A few weeks ago I was invited to join a panel on ‘Electoral processes in Africa: a vehicle for democratization or for instability’ at the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI) in Paris. My topic was the process that led to civil conflict in Kenya, and the success (or failure) of the power-sharing arrangement that was put into place in early 2008. The panel also featured Mathieu Merino, speaking on Guinea and Gilles Yabi, the Director of the Dakar Bureau of the International Crisis Group, speaking on Côte d’Ivoire. IFRI’s aim was to allow the different cases to speak to each other, and it quickly became apparent that there was much to be gained from a comparative approach.
The cases of Côte d I’voire and Kenya both demonstrate the need to understand elections not as the cause of conflict, but as the end points of a historical process that began in the late colonial period. In both countries violence was rooted in a combination of migration, disputes over land, and inter-communal inequality. Following the reintroduction of elections political actors manipulated the grievances that resulted from these trends for their own ends. In Côte d’Ivoire a succession of political leaders engaged in debates on the concept of Ivoirite—what it is to be Ivorian—in order to justify preventing their main rivals from running and to whip up support among their own supporters. In Kenya, President Daniel arap Moi invoked the language of majimbo (regionalism), encouraging his supporters to pursue ‘self-government’, which quickly came to mean denying rival communities land and political rights. In both cases, elections contributed to civil conflict only because they gave unscrupulous political leaders a further incentive to place on existing inter-communal tensions.
At the same time, all three cases reveal the significance of a credible electoral process overseen by actors that are widely seen to be neutral. The presence of such an electoral commission in Guinea helped to ensure that the elections of 2010 went off without significant violence; the compromised nature of the main electoral institutions in Côte d’Ivoire and Kenya led to opposition parties rejected both the official result of the elections and process itself. Of course, most of the audience was naturally focused on recent events in Côte d’Ivoire and it was interesting to see that Ivorian citizens and civil-society groups in Paris seem to be no less politicized or fragmented than their counterparts in Abidjan. Ending periods of conflict is even harder when the there are no impartial domestic groups capable of bridging the gap between the rival parties and conferring legitimacy on the peace process.
Click here for more information on the Kenyan elections of 2007.
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