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Election Violence and the Future of Democracy in Africa

Olusola Isola
kenya election

Police forces present on the streets of Nairobi during election violence. Photo courtesy of DEMOSH via Flickr Commons.

Election-related violence has been a growing trend in African countries since the wave of democracy that swept across the continent in 1990s. The 1992 election in Angola led to a 10-year civil war in the country that resulted in thousands of deaths. Following the 2005 election in Ethiopia, election-related violence led to about 200 deaths. In Kenya, the 2007/2008 election left about 1500 people dead. The 2010 presidential election in Ivory Coast recorded about 3000 deaths. Following the commencement of the fourth republic, after a protracted military rule in Nigeria, most of the elections held in the country have been characterized by violence, and thousands of people have died in election-related violence. The Human Rights Watch recorded that more than 800 people died during the 2011 election violence in Nigeria. Similar trends have been recorded in Sudan, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Gambia, Rwanda, Ghana, Liberia, Zimbabwe, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and in others, where thousands of people have been killed and properties damaged following election violence. This trend is a threat to the survival of democracy and human security on the continent, and there is an urgent need to address it.Between 2011 and 2017, over 100 elections were held in 44 African countries. Almost all the elections witnessed violence during stages of the elections. The pre-election campaign, election days, and post-election periods were all characterized by sporadic or prolonged violence. In different cases, the violence occurred due to citizens' dissatisfaction with the preparation for elections by election management bodies; from nomination and imposition of candidates for electoral positions by political parties; allegations of election manipulation and rigging by electoral bodies; outcomes and results of elections; and the execution of violent tactics by security agents to manage election disputes, among other reasons. Most often, violence results in the absence of, or when grievance mechanisms are compromised.

A number of factors have been offered to explain the prevalence of election violence in Africa. These include structural factors, cultural factors, monetization of politics, and the neo-patrimonial nature of politics in Africa. High rates of youth unemployment and the proclivity of political entrepreneurs to manipulate and lure unemployed youth into thuggery during elections have also been identified as an important factor that can fuel election violence. The structural problems in society that make some African countries susceptible to violence include poor living conditions, high levels of unemployment, poor educational facilities and educational status of citizens, poor health delivery system, poor infrastructure, and pervasive corruption. Election periods raise hopes for rectification of these problems but frustrations set in when the candidates' people invested hope in to win end up losing the election. This leads to violence, especially when there are suspicions that the election is compromised.

The problem of incumbent leaders perceiving government positions as their patrimony, and wanting to prolong their stay in power also leads to election violence. This trend could be traced to the culture of some African societies where governance is based on hereditary rule, and therefore cannot be challenged by others. Such a trend was witnessed in Togo and Gabon. When such cultures clash with democratic norms in elections, violence might occur when citizens resist election results.

The proliferation of small arms and light weapons within many African countries can also be attributed to high level of election violence. The continent has experienced and still is experiencing armed conflicts and often, elections are the culmination of peace processes instituted to end conflicts. Moreover, many countries are adjacent to locations where armed conflicts are taking place, and it can be difficult to control the inflow of weapons. In most cases, countries have poor data on weapons proliferation and no national strategies for monitoring the circulation of weapons. All of these factors can fuel violent activities during the time of elections.

Repressive and violent security forces who consider violence as the only option to counter opposition activities and protests before, during, or after elections can also contribute to violence. Police and security forces sometimes use lethal weapons to carry out the wishes of incumbent governments who want to remain in power, while opposition parties employ people armed with weapons to counter the violence of the security forces. This trend can escalate election violence, leading to more casualties.

The high rewards offered to public officials and the monetization of political positions are other factors that can make elections high-stakes events, and sometimes contribute to violence. Some politicians see politics as a means to enrich themselves rather than as a way to provide services to the people. Moreover, getting into public offices through an election is considered a financial investment with attractive returns because it is a sure way of having access to public treasuries in countries where levels of public accountability are still very low and corruption very high among public officers. Therefore, sometimes politicians and their supporters will resort to extreme means, including violence, in order to win elections. In Nigeria and Kenya, for instance, where there are presidential systems of government, there is no accommodation for the opposition in government: the winner takes all. Once a political party wins an election, it occupies the government seat until the next election. Some of the opposition parties consider waiting for the next election too long to be excluded from government, and they would rather resort to violence in order to remain relevant.

Other Dimensions of Electoral Violence

Some additional factors can protract election-related violence in Africa. In countries where identity politics are prevalent, election conflicts often ignite religious, ethnic, regional, and other tensions. Rhetorical strategies used by politicians and personalities involved in such conflict tend to play up the differences that separate them from other parties in order to gain supporters or generate sympathies.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Election violence is a serious threat to the survival of democracy in Africa because it has shaken citizens' confidence in democracy's ability to provide solutions to the numerous socio-political and economic problems facing the continent. It has also provided justification for military interventions in some countries such as Nigeria in the past. There is, therefore, an urgent need to address the problem.

The African Union could consider establishing a commission to study the trend of election violence across the continent and insist that its members address the problem. This could be discussed at a special session of the union where all member countries would be present. The special session could agree on joint and individual actions by countries to tackle the situation, including monitoring mechanisms for the implementation of such activities.

Leaders in various African countries could pay more attention to the problem by addressing the structural and cultural problems prevailing in their countries in order to foster confidence in the capacity of democratic rule to help alleviate internal problems. The Election Management Bodies (EMBs) should consider acting more transparently in the interest of the electorates and make an effort to collaborate with local law enforcement agencies to ensure the enforcement of laws for violence prevention during elections. Law enforcement organizations should consider other methods, apart from violent tactics, to manage election-related disputes. Finally, all African countries would do well to establish special enforcement bodies to monitor and reduce the spread of small arms and light weapons to help prevent their deployment during election conflicts.

Olusola Isola is a former Southern Voices Network Scholar for Peacebuilding during the Spring 2018 term. He is a Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Peace and Strategic Studies at the University of Ibadan in Ibadan, Nigeria, a member organization of the Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding. 

About the Author

Olusola Isola

Olusola Isola

Former Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding Scholar;
Senior Lecturer in Peace, Security and Humanitarian Studies Department, University of Ibadan, Nigeria    
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The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more