Africa Reacts to the Iowa Caucuses

As part of a new series, the CSIS Africa Program is asking prominent African journalists, civil society activists, and thought leaders to share their analysis on the U.S. presidential election process. Sub-Saharan Africa has not featured prominently in presidential campaigns, but the outcome of the election will have important ramifications for U.S. policy toward the region. By flipping the script—featuring African analysts’ views on U.S. politics rather than U.S. analysts’ opinions on African developments—we are seeking to start a new conversation about the future of U.S.-African relations.

In the first installment of our “Africa Reacts” series, we asked some of the continent’s top analysts for their reactions to the Iowa caucuses. Several commentators regard the disunity in the Democratic Party as a stumbling block to victory in November 2020. Others note the technological issue that marred the caucus results, echoing some of the problems in recent polls in sub-Saharan Africa. Finally, some experts remark that the Iowa caucuses’ technical challenges and contentious politics reveal the troubling state of democracy in the United States.

The contributions in this commentary have been edited by the CSIS Africa Program for brevity and clarity.

Faten Aggad-Clerx, Contributor to African Arguments (@fatenaggad)

Will the [Democratic] party be able to channel the votes of [Mayor Pete] Buttigieg, who attracts specific audiences, or votes of those with more radical agendas like Bernie [Sanders] or [Elizabeth] Warren? It remains to be seen therefore whether the Democrats are able to put forward a candidate that is attractive to the voter. I'm reminded of a conversation I had just recently with an American couple, both independents, although mostly Democratic leaning, who voted for Trump because Hillary [Clinton] was a no-go to them. There is a real risk that the Democrats end up in the same situation this time again.

Simon Allison, Mail & Guardian (@simonallison)

From reporting on elections in countries across the African continent, one thing I have learnt over and over again is that only a united opposition can unseat an incumbent with authoritarian tendencies. Maybe the Democrats should be studying Muhammadu Buhari's election victory in Nigeria in 2015 for tips on how to build a viable coalition that brings together disparate factions within the party—because whatever they are doing now is clearly not working.

Ronald Kato, Africa News (@RonnieKulabako)

The delay in publishing the results from the Iowa caucuses because of what some people have called fraud concerns shows that American elections are not tamper-proof. Happening just hours after an election in Malawi was overturned, governments in Africa known to bungle elections have a perfect excuse. In Uganda, my home country, they already keep citing the Bush-Gore contest of 2000 as an example that you cannot have a perfect poll. I think that as a standard setter it is an embarrassment to America and certainly a bad signal to Africa.

Jack McBrams, Malawian Journalist (@mcbrams)

The Democratic Party fiasco in Iowa is God’s way of showing America that no democracy is perfect, no matter how technologically advanced the nation is. If this had happened in Africa, the Americans would have pointed out ‘African’ inefficiencies as the root cause. But democracy is a destination that we all aspire to. That is what we have learnt in Africa and that is why we are slowly building on and consolidating our gains. I think America reached a point where they view themselves as the ultimate democracy. But are they?

Alvin Ntibinyane, NK Centre for Investigative Journalism (@AlvinNtibinyane)

The uncertainty and confusion that marked the Iowa caucuses is all too familiar. As someone who is making a living by writing stories and asking those in power difficult questions, I have seen this before. Many times here in Africa. In fact, on the day of the Iowa caucuses, the Malawian constitutional court ruled to overturn the country’s 2019 presidential vote. The comparison is a bit unfair and out of context, but what is fair is that at the center of the ‘uncertainty ‘and ‘confusion’ in both cases is the integrity of the vote. The systems failed. Those tasked with conducting elections failed to safeguard the integrity of the vote. What is the lesson here? A lot needs to be done to protect the integrity of elections, be it in a third world country or the so-called ‘the greatest nation on earth.’ But again, are caucuses democratic in any way? I have my doubts. Perhaps the two American parties should rethink this ridiculous system. There is nothing that beats the 'one person, one vote' rule.

Dickens Olewe, BBC (@Dickensolewe)

Joe Biden was meant to be the frontrunner with wide appeal, why has he underperformed in Iowa? Has being dragged in the Trump's impeachment trial handicapped Biden's campaign?

Ayisha Osori, Open Society Initiative for West Africa (@Naijavote)

The Iowa caucuses hold several reflection opportunities for the conduct of elections and primaries in West Africa. The first is technology, which we are attracted to for transparency and ease, but we were reminded about how spectacularly it can fail despite the typically exorbitant price tag and that technology sometimes cannot solve structural, cultural issues. Instead it might only enhance them. Second, warts and all, the Iowa caucuses are important for providing a platform for rich diversity for the DNC's aspirants—a diversity that we rarely see in our stage managed primaries and elections in West Africa despite the need for fresh faces, fresh ideas, and fresh talent for our leadership recruitment pool.

Rodney Sieh, Front Page Africa (@RodneySieh)

Watching from afar, the Iowa caucuses in my view was a complete replica of any controversy surrounding Africa and elections. I mean, it had everything—from calls for the Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez to step down to rival candidates accusing Senator Sanders of trying to gain an edge by claiming victory early. Much of what took place outside the shocking results illustrate that politics is politics no matter what part of the world you’re from.

For the immediate future, the Democrats’ failure to at least gain some advantage over the incumbent President Trump appears to have presented a visible dilemma as they struggled Tuesday to resolve issues regarding a small piece of technology they hoped would have enhanced the speed at which the results came in.

Alemayehu Weldemariam, Ethiopia Insight, Lecturer at Mekelle University School of Law (@AlemayehuFentaw)

What I was looking forward to seeing at last night’s caucuses in Iowa was for any flicker of hope of the Democratic defeat of Trump as Iowa Democrats take the first real vote in choosing a candidate to face off against Trump. The kind of Democratic president I am looking for is one grounded in foreign policy and strategy.

What worries me is Trump’s incoherent foreign policy toward the Horn of Africa. If it has any guiding principle, it’s the will to stop the influx of immigrants from that region to the U.S. and its EU counterparts as well as curbing Chinese influence. Ethiopia has become the first victim of that misguided policy in the region.

If you are interested in contributing to future Africa Reacts commentaries on the U.S. presidential election, please email CSIS Africa Program Manager Marielle Harris (

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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