How can we make sure that IDPs can participate in elections in West Africa?

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This article explores the rights, barriers, and opportunities for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) to vote within the prism of extant electoral policies and laws in West Africa. IDPs are persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized state border.

Recent experiences show that IDPs are under-participating in elections due to a lack of inclusive legal and policy frameworks, restrictive law governing residency, documentation requirements, amongst others.

Amidst diverse but context-driven interventions initiated by different countries to guarantee their electoral rights, lack of effective inter-agency coordination and cooperation, targeted and sustained awareness creation programme, ability to reach political consensus, and a strong partnership with civil society organisations (CSOs), amongst others, rendered policy interventions less impactful. By implication, almost 55 million global citizens who are currently internally displaced are unable to exercise their electoral rights.

A steady increase in the number of new cases of displaced persons as a result of escalating and expanding violent extremism, particularly in West Africa, affirm the need for a result-driven policy response to be taken. In 2020, the world recorded 9.8 million new cases of conflict-related displacements.

Sub-Saharan Africa’s figure is put as 6,780,000, which constitutes 69.1% of the global record. For four countries (Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, and Nigeria) that are the epicentre of violent extremism in West Africa, 1,097,000 persons are newly displaced. This figure is comparatively higher than the combined populations (1,067,521) of Luxemburg and Malta in Europe.

IDPs are legal citizens, but they often exhibit a sense of insecurity, are discriminated against in host communities and are extremely vulnerable because of their social conditions. To guarantee their electoral rights means promoting their political voice needed for dialogue, engagement, reintegration, preventing marginalisation and making government more accountable. Therefore, what pragmatic and multi-faceted policy solutions are required to promote the electoral rights of IDPs?

The challenges of IDPs electoral rights

West Africa’s conflict has experienced a dramatic increase in the past years, leading to the displacement of millions of its citizens. Nigeria and Burkina Faso top the list with 3.3 million and 1.2 million displacements, respectively. While displaced persons remain at high risk of physical violence, health services, amongst others, conditioning of right to vote to residency in a political jurisdiction excluded them from active participation in elections.

In the region, electoral laws are too rigid to allow for flexibility in using voter’s cards in a constituency other than where citizens resided and registered. In the face of constantly forced displacements, this law is problematic. Several IDPs have lost their electoral cards while fleeing their homes, and the loss of an identity document threatens the hope of obtaining a new one.

It is not only that the process of obtaining a new or duplicate copy of an identity document is long and tedious. The protracted armed conflict has ravaged the locality of origin of IDPs where they could get the document. Ahead of the 2020 elections in Burkina Faso, IDPs were given only a month before the Election Day to transfer their official residence to where they temporarily reside to participate in the 2020 elections.

The window is too short to undertake the tedious process of submitting an identity document and processing thousands of requests for polling unit transfer. A new law passed by the government of Burkina Faso that disallows conduct of voter registration in conflict-ridden communes further compounded the challenges of electoral participation of displaced persons. 374,712 potential voters (5.79% of registered voters) in 1,334 polling stations (6.32% of polling stations) were disenfranchised.

Amongst the four frontline countries in the region, Nigeria is the only country that has consciously implemented policy solutions to increase IDPs opportunity for the franchise. In line with the amended Section 26 (1) of the 2010 Electoral Law, which mandates the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to ensure that persons displaced are not disenfranchised, INEC reviewed IDPs voting framework and regulations to allow for less stringent documentation requirements to register or replace lost voter cards.

In Borno State of north-eastern Nigeria, the epicentre of violent extremism, 409,813 IDPs were registered to vote in or around their camps. The electoral umpire also classified IDPs into inter-state and intra-state displaced persons and allowed intrastate IDPs to participate in all election categories. In contrast, interstate IDPs were only allowed to participate in the presidential election to limit the challenges associated with political perception and suspicion over the transmission of results across state borders.

However, the experience is not without challenges. IDPs in Zamfara state of north-western Nigeria and a few other states that are equally experiencing armed conflicts did not have the opportunity of voting because of a lack of a record on the existence of displaced person camps. Also, those who registered or reported the loss of their voter cards had not received their Permanent Voter Cards (PVC) less than a week before the 2019 presidential election.

