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How to avoid election-related violence

By Samuel Mondays Atuobi

This is a slightly edited report by Samuel Mondays Atuobi on the causes of conflict before, during, and after elections, and what can be done to avoid it. It first appeared in a publication by the Institute for Security Studies. Elections in most African countries are characterised by uncertainties, due to the possibility of election-related violence. Election-related violence may take place at different stages of the electoral process: before, during, or after elections. During the 2003 Federal and States elections in Nigeria, at least 100 people were killed and many more were injured.

Approximately 600 people were reported killed in the election violence in Kenya, following disputes over the results of the December 2007 presidential elections. During the August 2007 run-off elections in Sierra Leone, violence erupted following a clash between the supporters of the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) and the opposition All People’s Congress (ACP).

Violent attacks were also reported against the supporters of the SLPP when the ACP leader was sworn in as the new president.

Elections in Zimbabwe, Uganda, Ethiopia, Chad and Zambia have in the past been characterised by violence. The incidence of election-related violence in Africa is so high that even an election considered to be free and fair in electoral outcome may not have been free of violence before, during or after the election.  Elections in Africa are periods during which the stability and security of African states hangs in the balance, due to the threat of related election violence.

The problem is not limited to Africa. It is not uncommon in some Asian countries such as India, Pakistan, Philippines and Malaysia.  In the Philippines, 75 people were killed prior to the May 2007 elections, while 80 others were wounded in election-related violence.  What is the essence of democracy and multi-party politics if it still results in violence that leads to the destruction of life, livelihood and property?

What argument can we advance in favour of democratic consolidation in Africa when elections end in chaos, as we witnessed in Kenya? What factors account for the predominance of election-related violence in Africa? How does election-related violence impact peace, security and development on the continent? And how can it be addressed?

Manifestations and sources of election violence

Election-related violence is defined as political violence aimed at the electoral process. It is geared towards winning political competition for power through violence, subverting the ends of the electoral and political process.

Election violence or election-related violence is understood as violent action against people, property or the electoral process, intended to influence the electoral process before, during or after elections. Election violence can be explained by two perspectives – cultural and structural.

The cultural perspective presupposes the existence of “a political culture of thuggery that generally predisposes actors to engage in violence and intimidation during political contests”, while the structural explanation suggests that “society and politics are organised in a manner that generates conflict”.

These two perspectives are rein-forced by ethnic rivalries and mobilisation in politics in most African countries that have been volatile during elections.

The nature or manifestations of election violence include:



Destruction and damage of property

Assault and death threats


Forceful dispersion of political rallies

Fighting among political parties

Violent street protests and hooliganism

Arbitrary detentions and arrests without warrant


Economic repression or sabotage

Intimidating voters

Attempting to prevent voting.

Victims of election violence may not necessarily be voters or people who have direct responsibilities in the electoral process. This is especially true when election violence is characterised by ethnic and religious clashes.  However, the immediate victims of election violence are usually voters, political parties and their members and electoral officers. Sometimes, media houses (newspapers, radio and television) and civil society organisations also suffer attacks during election violence. Generally, the perpetrators of election violence are political parties and their members, who use violence as a means of influencing the electoral process to their advantage, and preventing other political parties from rigging an election or reversing an electoral outcome that may not favour them. Partisan security agents, such as the police and military, have also been used by the state to perpetrate election violence. The media, too, through unguarded and biased reporting and comments can, directly or indirectly, instigate political parties and their members to participate in election violence.

What factors impact the high incidence of election-related violence in Africa?

There are several factors responsible for election-related violence on the continent, among them structural weakness in election management, and especially the election management bodies; the nature of the electoral system (that is, the winner-takes-all); abuse of incumbency (access to state resources, manipulation of electoral rules); identity politics; heavy-handedness of the security forces during elections; and deficiencies in election observation and reporting.

Structural weakness in election management

In Africa, a number of factors are responsible for weakness in the electoral system, and the lack of independence and capacity of election management bodies to deliver on their constitutional mandate.

Two crucial questions, when considering the ability of an election management body to manage free and fair elections, are: Is the election management body truly independent and free from the influence of the ruling party or opposition parties beyond constitutional provisions?

Does the election management body have the resources and capacity to deliver on its constitutional mandate?

