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In 2020, as much as election was the main political event  in the African countries like Cote d'Ivoire, Guinea, Uganda, Tanzania, and Burundi, so were  the incidents of electoral violence. The elections were characterised by constitutional amendments, widespread clampdown on dissent, and in some instances, violence. However, neither is electoral violence a unidimensional outcome nor is it unique to 2020. This issue brief looks at the various trends in electoral violence across Africa and the factors leading up to physical violence. 

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IPRI # 6, 15 December 2020

Africa
Ballots and Bloodshed: Trends of electoral violence in Africa

  Apoorva Sudhakar

In 2020, Africa witnessed some volatile elections right from Burundi in the east to Guinea in the west. Some common factors and trends, despite their geographical distance, could be seen in these countries which went to polls this year. However, it is also worth noting that the countries that held elections this year have the least democratic structures, except for Ghana, which is one of the most stable democracies in the region. However, Ghana too experienced a minimal degree of violence in its latest polls.

Introduction

On 9 December, the Ghana police announced that five people had been killed in election-related violence. According to the police, at least 60 incidents of violence had taken place when Ghana conducted its polls on 7 December. After the results were announced, the opposition accused the re-elected incumbent President of using the military to sway the votes. However, election observers remarked that the polls were fairly peaceful. Surprisingly, the statement stands true when compared to other African countries which went to polls this year. The reason is that Ghana has had regular democratic elections since 1992.

Other countries which conducted or are set to conduct elections tell a different story.

On 11 December, Ugandan police allegedly attacked several journalists who were covering Bobi Wine’s campaign. Wine is one of the strongest opposition voices against the incumbent President Yoweri Museveni who has been in power since 1986; Uganda is gearing up to hold its elections in January 2021. Wine was arrested twice in November. After his second arrest, clashes erupted across the capital city, Kampala, which resulted in the death of at least 50 civilians.

Similarly, in the same month, clashes broke out in Cote d'Ivoire after President Alassane Ouattara was re-elected for a third term; the opposition claimed that the violence left at least a dozen dead.

Defining electoral violence

Electoral violence is a multi-dimensional concept. While the outcome of electoral violence is usually physical, there are psychological and structural attributes to it. It can be defined as “all forms of organized acts or threats – physical, psychological, and structural – aimed at intimidating, harming, blackmailing a political stakeholder before, during and after an election.” Electoral violence is carried out with an aim to influence elections in order to achieve a pre-planned outcome.

Physical electoral violence include assassination, riots, use of force at rallies, polling booths, snatching ballots, etc. On the other hand, psychological electoral violence include intimidation, threats; this can also be a by-product of physical violence. Structural violence is a broader concept which covers officials forcing citizens to register to vote, lack of level playing field for political rivals, interfering in the operations of electoral bodies, bribery, abuse of power of incumbency, and the like.

Trends in electoral violence

First, constitutional coups. Constitutional coups are a classic example of structural violence. A constitutional coup is interpreted as an attempt “to eliminate term and/or age limits for presidents and allow the incumbent president to unconstitutionally extend his mandate.”

The above was evident in Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire in 2020. The incumbent Presidents of these countries amended the constitutions or pushed through new constitutions to turn the electoral processes in their favour. President Alpha Condé of Guinea and Alassane Ouattara of Cote d'Ivoire had approved new constitutions when they were in power. Both the leaders justified their candidacy by saying that a new Constitution meant that the clock had been reset and that they could run for Presidency again.

However, amendments and referendums of this nature are not new. Previously, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, etc have either attempted to amend the constitution or leaders of these countries have continued to rule despite the two-term limit. African Centre for Strategic Studies says that since 2015, “leaders of 13 countries have evaded or overseen the further weakening of term limit restrictions that had been in place.”

