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Democracy in reverse? The high cost of elections in Africa

African countries cannot sustain the high cost of elections in the face of competing public spending priorities. The dependence on donor support to bridge election budget deficits erode national sovereignties and expose countries to foreign manipulation. With Sub-Saharan African countries holding the most expensive elections in the world, there is an urgent need to rethink the entire democratic process



Elections are a foundational pillar of democracy and provide a framework for choosing representatives to carry out governance functions. There is no democracy without elections. There are no elections without money.

Electoral processes are highly complex and require investment in administrative and organisational capacity — the machinery responsible for recruiting and hiring staff, registering voters, educating voters, registering aspirants, printing ballot papers, setting up polling stations, recording votes, and announcing election results. 

The inability of the electoral body to perform these functions disenfranchises voters from participating in elections, and negatively influences the integrity, legitimacy, and outcome of any given election. Countries must develop sufficient capacity in elections to maintain democratic governance, but the growing cost of elections threatens the very foundation of democratic reforms. For developing countries, battling a myriad social and economic issues, expensive elections are a threat to political stability, and rising costs are fuelling concerns over the value of democratic processes in poor countries.

Officials check a voter’s identity at the polling station during the general elections in Sierra Leone in March 2018. Photo: CC BY-NC 2.0/Commonwealth Secretariat.

Over the past 50 years, most African countries have cemented the democratic culture of holding periodic presidential and legislative elections. While most electoral processes remain questionable and have been associated with instability, division, and in some cases political violence, the question of cost has largely been muted. Irrespective of how expensive these elections have become, African governments see them as a pathway to peace and stability — an argument supported by Western aid partners, who for decades, have consistently sent donations to plug gaping deficits in electoral budgets.

African countries have held nearly 600 presidential and legislative elections, consistently over the past three decades

African countries have held nearly 600 presidential and legislative elections, consistently over the past three decades (1990-2020), except for Eritrea which continues to reel under President Issaias Afeworki’s 20-year dictatorship. In 2022, 8 African countries were scheduled to hold presidential and legislative elections: Libya (January 24), Mali (February 27), Guinea (March), Somalia (May 15), Kenya (August 9), Angola (August), Chad (June-September), and Somaliland (November 13). In all these countries, cost had been a recurrent concern. 


Comparing the cost of elections in Africa and the world

The Electoral Knowledge Network defines the cost of elections as all expenses incurred in voter registration, boundary delimitation, voting operations, counting and transmission of results, dispute adjudication, voter education and information, campaigning by political parties and candidates, and vigilance and oversight by party representatives and domestic or international observers.

Kenya’s fourth presidential and parliamentary elections were held on 4 Mar 2013: Long lines of patient voters at the polling station at Loresho Primary School (photo credit: ILRI/Susan MacMillan/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Of these functions, election management bodies (EMBs) are singularly responsible for voter registration, boundary delimitation, the voting operation, counting and transmission of results and dispute adjudication. Voter education and information is carried out by EMBs, civil society organisations, and political parties. Costs related to political campaigns are solely borne by political parties and candidates.

Data from the International Institute For Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) indicates that most countries spend hundreds of millions of dollars per election to finance EMB activities. According to a comprehensive analysis done by Jaap van der Straaten, from the Civil Registration for Development (CRC4D), Sub-Saharan Africa has experienced the highest increase in the cost of elections. Between 2000-2018, Sub-Saharan Africa spent nearly $125 billion on elections. The election administrative cost (EAC) in Sub-Saharan Africa, which was already high before 2000, “widened from a ratio of 2.3 times $4.10 versus $1.80 before 2000 to a ratio of almost 4.5 times ($11.30 versus $2.90)” as indicated in the table below.


There is a massive difference in cost between Sub-Saharan Africa and North America and Australasia regions. When you consider the huge disparity in disposable income between citizens in these two regions, one begins to see the heavy burden of elections that adults in Sub-Saharan African countries carry, when compared to those in North America and Australasian countries. 

Take for example, the election costs ($ market prices/capita) in Europe, N America, Australasia ($4.00) is nearly the same as that of Africa ($4.5), but an average American citizen has an annual income of $58,000 and can afford that electoral administrative cost, while for a citizen in Sub-Saharan Africa with an annual income of $1,500, the electoral costs are a heavy burden for adults. Even for comparable regions such as Asia where citizens of a country like India have an average annual income of $1,800, the election costs per capita in Africa was six times high.


The high costs of elections do not necessarily translate to election integrity or higher quality of democracy. Freedom House carried out a study on democracy and found out that there was deterioration from 2005-2018 in Sub-Saharan Africa. Merely holding regular elections, in the absence of rule of law, functioning of government, freedom of expression and associational rights, does not strengthen democratic institutions and governance.