In conflict-ridden societies, IDPs are most vulnerable to political manipulation due to their over-reliance on support from the government for economic survival. Ruling parties coordinate humanitarian efforts in IDP camps, making them more politically accessible. Thus, unscrupulous politicians could potentially exploit the access to their advantage by limiting access to other parties, influencing IDPs voting patterns and increasing the risks of electoral fraud. This danger often complicates political decisions on the rights and de-facto provisions for IDP participation, and generally, the integrity of electoral processes.

Pathways to guaranteeing their rights

Electoral participation normally involves a mechanism for citizens to prove their eligibility and identity. These fundamental integrity measures involve the use of documentary evidence, which is often extremely difficult for IDPs to provide during either new voter registration or transfer of voter cards processes. Although, in some democracies, stringent documentation is eased by allowing IDPs to provide affidavits, identity cards or other official documents instead of birth certificate for registration.

However, the application of these measures may be threatened by the region’s history of electoral fraud and malfeasance, thereby weakening the overall integrity of the electoral process. 

The digitalisation of population census data is one of the ways of addressing problems associated with documentation requirements, and countries where IDPs are constrained to vote can learn from Ghana. With the launch of its fully digital census in June 2021, Ghana will be the first-ever country in West Africa to use electronic tablets and the Internet to capture and transfer census data nationwide, including those of vulnerable groups, to guarantee the delivery of high-quality and faster results to support the decision-making process.

In a conflict setting, digital capturing of the data would go a long way in reducing the complexities of arranging new documentation and bureaucratic procedures since electoral bodies can easily access relevant information of IDPs digitally. This policy solution may also promote transparent voter registration and cards’ transfer process, thereby improving public confidence in the electoral processes. However, it is important to keep in mind that digital technology is not a panacea and has also been implicated in examples of electoral manipulation.

Moreover, there are also issues relating to the importance of maintaining the security and privacy of sensitive data collected about IDPs, especially when this is being shared between electoral Management Bodies (EMBs) and other Ministries and Departments. It has been argued that complex policies are more effectively put into practice if agencies can effectively cooperate.

In other words, EMBs cannot operate in silo since governance functions are devolved. They should therefore establish strong partnerships with relevant agencies/institutions such as voter/civic education, national emergency agencies, population commissions, and so on, to enhance information sharing in order to create equal opportunities for IDPs in elections. Critically, relevant government institutions should work out modalities for this cooperation before an election to allow for deeper reflections on and drawing lessons from the operational implementation of the initiative.

In facilitating data/information sharing amongst government institutions, national governments should formulate a standardised data protection policy to protect IDP-related data. Where the policy is available, governments should provide adequate oversight to strengthen its implementation. Of course, this is particularly difficult where sharing data is problematic because there are concerns that it will be politically manipulated, or used to target vulnerable citizens – which is a major worry in authoritarian regimes.

Given this, it is important to both register and empower IDPs at the same time. Bridging the information gap is also significant to addressing the problem. Political engagement of IDPs is constrained by the difficulty of accessing information available through traditional methods, their high level of political disillusionment, and vulnerability to intimidation. IDPs therefore require targeted information that they can access through improved voter education and registration campaigns led by EMBs in partnership with relevant government institutions and civil society organisations (CSOs).

They also require the support of civil society groups and others to fully understand and exercise their rights – including the right to privacy.

When doing this, the political circumstances that led to the insecurity that caused the displacement of persons in the first place should be put front and centre in the development of strategies to promote IDPs electoral participation. This means it is important to build peace, at least for the electoral period, and to hold sustained inter-party consultations to facilitate consensus building and reduce the risk of conflict and political violence.

Only then will IDPs both enjoy electoral rights and be free to genuinely enjoy them.

Shamsudeen Adio Yusuf is a Technical Advisor, Electoral Affairs, ECOWAS Peace and Security Architecture and Operations (EPSAO) Project, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, Abuja-Nigeria.

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