In the not-too-distant past, a number of African countries including Zimbabwe, Kenya, Ivory Coast, Togo and Gabon have been rocked by instances of political crises and instability in the aftermath of elections.
The violence that occurred in Nigeria following the presidential election in 2011 left at least 500 people dead, with several thousands injured and displaced. The disputed poll in Kenya in 2007 led to the death of more than 1,200 people. These instances together with the upheavals and humanitarian crisis that characterized the elections next door in Cote d’Ivoire give sufficient cause for worry about this emerging political trend in African democracies.
Evidently, violence is increasingly being associated with elections, particularly presidential polls in Africa which are rather supposed to consolidate democracy on the continent. Post-election violence, however, does not do democracy any good apart from undermining political stability. As many more countries on the continent (including Ghana) prepare to go to polls this year, it is important to explore some of the issues/factors that give rise to the kind of eruptions witnessed in the countries mentioned above, so as to avoid treading the same path. As the wise saying goes, “When your neighbours beard is ablaze, it is only prudent to start wetting your own beard to prevent a spread”.
The Broad Picture:
Experts in electoral justice and governance say that the origins of election-related violence are varied but could, in most instances, be attributed to greed and the absence of credibility. Experiences in the past have pointed to the tendency for elections in many African countries to be rigged in favour of the incumbent president and/or the party of the incumbent president.
Elections held under such fraudulent circumstances, however, can neither be said to be free, fair nor credible even when the authorities adjudge them to be so.
Elections should reflect the choice of the people, not that of the president, the ruling government or the authority that conducts the poll. Violence in the aftermath of an election is, in most cases, a reaction to what people perceive as an attempt to rob them of their voice and mandate. The spontaneous reaction of people taking to the streets in anger when they discover that the results of an election have been manipulated in favour of any particular candidate other than the popular choice is, therefore, nothing less than an expression of dissent to an imposition of a leader/representative on them.
The popular revolution sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East, as well as events witnessed next door in Togo, Cote d’Ivoire and Gabon, to mention a few, are a demonstration of popular opposition either against a situation where presidents want to rule for life or where incumbent presidents attempt to orchestrate a handover of power to a son groomed for the position – an attempt to run the country like a kingdom or family enterprise, against popular opinion. Transitions that exhibit any of these characteristics are likely to experience crisis and instability. Any president or government that ignores this fact could be heading for a regrettable date with the devil.
Electoral manipulations which, in many instances, are acts of connivance between some overseers and influential candidates stoke tensions and could lead to violent eruptions. African governments should therefore ensure that elections truly serve as democratic platforms that seek to afford the citizenry the opportunity to choose/change their leaders or to determine those who represent them in Parliament. Any nation in Africa (or anywhere else for that matter) that dons itself with the tag of democracy but denies the people the option of voting out their president or voting in a president of their choice, does not do the continent’s budding democracy any good, to say the least.
The growing tendency for some African governments to exhibit intolerance for legitimate opposition and criticism of their policies/programmes presents another avenue for the eruption of violence and political instability. In such countries, parties in the opposition are treated as enemies of the state or personal enemies of the ruling president, and often criminalized or victimized on the least provocation.
A vibrant Opposition is one of the hallmarks of a healthy democracy, but it must also be acknowledged that the nature, quality and conduct of opposition parties in many African countries in the past decade have not done much to promote the course of democracy on the continent. Presidents and Governments that clamp down on opposition parties, outlaw dissenting views and muzzle the press, actually set the stage for authoritarian rule, a posture that is also prone to post election instability.
The observation that governments that reject the notion of a legal opposition will find an illegal one increasingly difficult to control, holds true for all time.
The tendency for politicians to play on the electorate’s emotions provide another source of electoral violence. Those who contest presidential elections should desist from using religious and tribal sentiments to mobilize support and manipulate the people as was the case in some sister African countries. In such situations, political violence becomes for the religious faithful and fanatics a kind of ‘jihad’. Those who contest presidential or parliamentary elections should be ready to lose and to accept defeat even if they are sitting presidents. Many a time, post-election crisis happens when incumbent presidents do not want to accept defeat at polls.