Kenya General Elections March 2013. Photo credit. Copyright: Commonwealth Secretariat/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

A case in point is the Kenyan election of 2017, when the country’s elections were the most expensive in Africa and the second most expensive in the world. In the run up to the electoral exercise, the Treasury Principal Secretary, Kamau Thuge, tabled the Pre-election Economic and Fiscal Report, which read in part that:

“The budgetary allocation for the 2017 general elections is Ksh49.9 billion ($499 million) and is composed of direct and indirect election related expenses. Direct election expenses has an allocation of Ksh33.3 billion ($333 million) while indirect expenses are allocated Ksh16.6 billion ($166 million).”

The Ksh49.9 billion ($499 million) was divided between the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) (Ksh42.9 billion ($429 million)) and the Judiciary, National Intelligence Service and Registrar of Political Parties. The government also allocated Ksh5.3 billion ($53 million) to election-related security operations to prevent the possibility of post-election violence in 23 out of the 47 counties.

In terms of cost per voter, the Kenyan election budget translated to $25.4 per voter, for each of the 19.6 million voters, making it the most expensive electoral exercise in Africa and second only to Papua New Guinea (cost per voter, $63) in the world.

Compared to East African neighbours, the cost per voter in Rwanda was $1.05, Uganda was $4, and Tanzania was $5.16. Compared to other African countries, the cost per voter in Nigeria was $8.61 and Africa’s least expensive election was Ghana, with $0.07 per voter. 


The high cost of Kenyan elections can be attributed to endemic corruption in executing electoral activities

The cost of Kenyan elections is far above the Sub-Saharan African averages and can be attributed to endemic corruption in executing electoral activities. Despite the high costs, the election results were contested. The opposition went to court and detailed how the incumbent president had exploited the expensive election technology to enable election fraud. The court overturned the presidential elections and ordered a repeat election.

Political campaign financing

Another aspect of cost is campaign money, its sources and how it compromises the legitimacy of choosing political representatives. Still drawing from the Kenyan case, Prof. Karuti Kanyinga and Tom Mboya carried out a commissioned study for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy Limited (WFD) and the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy (NIMD), to analyze how much political aspirants spend to campaign for positions in the County Assembly, Senate and National Assembly. The findings demonstrated that the Senate seat was the most expensive to contest for, with aspirants spending an average of Kshs. 35.5 million ($350,000). Contestants for the Women Representative seats spent an average of Kshs. 22.8 million ($228,000). Members of Parliament spent an average of Kshs. 18.2 million (182,000), and Members of County Assembly spent Kshs 3.1 million ($31,000) on average. Those surveyed indicated personal savings, friend and family support as the source of financing, with less than 20 percent receiving any direct financial support from their political party.

Sudan— registration, referendum. Photo credit: Jenn Warren, USAID/PIXNIO /Free to use CC0.

Candidates who spent more had a greater chance of electoral victory. Women representatives who won spent three times more than those who lost. Successful Senators spent two times more than those who lost. Members of Parliament who won spent 50 percent more than those who lost. Apart from the campaign expenditure, the dominance of the party was the main mediating factor, with those in dominant parties more likely to win.

Political representatives — the so called “Mheshimiwa”, Kiswahili for Honourable — are some of the most corrupt Kenyans and their positions open the door to patronage networks

A question is often asked in Kenya why political candidates are willing to spend more money in campaigns than the total salary they will draw from the position during their 5-year term. The answer is an open secret. Political representatives — the so called “Mheshimiwa”, Kiswahili for Honourable — are some of the most corrupt Kenyans. Their positions open the door to patronage networks. The high campaign expenditure, far from being driven by a desire to serve the citizenry, is justified by opportunities for easy self-enrichment.

This is not a uniquely Kenyan problem. A 2019 NIMD Cost of Elections evaluation in Mali found out that MPs spent an average of 54,000 euros for campaigns in a county where the average salary is 100 euros a month. Just like in Kenya, campaign money decides who will win elections and takes precedence over the ideological and political capacities of the candidates. The long-term result is the loss of credibility in the political class and devaluation of the validity of democratic processes and institutions.


The way forward

Continent-wide calls for regulations of elections funding have been on the rise. In a world where 62 percent of the population now live in democratic countries, periodic elections should be an institutionalised governance feature. The high cost, in Sub-Saharan countries, skew the electoral process and constitute a waste of national resources, especially where elections are not regular, free, and fair. 

African countries cannot sustain the high cost of elections in the face of competing public spending priorities. The dependence on donor support to bridge election budget deficits erode national sovereignties and expose countries to foreign manipulation. Persistent cases of ineffective election administration, low voter turnout, electoral fraud, voter manipulation, voting irregularities, lack of independence of the media, corruption, and inconsistent access to justice, and violation of civil liberties and social rights, are a manifestation that African countries are not receiving dividends proportionate to the election administration costs, by the people, for the people.”

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