF up to the realisation that their position was not secure and they needed to do something other than hold rallies and make a few promises around election time to secure votes.

The 2000 election campaign focused on the land issue (very near and dear to the hearts of Zimbabweans who were historically forced off their land) and ZANU PF used this to regain its popularity. The campaign was successful, but only marginally so as MDC secured 57 of the 120 seats in Parliament. (ZANU PF had previously held 117 seats) This seeming return to multi-partyism upped the ante in Zimbabwe’s subsequent election campaigns. Listening to the campaign speeches of ZANU PF, it would appear their campaign strategy is about gathering people in large stadiums and giving them three hour lectures on the imminent threat of a return to colonialism should MDC ever come to power and then handing out food parcels. Little in the campaign speeches actually pertain to the party’s plans to resolve Zimbabwe’s massive issues or an plans for Zimbabwe’s future.

Kenya: 2007 and 2013 Elections – the journey from violence and dispute to restored faith

Kenya’s 2007 elections, which resulted in violence and left more than a thousand people dead in just over a month, seem to have paved the way for a more mature style of campaigning and handling election outcomes in the East African country. In 2007, 10 candidates contested the election, but the main rivalry was between Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga. Odinga had been leading in opinion polls, however when the results were released, Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner. Odinga disputed this result and within hours tribe-based riots and violent attacks against Kikuyus had broken out across Kenya. This violence left more than a thousand people dead in a month. On February 28th 2008 Odinga and Kibaki eventually arrived at an agreement and signed the National Accord and Reconciliation Act in which they agreed to form a coalition government and Odinga became Prime Minister of this government.

In the 2013 election campaign, all the contestants (one of whom was Raila Odinga) were at pains to address issues of ethnicity and tribalism. While the politicians had previously accused one another of using ethnicity for political purposes, two of the main contestants Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga both denied running ethnic campaigns and a quotation from Kenyatta read “Tribalism is a cancer that has afflicted this country for a very long time. I personally believe that this problem is largely …as a result of a battle for resources”. Odinga in his turn described it as “a disease of the elite”.

As part of the election campaign, the candidates also agreed to accept the outcome of the election and concede defeat should they not be winners. In televised debates the candidates addressed issues of the economy, infrastructure development, unemployment and improved social services. Uhuru Kenyatta won and the loser graciously accepted the outcome of the campaign and Kenyan’s faith democracy was restored.

South Africa: 2014

Since 1994 when the first democratic elections were held, the ANC has won every subsequent election. There is much speculation that this election will be the first in which the ANC does not win by a landslide. This speculation may be based on all the issues the ANC has faced over the last few years, not to mention new opposition parties emerging. However, the ANC has the financial edge over the other parties in campaigning and can thus reach more voters, afford more volunteers, print more t-shirts (who doesn’t love a freebie), put up more posters and hand out more food parcels.

In this 2014 campaign the ANC has been travelling from village to village, mobilizing volunteers to carry the ANC’s campaign message into communities and encourage people to register to vote. They not only have foot soldiers going into the communities, but also host events in communities to encourage voter registration. The ANC has been criticized for the “parties” they host under the guise of an election campaign, but these events seem to achieve the desired result. This is the first phase of the ANC’s campaign and seeks to ensure that those who would vote for the ANC re-registered.

The next phases of the ANC’s campaign are about consolidating support and big rallies are organized where various ANC officials downplay their failures, dispute allegations of poor performance in service delivery, laud their successes (however modest), criticise the opposition and make fresh promises to voters. Jacob Zuma, as the party’s presidential candidate seems to have a unique ability to connect with his constituents and he has been shown at various ANC campaign events dancing and singing and having a good time on the campaign trail.

The ANC’s strategy of continuing to appeal to voters based on the illustrious past and great former leaders of the party is wearing thin as voters grow more disillusioned with the lack of delivery on election promises, the rampant corruption and arrogant leaders. Zuma, as the party’s presidential candidate, has been booed at various public events and the campaign trail he has been no different inspite of his handing cash to voters from his own pocket.

This election has also featured Town Hall type debates and round table discussions focusing on various issues, like the economy, unemployment and other issues. As in the famed US election of 2008, SA politicians have used the various social platforms in this campaign, but according to researchers and commentators, they have used the platforms to slam one another and not so much to engage with voters.