Africa and politics of violence

The outcome of the elections held in five African countries between July 2018 and March 2019 shows that political violence is still a continental challenge even in the 21st century. The enthusiasm that marked the start of campaigns in Zimbabwe, DR Congo, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Guinea, soon gave way to political violence before, during and after balloting and collation of results.

In all the countries, the elections were characterised by the same pattern of outlandish political behaviour. Political parties and their candidates were up in arms in their bid to secure victory. Precisely, the political arena in each of the countries had the semblance of a battle field with opponents out to annihilate one another. More time was devoted to the throwing of vitriolic attacks at opponents than to the discussion of development issues and the enlightenment of voters on the election process.

Allegations of massive vote rigging trailed the results of the elections in each of the countries. Also, in all the countries, election results were rejected by defeated candidates. But more disturbing was the involvement of the military in the execution of the elections and the loss of lives recorded in some of the countries.

Except in Sierra Leone and Guinea, the military in Zimbabwe, DR Congo and Nigeria were alleged to have crossed the line and got enmeshed in political crisis as they struggle to protect the vested interest of their ‘masters.’

 In Zimbabwe, DR Congo and Nigeria, offices of the election commissions were torched and electoral materials including ballot papers destroyed. Electoral officers and opponents were either kidnapped or killed by overzealous security agents and hired thugs. In Sierra Leone where the general elections were adjudged peaceful, no fewer than two police officers and two civilians were reported killed during protests.

 The electoral umpires in each of the countries were not left out in the political brouhaha that followed.  In some instances, the electoral commission faced counter accusations from the ruling party and the main opposition, depending on whose favour the pendulum was swinging.

In DR Congo, there was a curious scenario. The National Election Commission (NEC) was accused of rigging the results in favour of one of the opposition candidates, Felix Tshisekedi who allegedly emerged winner of the presidential poll because former President Joseph Kabila saw in him a more compromising disposition. Tshisekedi reportedly became Kabila’s choice after his anointed candidate, former Interior Minister, Emmanuel Shadary made a distant third in the race.

The outcome of the elections in the five countries clearly shows that post-colonial African politicians are still driven by greed, ego and clannishness. They can be compared to political wolves in sheep’s clothing even as they claim to be democrats and respecters of the rule of law.

Several of the politicians can best be described as megalomaniacs. They enter the campaign arena with a ‘born-to-win’attitude, thus they are quick to cry foul when they loss. On the other hand, victorious candidates see their victory as God ordained and pursue a programme of winner takes it all.

At the root of the  political violence in the continent is the issue of vote rigging which resonates in every election, be it at the national, state (provincial) or local (Municipal) level. But can Africa overcome the monster of vote rigging?  Strangely, the problem of vote rigging in Africa is like that of corruption. Everybody complain about corruption and its danger to national development and growth yet nobody readily owns up even in the face of the law.

The belief that politics and indeed government is a money spinning business tempts politicians to adopt unwholesome means to acquire power. Therefore, concrete measures must be adopted to demystify government.

Bloated salaries and allowances for politicians including the wide privileges and immunity they enjoy should be brought under check. Political leaders must be made to be accountable to the people at all times. Political management in Africa lacks effective check and balance system. If emphasis is put on service to the people over self interest, politicians will have a rethink about securing power at all costs.

Politicians continue to exploit the high illiteracy in the continent.  Ethnicity still play a dominant role during campaigns and elections because the ruling class catch on the lack of knowledge of the vulnerable class and sway them into believing that election is an ethnic contest between two or more groups.

 It is for this reason slogans like ‘It is our turn’ rent the air during election season. Therefore, measures must be taken to intensify voter education through properly coordinated enlightenment campaigns on a continuous basis.  Campaigns should not be restricted to only election periods. Studies have shown that many rural voters don’t have an iota of knowledge of the manifestoes of the parties. Interestingly, some parties don’t even have manifestoes to present to the electorate for scrutiny. They hit the campaign ground, reeling out their pledges extempore.  And, many of the pledges are never fulfilled.

In Africa, thuggery thrives during campaigns and elections because the parties and their candidates encourage it. They count on services of thugs to brow beat opponents.  The history of political thuggery dates back to the 1960s when, after independence, the emerging new political leaders were vying for positions in government.

Sad enough, the use of thugs to unleash mayhem on communities during election has continued even in the 21st century unabated.  Undoubtedly, it is the politicians who provide the arms and ammunitions thugs use to terrorise opponents’ strongholds. Holding political leaders accountable for the activities of their aides (thugs) could go a long way to reduce the incidence of thuggery. It is not enough to put on trial and jail persons alleged to have attacked polling booths, communities and opponents.