Coming home, Ghana will in December 2012, organize its sixth consecutive Presidential and Parliamentary elections since the return to democratic rule under the Fourth Republic, as alluded to earlier. Despite Ghana’s record of conducting successful elections, multi-party elections apart from being a contest for political power, have in recent times often brought about intimidation and violence never before witnessed in the politics of the country. To some extent, electioneering campaigns and other allied political activity have become synonymous with violent confrontation, leaving in their wake a lot of unresolved electoral-related disputes.
Events prior to, during and after the 2008 elections such as arson attacks in Gushiegu, violence in Akwatia, the killing of supporters of both the NPP and NDC in the Agbogbloshie disturbances during the 2009 transitions are cases in reference. And more recently, events that characterised the biometric voter registration exercise also give sufficient cause for concern.
These incidents have largely contributed to the increasing culture of intolerance and impunity among members and supporters of political parties nationwide.
Furthermore, political elites and party functionaries have resorted to mud-slinging at political opponents and the use of unsavoury language, including hate speech, on various platforms. Left unchecked these situations could further heighten intolerance in the larger society. While civil war would be the worst case scenario, failure to adequately address the growing culture of political intolerance and impunity would make such an outcome more likely.
Generally, intolerance comes about as a result of highlighting political, ethnic, historical, ideological differences among others. As a nation, Ghana has over the years demonstrated a degree of tolerance in the management of cyclical tensions associated with competitive multi-party elections within our multi-cultural society. While this is commendable, it is imperative to note that its sustenance requires conscious, targeted and inclusive efforts.
In many African countries where elections have led to conflicts and political unrest, the lack of tolerance and failure to use existing mechanisms to address issues have been highlighted as contributory factors. The need for measures that will promote tolerance and restore public confidence in traditional mechanisms for addressing conflicts therefore becomes vital for the overall stability of the country prior to, during and after the 2012 Presidential and Parliamentary elections.
The Centre for African Democratic Affairs (CADA), an Accra-based civil society organisation observed in one of its recent releases that the prospect for peace in the December polls is becoming a matter of doubt to many Ghanaians. It cited the pockets of violence witnessed across the country during the just-ended biometric voter registration exercise and expressed worry that a simple democratic undertaking like the registration of voters, with clear procedures for dealing with irregularities, could turn so violent.
The Centre went on to outline some factors that, in its opinion, contribute to the emerging culture of violence in the country’s electoral process – The “winner-takes-all” culture; weak State institutions; the use of ‘macho men’ (or muscular strong men); deliberate acts of violence/intimidation by political party actors; sensational media reportage; and ignorance about, or deliberate disregard for, the country’s electoral laws among other issues.
CADA pointed out that it would be fallacy for anyone to assume that after going through five successful elections since 1992 Ghanaians now understood the electoral process adequately. For instance, many Ghanaians today believe that the Electoral Commission is capable of altering or changing election results that have been declared at the constituency level. “If people know that with the current Ghanaian electoral system no one can change election results declared in the constituencies, they will not readily take up cutlasses, sticks and stones and march to the offices of the EC simply because of a mere allegation that election results from certain constituencies were being changed … as it happened in 2008”, the Centre observed. It stands to reason, therefore, that lots of efforts need to be put into public education to raise the level of understanding/intelligence of the electorate before the December 7 polls.
Ultimately, there are four stakeholders that matter as far as a peaceful/successful election in the Ghanaian context is concerned. They are the political parties, the electorate, the Fourth Estate (news media) and the Electoral Commission. Each of the four parties has a crucial role to play towards the realisation of this objective. The media especially, bear a huge social responsibility since by their actions or inaction they can either help to promote peace, stability and national cohesion or stoke the flames of conflict in the run-up to the December polls.
In a country with diverse ethnicities like Ghana, the systematic use of media propaganda and stereotyping is capable of reinforcing existing differences and thus heighten xenophobic feelings that could give voice to hate among the population.
A classic case in reference is the role of “Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines ”, in the Rwandan genocide of 1994. The local private radio station which served as a propaganda tool for Hutu against the Tutsi ethnic group gave voice to hate and reinforced the divisions within that society, resulting in the massacre of nearly one million people.
Needless to say, the Rwandan story has since become a reference point no nation can hardly be proud of, and a tragedy that must be avoided at all cost anywhere in the world. Given the democratic credentials of Ghana, election violence in any form and on any scale is unacceptable so every true Ghanaian must consider it a patriotic duty to work towards achieving a free, fair and violence-free election come December 7.
Source: A GNA feature by Mohammed Nurudeen Issahaq
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