The capacity of the election management body to manage transparent, free and fair elections can be measured by its ability to perform functions such as voter registration, training polling assistants, voter education, managing logistics on Election Day, vote tallying, announcing results and settling electoral disputes, without constraints. While, in some countries in Africa, the capacity of electoral bodies to deliver these functions has improved from one election to the next, in other countries there is stagnation. This situation may be due to the lack of political will on the part of ruling governments to resource the electoral bodies adequately, because it may be benefiting from the status quo. The lack of independence and the capacity of election management bodies to deliver on their democratic mandate is an obstacle in their ability to organise free, fair and transparent elections. Constitutional provisions guaranteeing the independence of electoral bodies in Africa are, in most cases, not respected. In some cases, electoral commissioners have been forced to resign before the elections were completed while, in other cases, they are ordered to declare election results they do not believe reflect the true outcome of the elections.

Nature of the electoral system

Electoral systems are used to translate votes cast in an election into seats or offices won by candidates. One important component of the electoral system is the electoral formula that is used to translate votes into seats and positions – whether it is plurality/majority, proportional, mixed or another system. In the plurality (first-past-the-post) system, candidates who win more votes than any other candidate – in their constituency – are elected. The system does not require a candidate to win a majority, but a plurality in terms of the total valid votes cast. On the other hand, the majority system requires that a candidate wins 50 percent of the total valid ballots cast. Where no candidate obtains more that 50 percent of the votes, a second round of elections is organised for the two front-runners, to enable a clear winner to emerge. The proportional representation system is the direct opposite of the plurality system. It allows for representation after an electoral contest in proportion to the number (percentage) of votes obtained. Some countries use both the plurality and proportional systems, to include the interests and riggts of women and minority groups.

The choice of a particular system has a profound effect on the future of politics in the country concerned. About 28 African countries use the plurality/majority system, 15 countries use the proportional representation system and five countries employ a mixed system. The electoral system used should ensure a stable and accountable political system for the particular country. However, the plurality/majority (winner-takes-all) system, with its adversarial nature, usually engenders divisions and provides incentives for competitors to cheat. This does not, however, suggest that parties do not try to cheat under other systems but, since opponents can lose completely, the desire to cheat with the plurality system is higher. This is a major source of election violence in Africa. The challenge is therefore to adopt an electoral system that rewards participants in an electoral contest fairly.

Identity factors

In a political situation, identity factors such as ethnicity, religion, race, and so on can be manipulated by the political elite to gain votes – either to enable them to remain in office or to gain access to political power. In situations where access to political power ensures control over the distribution of state resources for personal gain, the consequences of such divisive identity politics is often devastating. In Africa, it is not uncommon to find parties that draw support along specific identity lines, such as religion, race or ethnicity.

In such situations, political contests are reduced to identity politics, in which parties operate on the assumption that the group that wins an election has exclusive access to state resources. Politics, as a means of gaining access to state resources through identity group manipulation, therefore becomes a factor in election-related violence, in which an attempt to rig an election is an attempt to deny some groups access to state power, and therefore state resources. The problems of identity-based politics  brings into focus the need to re-examine electoral systems in Africa, in favour of more inclusive systems.

Implications of election violence

Election-related violence threatens the development and consolidation of democracy. In countries where violence is a regular feature of the democratic process, democratic values and institutions are prevented from developing because power is gained and retained through violence. Where a government is perceived to have come to power through irregularities, its legitimacy is then questionable, and it will likely have problems with forging national unity. Apart from the effects of election violence on the legitimacy of the electoral process, it also impacts voter turnout and the eventual outcome of the electoral process. Since voter turnout determines the results of elections, election violence can distort the outcome of an election.  Election violence can also impact negatively on existing social relations. The prevalence of identity politics in most African countries makes it more feasible for election violence to assume identity dimensions and polarise groups along ethnic lines. Although post-election violence in Kenya cannot be attributed entirely to identity politics, the fact that the violence has assumed ethnic dimensions raises concerns about the negative impact of election violence on social relations.

If not properly addressed, the possibility of election violence erupting in future elections along identity lines may be high. The negative impact of election-related violence on social relations is also possible in other multi-ethnic African societies.