 Except the sponsors of political thugs are also put on trial and jailed if found guilty, the damnable act will continue. The intervention of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in some countries of Africa may not have sent sufficient warning to headstrong Africa leaders. The message will sink deeper if political leaders are tried and made to serve their jail terms in their home countries.

The problem of thuggery immediately brings to lime light the obnoxious role security forces play during election season. The police and the army have been accused severally of doing the bidding of the government and the ruling party. They intimidate, brutalise and kill protesters even when they embark on peaceful marches.

Security forces have allegedly raided the homes of opponents of their paymasters even though their salaries and allowances are drawn from the tax payers’ money. Security forces in Africa must learn from former United States President Theodore Roosevelt’s words of wisdom. He said: “Patriotism means to stand with the country. It does not mean to stand with the president.” The loyalty of the army and police should be to the people.

The responsibility of the police and the army is to protect the people and their property. They have the obligation of ensuring the peace and unity of their respective countries. It is therefore sordid for the police and the army to get embroiled in political mess each time elections are held. They must be seen to be neutral to retain their place of honour in the annals of history.

Interestingly, the judiciary in Africa has not proved itself as an impartial umpire in matters of election petitions. Often, it is embroiled in allegations raging from bribery, favouritism, nepotism, incompetence, ethnic bias to collusion with the powers that be.

The opposition in Zimbabwe was quick to express lack of confidence in the judiciary. It was the same tale in DR Congo and in Nigeria the situation was not different.  Undoubtedly, political violence will be reduced to a minimum if aggrieved parties are assured that the judiciary will be impartial and justice will be dispensed.  

But more importantly, political sanity will prevail in Africa if both winners and losers learn to imbibe the spirit of sportsmanship and embrace themselves after the contest. The spirit of ‘win-win’must be cultivated by politicians.  It is instructive the gesture of politicians who conceded defeat without resorting to hate speech, violence or rigorous court processes. They include former Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda, former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan and former Ghanaian President John Mahama. If it is imperative for a candidate to seek judicial intervention, it should be done within the legal framework and the consequent verdict accepted without recourse to violence.  

In recent years, concerned elder statesmen in some countries have stood up to the challenge of political violence.  They came out with the idea of committing political parties and their candidates to signing pre-election peace agreement(s).

Though the idea has gained popular acceptance, it has not worked our as expected. Political parties and their candidates don’t seem to be respecting the spirit of the agreement.  In Zimbabwe, DR Congo and Nigeria, candidates were made to sign pre-election peace agreements, yet the elections were not only bloody but the results were rejected by the candidates who loss. Observers believe the ‘peace agreement approach’ is failing to achieve its desired result because the conveners lack the power to impose sanctions on politicians found to have violated the terms of the accord.  

Observers therefore consider it as absurd to hold elaborate peace signing agreements’ ceremonies when the objective(s) cannot be realised. It is a waste of time, energy and resources as irate politicians are quick to jettison the accord and threaten fire-and-brimstone. There is therefore the need to give some legal or constitutional backing to pre-election peace agreement(s), spelling out how and when sanctions can be applied.

In the face of all the factors fuelling political violence in Africa, the weakness of election commissions stands out. How effective are election regulations in African countries? Of course, election regulations cannot be effective if the election commissions are not seen to be independent in their operations.

Election commissions have been severally accused of prejudice.  This played out in all the elections held recently in the continent. It for this reason that there were storms of election petitions in some of the countries. It takes an astute, courageous and corrupt-free electoral umpire to stand the test of time and win the confidence of the electorate.  

For true democracy and indeed free, fair and credible elections to thrive in Africa, it is important to carry out political, judicial and educational reforms that will engender an environment of violence-free elections. Also, concrete measures must be put in place to address the problems of poverty, unemployment, industrialisation and even distribution of development projects.

Apparently, the countries need the support of the African Union, sub-regional bodies like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the South African Development Community (SADC). So far, the AU and the sub-regional bodies cannot be said to be playing the desired role of ensuring the member states adhere to proven electoral norms that can guarantee violence-free elections.

The AU and the rest of the sub-regional bodies remain toothless bull dogs and are therefore unable to impose sanctions when the need arises. It is an irony that the European Union, the United States, the United Kingdom impose sanctions on African political leaders for election violence in their countries while the AU looks the other side. Now is the time for AU to proffer a paradigm that will stem political violence in the continent.

by Emma Emeozor

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