Second, disputed results and clampdown on the opposition. The opposition in Burundi, Tanzania, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, cried foul in their respective elections. They alleged that the elections were carried out by massive fraud and intimidation. In Burkina Faso, elections were not held for one-fifth of the population because of security threats from extremist elements. During the Tanzanian elections, opposition leader Tundu Lissu, who previously survived an assassination attempt, fled to Belgium claiming he received threats to his life after he challenged the election results. Other leaders, mostly belonging to the main opposition party, Chadema, were arrested on various grounds before the polls. In Côte d'Ivoire, the opposition went a step ahead and created a rival government under the leadership of former Prime Minister Pascal Affi N’Guessan. He, and several others were later arrested and charged with ‘terrorism.’

Third, silencing dissent. The governments in the countries going to polls also clamped down on media and civil society workers. For example, in Uganda and Tanzania, several journalists were arrested; opposing politicians were also restricted from accessing the state-owned media. According to Amnesty International, the security forces in Tanzania arrested rival candidates, suspended media houses and placed restrictions on NGOs. In Burundi, the scenario was no different. A researcher at Amnesty International said, “On election day itself, Burundians woke up to find all major social media sites blocked in a blatant violation of their rights to freedom of expression and access to information.” Similarly, on the other side of the continent, in Guinea, the government restricted access to the internet and international calls. These are basic necessities that have helped the opposition mobilise support and gain international attention. 

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Apoorva Sudhakar is a Project Assistant at the School of Conflict and Security Studies at the National Institute of Advanced Studies. Her areas of interest include peace and conflict in South Asia and Africa, climate change and human-wildlife conflict. As part of the Pakistan Reader Initiative, she also regularly studies Pakistan’s domestic politics, radicalisation and group identities.

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February 2020 | IPRI # 29
IPRI Comments

IPRI Team

Continuing Violence in Afghanistan, Bodo Peace Accord in Northeast India, Attack on the anti-CAA protesters in Delhi, and Trump's Middle East Peace Plan

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Conflict Weekly 02
January 2020 | IPRI # 28
IPRI Comments

IPRI Team

Bangladesh and ICJ's Rohingya Verdict, Taliban and Afghan Peace, Surrenders in India's Northeast, New government in Lebanon and the Berlin summit on Libya

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Conflict Weekly 01
January 2020 | IPRI # 27
IPRI Comments

IPRI Team

Nile River Agreement, Tehran Protests, Syrians meet in Berlin, Honduran Caravans in Mexico, Taliban's ceasefire offer, Quetta Suicide attack, Supreme court verdict on J&K and the Brus Agreement in Tripura

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Myanmar
October 2019 | IPRI # 26
IPRI Comments

Aparupa Bhattacherjee

Will prosecuting Suu Kyi resolve the Rohingya problem?

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Climate Change
October 2019 | IPRI # 25
IPRI Comments

Lakshman Chakravarthy N & Rashmi Ramesh

Four Actors, No Action

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From Okjökull to OK:
September 2019 | IPRI # 24
IPRI Comments

Rashmi Ramesh

Death of a Glacier in Iceland

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The Hong Kong Protests:
August 2019 | IPRI # 23
IPRI Comments

Harini Madhusudan

Re-defining mass mobilization

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The Hong Kong Protest:
August 2019 | IPRI # 22
IPRI Comments

Parikshith Pradeep

Who Wants What?

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Myanmar
March 2019 | IPRI # 5
IPRI Comments

Aparupa Bhattacherjee

The Other Conflict in Rakhine State

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West Asia
February 2019 | IPRI # 4
IPRI Comments

Seetha Lakshmi Dinesh Iyer

Yemen: Will Sa'nna fall?

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China and Islam
February 2019 | IPRI # 3
IPRI Comments

Harini Madhusudhan

Sinicizing the Minorities

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Terrorism
January 2019 | IPRI # 2
IPRI Comments

Sourina Bej

Maghreb: What makes al Shahab Resilient?

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Global Politics
January 2019 | IPRI # 1
IPRI Comments

Aparupa Bhattacherjee

Myanmar: Will 2019 be better for the Rohingya?

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