By Mwalimu George Ngwane
Conflicts during elections, especially at the Presidential level in Africa, have become a special trademark.
Because of the centralized systems of governance where power, perks and prestige are accumulated at the helm of state, conflicts may occur before, during and after elections depending on the content and context against which they are held.
Some of the major causes of election-related conflicts include the absence of a robust broad-based democratic architecture, a controversial Election Management Body and the lack of a functional conflict management system. Since Independence but more especially after the reintroduction of multiparty democracy in Africa in the mid-80s, most African countries have failed to institute a democratic dispensation that speaks to the welfare and aspiration of the people. Democratic architectures are informed by how we define them, how we relate them to development, how we respect the supreme law of the land and how political parties effectively play their roles as conduits for people-centred leadership. Elections therefore become problematic or a frivolous exercise in futility when our democratic character (one party, no party or multi-party sytems) fails to recognize the supremacy of public good over private greed. Election Management Bodies have recently become the Achilles’ heel because they are often crafted out of survival instincts than democratic conviction. Whatever nomenclature the bodies assume ( Independent Electoral or National Elections ) the fundamental issues such bodies need to address are their membership colouring,how are the members recruited?, who do they serve?, and what authority do the bodies have?. While it is true that Election bodies as umpires of inter-party elections have always stood out for criticism, little is mentioned of Election bodies as referees of intra-party elections. Yet political parties are the laboratories of national leadership and therefore deserve close scrutiny on the caliber of Presidential Aspirants that emanate from such intra-party elections. Presidential Aspirants from free, fair and transparent intra-party elections enjoy greater credibility, wider support base, and national acclaim than ‘natural’ or ‘routine’ candidates who virtually manoeuvre themselves or are foisted on the electorate. While solid democratic structures and neutral Election bodies may prevent or minimize nascent election conflicts, conflict management systems are often established to regulate or resolve conflicts before they escalate into violence or war. Conflict management systems either in the form of early warning signals or mechanisms that encompass post-electoral justice must be equipped with non-violent avenues that can speedily and dispassionately address and redress election litigations. Indeed robust democratic architectures and state-centred Election bodies are first and foremost institutionalized conflict management systems. But when they fail to prevent conflict at a latent stage and once the conflict becomes open, the conflictual parties rely on an Independent judiciary, a human-face law and order force and a non-partisan International community as the last line of defence.
Election conflicts often manifest on a psychological and physical level. Some of the features of psychological conflict are the warped composition of the election body, the disenfranchisement policy that excludes real or imaginary opponents, Draconian conditions for Independent candidates, biased and incendiary media, inflammatory political rhetoric or diatribe, and an election calendar that is shrouded in secrecy. Because most of these features are perpetrated by systems in power that tend to favour the ruling or incumbent power elite and which in turn has captured the state machinery, psychological conflicts tend to be called systemic, institutionalized ,state or structural election conflicts. The second level of election conflict is the physical and it is often a response to the psychological and quite often readily transforms into physical violence. Voter apathy is the first, albeit, the mildest form of physical conflict as the anguish, frustratation and even violence is personalised and internalised. Before elections, physical conflict or violence is witnessed in the tearing of opponent party gadgets (posters, manifestoes, flyers etc), confrontations and riots during election campaigns, kidnapping and assassination of political opponents. During elections, violence is evident when confrontations arise against ambulant voters and election thugs (multiple voting, stuffing and carting of ballot boxes), bribery of opponent party election officials, lack of indelible ink, meddling of partisan government officials in the elections, unscientific comments by national and international observers and the contentious compilation and early reading of vote tallies. All of these come to a climax after elections when the results proclaimed are perceived or seen to be flawed whether in favour of the ruling or incumbent party as it was in Kenya in 2008 or in favour of the opposition party as it was in Ivory Coast in 2010. Physical conflict or violence is always spontaneous, grave and protracted with arson, looting, civil disobedience and mass indiscriminate killings taking the toll and civil war, internal displaced persons and refugees being the worst scenarios.
Conflict to Violence
Why can Africans not solve their election related-conflicts peacefully? Election-related violence accrues from proximate causal factors and pent-up causal factors. Proximate factors are those that relate directly to election flaws especially as our democratic game is based on the winner-takes-it-all. And that is the reason for a national constitution that limits the mandate of a President. Such a constitution for term restriction attenuates the level of violence because it gives hope to the aggrieved party or electorate that there is a time frame for the fraudulent leader to exercise power that was not given to him or her by the people. The aggrieved takes consolation in waiting for the end of the term of mandate. Violence also results from the absence of a conflict management outfit that neither enjoys trust, faith or legitimacy. A Judiciary system in what ever name that identifies overtly with the incumbent elite can never be seen to dispense of arbitration that would be free and fair; a trigger-happy and gun-totting army that responds with high handed brutality against a peaceful demonstration can only make a bad situation worse; a demonstration of stone pelters and sadist arsons can only be met with further violence. Be it as it may, until the concept of peaceful demonstrations with the guidance of a community army is embedded in our state security psyche, post-election violence shall continue to see blood letting and structural destruction. Finally proximate factor occurs when external forces use their diplomatic and military prowess to influence the outcome of elections of a sovereign country simply because their political and economic interests are at stake. Pent-up causal factors on the other hand, are deep rooted causes that may not be directly related to election flaws but emerge during election periods as a conveyor belt for other suppressed grievances. Some of the pent-up features include horizontal and vertical inequalities, youth frustration due to unemployment and the capture of every facet of opportunity by a gerocrantic cabal, couched army power ambitions, constitutional tinkering, identity-based discrimination and the lack of non-traditional security issues. Pent-up causal factors can also be as a result of a mere hunger for change or a symbolic alternation of power. So the tenacity syndrome or elongation of tenure in office through constitutional panel-beating or flawed elections can give rise to an individual being demonized as it is the case of a dozen African Heads of state who have counted more than two decades in office and have no desire to quit or an ethnic group whose grip of power has transformed other ethnic groups into expendable electoral material. Whether the elections are free or flawed, the electorate simply needs a change even if in some cases the change only enlarges access to the ‘national cake’ rather than deepening the democratic space.
Election-related conflicts lead to social dislocation, a breach of trust between leaders and the people, a crisis of legitimacy of the foisted officials, an absence of faith in periodic elections as the elections are seen more as the politician’s election rather than the people’s election, the emergence of a nonchalant citizenry that divorces itself from nation building, a resignation to fate rather than hard work, a brain drain, a loss of patriotism, a lack of focus in social and political policies, the entrenchment of an authoritarian system, and an unconduisive economic setting that scares domestic and foreign investments.
Nonetheless there is empirical evidence to show that not all election conflict is negative. In some societies it serves as a reminder of the potency and relevance of people power and a valuable disposal mechanism for garbage politicians. In other cases it serves as a maternity for the birth of a new society with new citizen-bonding, new visions and reenergized hopes and aspirations. Therefore as long as peaceful avenues for settling disputes are plugged, election-related conflicts shall continue to manifest themselves in diverse manner and magnitude and our safety valve or damage control should be for a critical mass of state and non-state actors as well as non-partisan external forces to be sensitive, responsive and gain entry points to the causes and manifestations of election-related conflicts in Africa.
*Mwalimu George Ngwane is Senior Chevening Fellow on Conflict Prevention and author of the book “Settling Disputes in Africa” www.gngwane.com