Violence in African Elections


The benefits of winning elections, and the disadvantages of losing them, must be reduced to avoid the violence that a winner-takes-all situation can trigger. Election observers should pay more attention to subtle forms of violence, intra-party tensions and incumbents playing the security card to justify increased use of force. This policy note considers how to curb the increase of violence in African elections.

There is a seeming paradox at work on the African continent. Democracy has established itself as the dominant political system; and as an integral part of this process, multi-party elections have emerged as the most legitimate route to political office. Yet, in recent years violence has increased in such elections. Based on findings from our recently published book Violence in African Elections, this policy note reflects on how to explain this trend and the considerable variations in when and where electoral violence occurs in specific countries.

Between democracy and ‘Big Man’ politics

Although the formal institutional make-up of many African states has changed, the underlying logic of politics has not. Power and resources are still largely concentrated at the centre, raising the stakes of elections.

The winner literally takes it all, while the loser is left ‘standing small’. In a strongly politicised ‘Big Man’ system, individuals must be sure they have backed the right horse in the lead-up to elections to protect their own interests.

What has drastically changed in many countries, however, is the emergence of real political competition for power and more efficient restraints on electoral fraud, such as ballot stuffing. As democracy slowly becomes entrenched, and electoral competition grows stronger, the risk of election-related violence may increase.

Not only are there significant benefits to be gained from the control over the executive office, high costs are also often associated with an electoral loss. Some costs may even have increased as democracy has gained ground, such as those associated with human rights abuses committed while in power. Consequently, the ways in which political actors seek to influence electoral outcomes and processes have become more varied and, sometimes, subtler.

Beyond the headlines

Over the past few years, large-scale violence has been reported during elections in Africa. A recent study using data from more than 50 African elections from 2011 to 2017, showed that almost all these elections had cases of electoral violence at some stage of the poll (Kewir et Gabriel 2018). The risk of violence is especially evident when incumbents propose referenda or parliamentary votes to change the constitution in a bid to extend their presidential terms, as was the case in Burkina Faso 2014 and Burundi 2015. Beyond the relatively few cases that make it to the international headlines, many countries experience an ‘everyday’ kind of electoral violence: low-scale but pervasive and typically occurring long before election day, between electoral cycles, and in local elections far away from the international spotlight.

Electoral violence is not limited to general and national elections. In Sierra Leone, for example, several parliamentary by-elections at constituency level have generated high levels of violence, intimidation and insecurity, as the main political parties compete to hold ground and make territorial in-roads in preparation for the next round of national elections.

Another arena for electoral violence, not usually depicted in scholarly literature, is intra-party politics. Party members are involved in a constant struggle to create and maintain the connections that will ensure their progress up the party ladder. This struggle often intensifies around transition times. In the absence of clear succession plans, this can result in vicious intimidation and violent attacks. For instance, in Burundi, violence that broke out in connection to elections in 2015 was preceded by a longer period of intra-party tensions and attacks on individuals within the ruling party.

Popping balloons can also be violent

Beyond physical violence, violent discourse can be effective in mobilising political campaigns, especially in political environments coloured by ethnic and regional stereotypes and a previous history of conflict. In the 2012 general election campaign in Sierra Leone, supporters of the opposition presidential candidate, Julius Maada Bio, called him ‘the Tormentor’, a reference to his past as member of the military junta that overthrew the government. Sometimes, words are unnecessary to evoke memories of a violent past. During protests in 2015 in Burundi, members of the ruling party’s youth militia were heard outside public radio station Radio Publique Africaine (RPA), widely known for its critical opinions of the government, popping balloons to resemble the sounds of gunshots.