Electoral Violence And Other Threats To Democracy In Africa

By Paul Ejime | 

Paul Ejime, International Media and Communications Specialist

The disturbing images of violent activities that saturated the social media space during the recent governorship polls in Nigeria’s central State of Kogi and the southern State of Bayelsa only add to the growing worrisome attacks on election as the “heart of democracy” in Africa.

Electoral violence is not new on the continent or elsewhere in the world for that matter.  Kenya lost some 1,000 lives to violence following its 2007 elections, and some 24 people were reportedly killed during the 2017 elections in the same country. Similarly, according to the UN peacekeeping mission in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI), post-election violence that began in December 2010, had by May 2011 killed some 1,012 people, including 42 children.

The story is not different in other African countries, with avoidable loss of lives and property worth millions in monetary terms destroyed while thousands of people are displaced by election-related violence. The Kenyan and Ivorian cases ended up at the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague for trial, but generally, perpetrators and instigators of electoral violence in Africa mostly go scot-free, hence the repeat performance during every electoral cycle.

Polling might have taken place peacefully in large parts of the two Nigerian states mentioned, but the mirrored hot spots, no matter how comparatively insignificant, have tended to blight the entire exercise, and threatens to undermine the consolidation of democracy, which Nigerians, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and the international community are yearning for in Africa’s most populous nation.

Only two of the country’s 36 states were involved in the elections and there was repeated assurance from the security agencies, especially the police, which had promised to deploy 30,000 of its personnel to each of the two states. However, many people are disappointed at the outcome, given the efforts deployed by INEC to deliver an election with improvement on the previous electoral process. Emphasis is on the word “process” here, because, like democracy, an election is not an event, but a process involving multi-stakeholders. It is a delicate team enterprise underpinned by shared responsibility. Any misstep by any of the stakeholders jeopardises the entire process.

The tragic irony in many political contestations in Africa is that the electoral umpire is always made the scapegoat by every other stakeholder, particularly politicians, who might have orchestrated or engineered electoral disruptions in the first place for their selfish interests. For instance, the hired and armed political thugs that attacked the polling centres in the Nigerian governorship polls were definitely not electoral personnel. In fact, voters and polling officials in the areas were seen fleeing for their lives. In one horrifying incident in Kogi, political thugs reportedly burnt a woman alive in her own house all in the name of an election.

Wherever the result of an election favours the politician, the electoral umpire becomes the fall guy. But when he/she is victorious, the electoral umpire is the best thing that can ever happen to elections in that country. It is obvious that politicians and their do-or-die attitude to electoral contests trigger or fuel electoral violence in Africa. There is even a saying that African politicians do not die, they are always killed, and for them, losing an election is tantamount to ‘a political death’!

Usually, every election in Africa is followed by a copious post-mortem and recommendations for electoral reforms and an improvement in the process. But what remains consistent is the non-implementation of the recommendations.

For instance, an Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill 2018, with provisions among others, for the introduction of electronic voting in Nigeria is still awaiting presidential assent after protracted debates before its passage by the National Assembly. There is also a deafening clamour in the country for the establishment of electoral offences tribunals. But to borrow a buzz word from the on-going presidential impeachment enquiry in the U.S., politicians in Africa lack the political will to enact laws for the punishment of electoral offenders, because they would be “caught” in the web.

The inevitable conclusion is that electoral violence and other election-related offences will persist until deterrent measures are enforced against offenders.

No doubt, electoral commissions have a great role to play in the delivery of elections with integrity, particularly since the credibility of an election depends to a large extent on the integrity of the electoral administrator. But a cursory examination of the instruments setting up electoral umpires in many African countries shows that many of them are designed to fail and their independence is questionable. To deliver on its core mandate, an electoral commission must be funded adequately and the funds released on time; it must operate under the right political environment; act independently; and must not be encumbered in any way. But this is not the case in many African countries.

One of the major fall-outs from the political transformation that accompanied the wave of democratisation which swept through Africa in the early 1990s was the establishment of

Independent National Electoral Commissions by many Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) countries. Starting with Ghana in 1993, Benin Republic followed in 1994, then Niger 1995; Mali, Senegal and the Gambia, 1997; Nigeria, 1998; Togo, 2000; Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire 2001 and Guinea, Conakry, 2007.

Since many of these countries emerged from dictatorships, part of the teething problems faced by the Electoral Management Bodies (EMBs) were and are still related to their funding, independence and autonomy from the governments, in line with  international best practices. Although the EMBs are ‘independent’ by name, the practice is another matter. They face tremendous political pressure, huge administrative, logistical and operational problems coupled with challenges of multiple legal frameworks governing elections. For instance, EMBs rely on third parties for the transportation and storage of sensitive and non-sensitive electoral materials during elections. Electoral security and prosecution of electoral offenders are also outside their control.

For instance, there have calls for the unbundling of INEC Nigeria for greater efficiency and effectiveness. Some countries have actually introduced a burden-sharing arrangement in election administration by restricting the role of their electoral bodies simply to the conduct/supervision of elections. In some Francophone countries, the registration of voters and other encumbering tasks are handled by separate entities.

Furthermore, the electoral commission in Nigeria is also saddled with the prosecution of innumerable election-related litigation, some of which drag for years long after the election, with the result that in some cases, the ‘wrong’ candidates enjoy the spoils of office for years before they are sacked by the courts. This can be avoided.

