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Electoral Manipulation and Electoral Violence in Africa

Mr. Jude Obitre presenting a Conceptual paper on Political Economy Analysis of Electoral Reforms during a townhall meeting organised by ACFIM.

In a town hall meeting organized by Alliance for Finance Monitoring (ACFIM) on Uganda’s Political and Legal Electoral Reforms last week, Mr.Jude Obitre, an Associate of Kings College London who presented the keynote address, noted that most newly independent African countries were hampered by the imposition of constitutional liberal democracy that reflected neither the pre-colonial systems of governance nor, is an example of brutal historical irony, the colonial rule itself.

He argued that many political regimes in Africa Institutional capacity-building had not generally been on the agendas of the colonial powers, and most newly independent African countries lacked the political structures to manage effective and genuine transfers of power.

Mr. Obitre explained that across Africa, it quickly became the norm that once elected, political parties tended to stay long in power attributing this to the natural advantages of incumbency were if not for the abundant evidence of vote-rigging and other forms of electoral fraud. It is still often the case that African ‘big men’ and it is almost always men, tend not to relinquish power easily.

He gave a recent example of Senegal’s Abdoulaye Wade, who stood down relatively peacefully after being defeated in the 2012 general election. This makes Senegal one of a handful of countries to see two electoral transitions of power from one party to another (the other transition in Senegal’s case being Wade’s own ascension to the presidency in 2000). In contrast, President Jammeh of neighboring Gambia lost the December 2016 presidential election and only relinquished power five weeks later because of the threat of military intervention by ECOWAS forces.

In almost all African countries, the electoral process adopted has been of a ‘winner-takes-all’ variety rather than an attempt to include differing voices. And according to Mr. Obitre, in many cases, elections are rigged to ensure victory because the consequences of defeat were impossible to contemplate, a phenomenon that has expressed itself in, for example, the use of violence and intimidation in the conduct of elections.

In Uganda for instance, on November 18th, 2020 in the close up to the general election, there was ensuing unrest, with nationwide protests following the arrest of opposition leader Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, alias “Bobi Wine,” who was arrested in the eastern district of Luuka for violating COVID-19 rules while campaigning for presidency against incumbent President Yoweri Museveni. The police and soldiers killed at least 54 people, many of whom weren’t even protesting.

Mr. Obitre highlighted the exceptionally violent elections that have occurred in Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe over recent years. Even otherwise well-run elections, like that in South Africa in 2014, have been marred by violence sparked by possible electoral fraud. 

Electoral violence can help create conditions for civil war, as has happened in Mali, with Tuareg separatists exploiting the violence surrounding a coup d’état a month before the 2012 elections. Post-electoral violence in Kenya in 2007 over perceived electoral malpractice in which over a thousand people died, was only curtailed by a power-sharing agreement in 2008. In 2012–13, violence around the Kenyan county-level elections claimed about 180 lives.

”The regularity of election violence suggests that underlying grievances such as political marginalization, under- and unemployment and tensions over land rights are expressed in this way; but electoral violence is also manipulated by politicians,” said Obitre. In his opinion, African democratic processes have progressed significantly over the last two decades and international election monitors are more likely to report improved practices than ever before.

Nevertheless, despite renewed calls for democratization after 1989, few countries have carried through that enthusiasm for political change. The stakes of African elections are sufficiently high that falsification of elections and voters will continue to be a tempting tactic for African politicians.

In case you missed out on the interesting conversation on Uganda’s Political and Legal Electoral Reforms, click here to watch.

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