Conflict Alerts # 193, 26 November 2020
In the news
On 20 November, one of the strongest opposition voices in Uganda, Robert Kyagulanyi, popularly known as Bobi Wine was released on bail after being arrested for the second time in a month. His last arrest sparked protests across the capital city, Kampala, which resulted in the death of at least 50 civilians. Wine, who is contesting the presidential elections in January 2021, is the biggest challenge to the incumbent Yoweri Museveni who has been in power since 1986.
However, this incident is not an isolated incident of electoral violence in Africa in 2020. Earlier in November, clashes broke out in Ivory Coast after President Alassane Ouattara was re-elected for a third term; the Opposition claimed that the violence left at least a dozen dead. Similarly, election results were disputed in Tanzania and Guinea.
Issues at large
First, a background of the political landscape of African countries. Democracy was hurriedly introduced to Africa by Western powers in post-colonial Africa in the 1960s. Many African countries, including Guinea, experienced military dictatorships before transitioning into democracies. Therefore, the foundations of democracy in African countries are shaky and imbibe some of the colonial features, including the incessant need to have control on resources. This, combined with ethnic politics, contributes to a client-patron system wherein the election winner channelized resources to his own ethnic group, has added to violence in elections.
Second, attempts to amend the constitution. The instances of violence in 2020, especially in Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire, have been shaped by the incumbent Presidents' measures to amend the constitutions to turn the electoral processes in their favour. Alpha Condé of Guinea and Alassane Ouattara of Ivory Coast amended the respective constitutions to allow them to run for the third term as the previous provisions limited the Presidency to two terms. However, amendments and referendums of this nature are not new. Previously, Burkina Faso, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have either attempted to amend the constitution or leaders of these countries have continued to rule despite the two-term limit.
Third, the clampdown on the opposition. During the Tanzanian elections in 2020, 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 Opposition leaders, mostly belonging to the main Opposition party, Chadema, were arrested on various grounds before the polls. In Ivory Coast, 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.' Further, 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.
Democracies have not brought in major changes in Africa. Despite having introduced multiparty politics, there has been a deterioration of the system over the years. This has instilled a sense of resentment and mistrust among the public towards the leaderships as well as institutions of democracy. However, electoral violence is not limited to national elections. According to ReliefWeb, by-elections at constituency level have also witnessed "high levels of violence, intimidation and insecurity."
Second, institutions like the judiciary and the election commission have not played a strong role in cementing democracies. In some countries, the election commissions have been formed with the funding of the ruling party. This restricts institutions from conducting free and fair elections. Further, the judiciary also plays an important role in ensuring fair elections. According to a report in The Washington Post, if the judiciary is quasi-independent - like in the case of Ivory Coast - Opposition leaders tend to resort to violence; when judiciaries are strong and independent, the Opposition sees it as a reliable source to resolve disputed elections.
Therefore, in order to witness violence-free elections in African countries, it is important to ensure democracy in every institution of the State. Further, opposition parties and civil society too has to be given the space to criticize and express dissent, in order to contribute to democracy.