The focus on Nigeria in this article is deliberate. Today, all the 15 ECOWAS countries including Nigeria operate some level of a democratic system of government.  But with more than 80 million registered voters and counting, (more than the population of several countries combined), Nigeria is not only the largest democracy in West Africa but indeed, Africa and whatever happens in the country has implications across the region, the continent and the world at large.

Although election does not equate democracy, credible elections remain a critical component of democracy. It is the heart and the soft target for lethal attacks on democracy.

After two decades of democratisation across sub-Saharan Africa, the continent is not immune to the “growing democratic discontent” in many parts of the world. Professor Said Adejumobi, a Director at the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and other political scientists have flagged what is variously described as “democratic recession,” “democratic decline,” “democratic rollback,” or “democratic default” in Africa, with some commentators even questioning the desirability and feasibility of the liberal democratic project and its apparent global triumphalism.

Adejumobi, who has also served as governance adviser to the ECOWAS Commission, has further raised a critical question: “Elections in Africa: A fading shadow of democracy? He holds the view that politicians in Africa “continue to enjoy considerable room for decision-making manoeuvres with all opportunities for corruption and maladministration,” riding on the crest of elections and democracy. He argues that “the failure of elections or their absence largely defines the predominance of political dictatorships and personalised rule in Africa.”

In fact, election rigging and brigandage, violence and election annulment have become common practices and so are vote-selling and vote-buying, which are not new but have assumed disturbing proportions. Also, while an election is a civil sovereign national responsibility with the police as the lead security agency, the militarization of the electoral process through the deployment of soldiers on election duties by some governments in Africa only raises the spectre of violence in the process.

Some African political leaders have also found ingenious ways of tinkering with National Constitutions to achieve their selfish interests, especially through the now-familiar tenure elongation agendas. Togo, Benin, Guinea Bissau, Guinea Conakry, Cote d’Ivoire and Nigeria are among countries in West Africa where this method has either been successful or attempted

Apart from electoral violence, Dr Mohamed Ibn Chambas, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), has also identified “personalisation of democracy” as one of the challenges to democratic performance in West Africa. In his Foreword to a recent publication by the ECOWAS Network of Electoral Commissions, ECONEC Activities in Support of Credible Elections 2017-2019 the former President of the ECOWAS Commission, listed other concerns that “create a very difficult environment in which Electoral Management Bodies operate” to include the “activities of political party vigilantes, and issues of campaign financing and vote-buying.”

Similarly, Ms Ayisha Osori, the Executive Director of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA), an international NGO, has advocated structured and continuous engagements among stakeholders to “ensure that West Africa does not suffer a democratic retrogression through the electoral process.” She also suggested reform processes to address the recurring challenges around elections in the region,” such as the independence of the EMBs, voter registration, transparent results transmission and vote collation.

It may not be all doom and gloom because Africa has seen some peaceful political transitions through elections widely acclaimed as credible and in which the ruling parties were defeated by the opposition. But this gain is in danger of being rolled back by the winner-takes-all mentality of politicians and the growing tendency by the political leadership to pocket and control the three arms of government (Executive, Legislature and the Judiciary) and even stifle freedom of expression. This makes nonsense of the principle of separation of powers or checks and balances, and puts democracy in jeopardy.

The growing discontent from political intolerance often finds expression in violence in elections, which in turn breeds political instability and facilitates a descent to authoritarianism or even dictatorship under the guise of democracy.

Another threat to credible elections and therefore democratic performance in Africa is god-fatherism, and the “Capture of State Institutions” by those with the deep pockets, who use their wealth/influence to determine the outcome of elections.

If electoral offences, including vote-buying, disruptions and corruption of the electoral process and the use armed political thugs are perpetrated by politicians why is the electoral umpire made the convenient scapegoat? Where a polling centre is attacked by armed thugs, with the complicity of politicians and security agencies, or where security agents manning that centre are chased away, what are the polling officials in that centre expected to do?

It has equally been shown that the same electoral laws that fail to protect the electoral commissions and their officials make it mandatory for them to declare results of elections. When the results are withheld or where the polls are declared inconclusive because of violent disruptions, the electoral umpire is further blamed. When funds are insufficient or delayed for elections, electoral commissions are still expected to deliver.

There is also the lack of internal democracy among the political parties, which are unable to select their candidates for elections, but only turn round to castigate the electoral umpire for their own self-inflicted troubles. The outrageous numbers of political parties and their candidates contesting elections in many African countries also compound the electoral logistics nightmare for EMBs. Nigeria now has more than 90 registered political parties with more than 70 presidential candidates in the last general elections. Even in smaller African countries, political parties field a high number of “also ran” candidates, thereby unnecessarily jacking up the cost of elections and with severe strains on the electoral system.

Africa may not be the only part of the world where the prospect of democracy is in question or where elections are marred by violence. But there is every reason not only to worry but to take remedial steps because as the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato warned in The Republic (380 BC), one of the greatest works on political theory, “tyranny arises as a rule from democracy.”

Electronic voting might well be the starting point in tackling the electoral malaise in Africa. Even so, all hands must be on deck to sanitise the electoral system; electoral umpires must operate with political and economic independence; and politicians must purge themselves of the disruptive excesses and conducts that endanger democracy. There can never be credible elections or consolidation of democracy unless political actors and stakeholders assume their responsibilities.

*Paul Ejime is an International Media and Communications Specialist

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