Election violence can also escalate into larger scale, protracted conflicts. In Rwanda, Burundi and Côte d’Ivoire, widespread conflicts were preceded by disputes over the electoral process and election results, among other factors. In post-conflict states, election-related violence or disputes over election results can derail peace processes. In 1992, following disputes over the election results in Angola, the National Union for the Total Liberation of Angola (UNITA) returned to war, which lasted almost a decade. It must, however, be noted that not all protests over elections and the results are justified, since some political parties also ‘cry foul’ any time they realise that they are about to lose an election.

In the long term, protracted election-related violence also has a negative impact on the economy. Although the economic costs of election-related violence cannot be easily quantified, considering the destruction of property associated with it, widespread election-related violence can reverse economic gains. The violence in Kenya cost the government revenue from tourism, and further impacted negatively on the economic activities of countries in the region that rely on Kenya’s port facilities. Violence is also likely to affect general economic activities such as commerce, agriculture and food production. In the long run, investors are likely to shy away from such countries undergoing political instability resulting from – and related to – elections.

Conclusion and Recommendations

In attempting to address the problem of election violence in Africa, the following suggestions should be considered by regional actors and organisations:

First, there is a need to address the weaknesses in election management, by building the capacity of election management bodies to deliver on their constitutional mandate. In most cases, it may be beyond the capacity of national governments to meet the financial commitments required to build the capacity of election management bodies, and the support of regional organisations is therefore required. For instance, an election support fund can be created by the African Union (AU), through which resources can be made available to strengthen the capacity of electoral bodies to run elections effectively.

The establishment of an apex body to manage elections at the sub-regional and regional levels should also be explored. Such a body, apart from helping to enhance the capacity of national election management bodies in organising election more professionally, can also be useful in ensuring the independence of electoral bodies and warding off undue influence from undemocratic governments. Second, the problem of gaps in election observation and reporting can also be addressed by regional bodies, through the establishment of common standards for election observation. This will help to reduce the tensions created by conflicting reports from different conflict observer groups. In most cases, elections declared as free and fair by some observer groups are called a sham by other observer groups. The development of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Handbook on Election Observation is a step in the right direction, and the idea should be explored by other regional organisations. The creation of common standards for election observation at the regional level should eventually lead to the creation of common election observation standards for the continent, under the leadership of the AU.

Third, problems relating to electoral systems in Africa need to be addressed. It is time to begin revising the winner-takes-all electoral system, and adopt more inclusive electoral systems that take into account identity diversities in Africa. Electoral systems should aim at achieving the objectives of proportionality of seats to votes; accountability to constituents; durable governments; ethnic, religious and racial conciliation; and minority office-holding.

The AU, through the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), can create the platform for constitutional reviews in countries where their electoral systems have become a source of political tension.

The fourth problem is related to resolving electoral disputes. An effective electoral system should include an efficient mechanism to settle electoral disputes. In most cases, traditional courts have been slow in dealing with electoral cases, mostly because they can be influenced by the ruling party if the outcome of the court’s decision will not be in the party’s favour. Setting up independent electoral courts can help to reduce conflict resulting from disputes over election results. The AU must address how it can be involved in resolving election disputes in member countries. Fallout from the attempt by the AU to resolve the Kenya post-election violence points to weaknesses in conflict resolution mechanisms in Africa. The initial attempt by the AU chairman to intervene in the crisis was thwarted by the Kenyan government, which instead welcomed an American envoy. When the AU was finally allowed to intervene, not much was achieved.  Earlier intervention by the AU could have prevented the destruction that followed the announcement of the election results.

Lastly, as a continent, Africa needs to embark on a grand project to address the problems of identity divisions, which have permeated electoral politics. While there is the need to adopt all inclusive political systems that take into account Africa’s ethnic and religious diversity, political parties must be guided by codes of conduct that will prevent them from creating divisive identity sentiments during elections.

Multiparty democracy and electoral politics have indeed taken root in Africa, and have proven to be better than dictatorships and one-man rule. While election-related violence threatens the consolidation of democracy, it should be viewed as one of the problems that needs to be addressed as part of democratic transition in Africa. Addressing election-related violence is, however, the combined responsibility of all citizens of Africa, including the regional and continental organisations.


Samuel Mondays Atuobi is a Research Associate in the Conflict Prevention, Management and Resolution Department at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre in Accra, Ghana.

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