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Election Violence: Diagnosis and prescription in Africa

Continent needs a civically enlightened citizenry and an independent and credible state institutions that are committed to protect and honour the franchise of citizens

ANALYSIS | CRISPIN KAHERU | Violence has become a dominant reality in most of the recent elections. Common narratives around it conjure more lamentations than actual strategies to stem it. Here’s my diagnosis and prescription on election violence.

What many refer to as election violence, I choose to call them unintended ‘negative’ consequences of liberal electoral democracy. By their very nature, elections are competitive.

We are coming from a place where the circle of competition has been increasing. For instance, many African countries started as one-party states after Independence. In Kenya, it was the dominant KANU; in Uganda, it was mainly UPC; in Tanzania, it was TANU, and so on.

Along the way, this curve changed as many countries recommitted to multi-party democracy. Even then, we had a phase where multi-partyism meant a two-party system. We saw this in Uganda; you had the NRM ruling party versus FDC as the only present opposition political party for quite some time. In Tanzania, it was CCM versus Chadema. In Nigeria, it was APC versus PDP. In Zimbabwe, it has always been ZANU versus the Movement for Democratic Change alliance (MDC).

Today, that landscape is rapidly changing. It is no longer just two major political parties competing in elections. In Uganda for instance, you have the ruling NRM (336 MPs); an opposition that is more than a single bloc – there is NUP (57 MPs) and FDC (32 MPs); and, more significantly, there is now a large bloc of Independents vying for elective positions (74 MPs).

In Nigeria, besides the conventional APC (37%) and PDP (29%), you had the grand entry of Peter Obi’s Labour Party, which picked a substantial vote share (25%).

These examples show how there has been a substantial ground shift in terms of the competitiveness of elections – both in perception and in reality. This ground shift has bred a terrible sense of negative competition. Each party wants to win at the expense of the other party or parties involved. It no longer matters how one wins, as long as one is declared a winner. The end justifies the means.

Today people are winning elections through cheating, stealing, killing and even by witchcraft. We’ve also generally accepted very low thresholds or standards for admission into the electoral playing field, in the name of universality of elections. And there lies the problem. Without appearing to confuse education qualifications with integrity, I will draw your attention to the calibre of people running for electoral offices today. In Uganda, once you have an ‘A’ level certificate or Matric (SA), you qualify to run for Presidency, you can run for a Parliamentary seat, and you can be a Chair of a district.

Elective offices become a source of employment for the unemployed qualified youth, the unemployed unqualified youth who forge academic papers and the employed qualified youth who see political offices as a source of better pay. Ordinarily, education is intimately connected with integrity. By extension, therefore, we can say, that the low or no education qualifications have bred a certain type of low integrity. So, you have a crop of less civilized characters in the electoral domain  as election administrators, as contenders, as gullible voters with no self-worth; what would you expect of such elections?

Two action points for me from this scenario; either consider strict education qualifications for candidates, but also enforce stringent integrity checks for electoral stakeholders generally; and secondly, step up education generally – but more specifically ‘civic education’  to underscore politics as service to humanity rather than a means of survival).

We also see a creeping weaponization of the digital infrastructure in elections. Today, it is no longer ‘he who counts the vote’ that matters, but rather ‘he who controls the technology.’ With technology you can scan, identify and target vulnerabilities of individuals in the electoral terrain, you can spread disinformation, misinformation, propaganda; but more importantly, technology has become a key factor in the management of election results. Whether it is at voting, counting, transmission, collation or display of election results, technology is increasingly playing a key role.

But, there’s a conspicuous trend  the more we increase the dosage of technology in elections, the more the suspicion around the outcome of elections. Think of any recent election that has been contested in the court of law or court of public opinion; technology has been strongly cited as having played a real or perceived manipulative role in those elections. Whether it is Kenya, Angola, Nigeria, Congo, one of the ingredients that has prompted suspicion of foul play in elections has been the tech aspect.

Interestingly, countries that are still reliant on manual or call them traditional methods seem to have a semblance of believability in their elections. The Gambia is a classic case. With its voting marbles and manual counting system, the last Gambia elections were generally peaceful, even in the post-election context. Probably it is a moment for us to reflect more deeply on the whole wave of integrating technology in elections. Also, why are countries like Germany, Netherlands, South Africa rolling back on tech?

In addition, the creeping culture of commercialization of elective politics and its attendant effects in as far as it compromises the fairness of elections. Elections have become like a game of polo; a game for the rich. Analysts have described it as ‘democracy in the marketplace’. Increasingly, candidates are no longer buying voters as it were; they are buying the election arbiters. A candidate pays the presiding officer to announce them as the winner. A political actor pays a judge to rule in their favour in an election petition. There is a price tag for electoral positions.

Militarisation of politics is yet another threat. There’s a blurred line between elections as civil exercises and elections as security events. In some of the elections in the region, state security agents meddle in political activities to sway the vote in favour of particular candidates. They do this through intimidation, coercion of voters, candidates, election observers, election administrators etc.

This is a story of many elections today. How do you then guarantee elections as peaceful and credible in these circumstances? Many African countries having experienced different levels of civil unrest, makes them vulnerable to military manipulation. Political contestants whip up the citizens’ emotions using an emotive subject of violence.

They conjure bad memories of the past to intimidate citizens into voting for particular candidates. Sentiments are being used as a tool to rally political support. In Uganda, it is always: if you vote unwisely, you’ll go back to the past. Therefore, where elections are portrayed as an emotive subject among the citizenry, it is rather difficult to have reason prevail over emotion.

In conclusion, first, we need a civically enlightened citizenry. One that can challenge impunity in elections without fear. Secondly, no amount of legislation can ensure peaceful, credible, free and fair elections in the absence of independent and credible state institutions that are committed to protect and honour the franchise of citizens.

Thirdly, the mission of building an enduring culture of electoral democracy can only be achieved when citizens engage in productive economic activities and secure their financial freedom. Economically empowered citizens can resist the temptations of things like voter bribery, elite- conspiracy for gerrymandering, or inducements that characterize every form of election in many countries.

Lastly, humans run elections. Therefore, as long as those humans don’t have the nerve to uphold the standards of integrity, the window of potential compromise is not yet shut and consequently election-related violence will occur.


Crispin Kaheru is the Commissioner, Uganda Human Rights Commission

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