African Nations Show the United States How Democracy Is Done

African Nations Show the United States How Democracy Is Done

By Ian Taylor, Staff Member

The president of the United States reportedly referred to African nations with a pejorative term lamenting the immigration of their people to the United States.[1] One area, however, where some African nations are out pacing the United States is in terms of democratic empowerment is their recognition of prisoners’ right to vote. In the United States, prisoners and others in the criminal justice system are virtually all disenfranchised.[2] Recent case law in African nations tell a very different story.

Last August, the Zambian constitutional court determined that remandees and convicted prisoners would be allowed to vote.[3] It was ordered that persons in lawful custody and those whose freedom of movement is restricted under law can vote in future elections.[4] The court considered its national values of democracy, human dignity, and equality as described by article 8 of its constitution.[5] Its holding required that the Electoral Commission of Zambia must take necessary measures to ensure eligible persons in lawful custody are enabled to register to vote as well.[6]

In Nigeria, the government has been considering the creation of polling units in the prisons to enable some of the prisoners to vote.[7] This decision comes three years after a Federal High Court in Benin, Edo State ruled that prisoners in Nigeria have the right to vote in all elections conducted in every part of the country.[8] The court held that the INEC and the CGNPS did not have a right to deny the claimants voting rights under the constitution.[9] Some Nigerians see this decision as promising and agreed with the soundness of affirming citizens with the rights entitled to them.[10]

August 8, 2017 was election day for Kenya as well as the first time in the country’s history that prisoners could vote for president.[11] The prisoners petitioned and won the right to vote in 2013, but had to wait until 2017 to vote because they can only vote in presidential elections.[12] This limitation exists because inmates are sometimes housed in prisons far away from their local constituencies.[13]

There are other African nations where a prisoner’s right to vote is guaranteed. These practices present an opportunity for the United States to learn something about a value it professes, but denies to many.


[1] Josh Dawsey, Trump derides protections for immigrants from “shithole” countries, N.Y. Times (Jan. 12, 2018),

[2] Brennan Center,

[3] Caroline Kalombe, Prisoners to Vote, ZAMBIA DAILY MAIL LTD., (Aug. 17, 2017),

[4] Id.

[5] Selected Judgment No. 34 of 2017 In the Constitutional Court of Zambia (2017), file:///C:/Users/Ian%20Taylor%20Jr/Downloads/Selected-Judgment-No-34-of-2017-Godfrey-malembeka-vs-The-Attorney-General-and-The-Electoral-Commission-of-Zambia-Aug-2017-Justice-A.-M.-Stali.pdf (1188)

[6] Id. at 1197

[7] Fikayo Olowolagba, Prisoners to take part in 2019 election – INEC, Daily Post, Oct. 25, 2017

[8] Nigerian Prison Inmates To Start Voting In 2019 – INEC, SAHARA REPORTERS, Oct. 25, 2017

[9] Id.

[10] SaharaTV, Nigerians React to INEC’s Decision To Allow Prisoners Vote In Elections, YouTube (Oct. 25, 2017),

[11] Briana Daldorph, In Kenya this month, prisoners voted for president for the first time ever, Public Radio International (Aug. 22, 2017)

[12] Id.

[13] Id.