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Peacebuilding through Elections in Africa

Arsène Brice Bado

Photo by MONUSCO/Abel Kavanagh via Flickr. Creative Commons.

The rise of violence and armed conflicts following elections in some African countries has ignited a hotly contested debate on the correlation between elections and peace (Fischer, 2002; Wai, 2011). This debate is part of a larger scholarly debate on democracy and peace (Buchan, 2002; B. Russett, Layne, Spiro, & Doyle, 1995; B. M. Russett, 1993). One has to acknowledge the existence of a paradox in the use of elections in peace building strategies, since there is no doubt that elections can exacerbate conflicts in divided societies (Wai, 2011). Elections are about power and who will control it and lead the community. Elections are also about choosing between rivals and deciding who the winner is and who the loser is. In such situations, an election may act as the perfect trigger for conflict and political violence. Divided societies, including war-torn areas, therefore become "dangerous places" by holding elections (Gillies, 2011).

This paradox has been reinforced by the existence of several cases where elections have aggravated societal divisions and political violence instead of resolving them. This has been the case in several conflict-affected African countries such as Angola, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Nigeria, Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, and Côte d'Ivoire, among others (see Collier, 2010; European Commission, UNDP, & International IDEA, 2011; Fischer, 2002, pp. 11-20; Khadigala, 2010, pp. 5-6; Maley, Sampford, & Thakur, 2003; Schwarzmantel, 2011; Sisk & Reynolds, 1998). Election-related conflicts are not specific to Africa. They have been observed in European countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina (see Fischer, 2002); in Asian countries such as Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Thailand (see UNDP, 2011); and in the Americas in countries such as Haiti, Jamaica, Venezuela, and Mexico (see Altman & Perez-Linan, 2002). How can one resolve, or at least understand, this paradox inherent to elections, which can trigger violence instead of consolidating peace?

Somewhat counterintuitively, I argue that elections are indeed alternatives to violent conflict, and that democracy, in general, should be construed as a set of rules for managing the conflicting preferences and interests of citizens. As a central element of democracy, elections provide the opportunity for citizens to resolve their conflicting views and interests within an institutional framework that is based on rules commonly agreed upon by parties to the election. Thus, an election is both about competing choices and about compromise-building through legitimate procedures. Elections, therefore, should bring peace and should be a mechanism for mitigating political violence.

In fact, a careful analysis of election-related violence reveals that it is not elections themselves that generate violence. What produces electoral violence are the behaviors of political stakeholders that seek to impact the electoral process through violent and unlawful means. As Fisher explains, "it is when an electoral process is perceived as unfair, unresponsive, or corrupt, that its political legitimacy is compromised and stakeholders are motivated to go outside the established norms to achieve their objectives" (Fischer, 2002, p. 2).

That is why foreign electoral assistance organizations who are usually involved in elections in divided societies should not concentrate solely on strengthening electoral institutions. Rather they should also seriously take into account the strengthening of stakeholders' capacity to engage peacefully in consensus and compromise-building on contentious issues, in order to deter misconduct and the use of other violent and illicit means that might negatively affect the electoral process. The reason for suggesting such a move from electoral assistance providers is that elections — and liberal democracy more broadly — should be underpinned by a democratic civic culture that helps to transform internal conflicts. The success of an election and its potential in mitigating political violence depends on how well parties to the election embody the rules of the democratic game, and whether their behaviors and practices are based on equality, mutual respect, the rule of the law, and other sociopolitical rights.

The best way to mitigate election-related violence consists of framing the electoral process so that the grievances threatening social cohesion can be addressed. Indeed, grievances and major issues in any given society will always surge to the fore during the electoral process. In divided societies, therefore, electoral processes should provide opportunities to political parties and their candidates, to civil society groups, and to other election stakeholders to engage in public debates on divisive issues and policies. Indeed, the power of an electoral process is to be able to channel challengers and their conflicting interests into an institutional framework in which the constituency, as the ultimate source of legitimacy, chooses between the competing options. Seriously taking into account the divisive issues and grievances of a particular society in the electoral process can give birth to a peaceful sociopolitical order, with newly elected and legitimate leaders. With the renewal of a social contract it is possible for former "enemies" to live together peacefully, as was the case with the 2015 elections in Nigeria, a country whose previous elections have all been marred by violence (Campbell, 2015).

The improvement of the quality of personal relationships between parties involved in the elections is therefore as important as the strengthening of the management capacity of electoral institutions. Indeed, when this is the case, candidates are able to send a clear message to their supporters to not resort to violent means to protest against irregularities in the electoral process, thus preventing the resurgence of conflict. This was the case in most recent presidential elections in Ghana in 2012 (Pryce & Oidtmann, 2014).

In sum, supporting democratic civic education activities before, during, and after elections has a great potential to mitigate electoral violence and to promote democracy. Such activities create a better context and a more peaceful atmosphere for elections and reinforce a culture of democratic values and practices.

Arsène Brice Bado, a Southern Voices Network Scholar at the Wilson Center, is an associate researcher at CERAP in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire. He was a visiting assistant in research at Yale University during the 2014-2015 academic year. He is currently a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at Laval University in Canada. His doctoral research focuses on foreign electoral assistance in post-civil conflict societies.


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UNDP. (2011). Understanding Electoral Violence in Asia. New York: UNDP.

Wai, Z. (2011). Elections as a strategy for democratization and conflict transformation? Liberal peace and the 1996 elections in Sierra Leone. African Journal of Political Science and International Relations, 5(4), 229-244.

About the Author

Arsène Brice Bado

Arsène Brice Bado

Former Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding Scholar;
Associate researcher, CERAP
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Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.-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 U.S.-Africa relations.    Read more