Security and the politics of fear in African elections

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Elections across sub-Saharan Africa are frequently accompanied by fears of electoral violence and shrill calls for peace from civil society, journalists, governments, and international actors. These climates of fear and uncertainty are not only prevalent in countries that have long histories of contentious elections and political violence, but are increasingly being seen in places without such clear precedents.  For example, recent elections in the diverse contexts of Malawi, Botswana, Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Kenya have all raised concerns that the polls risked a descent into insecurity, violence, and chaos. There seems to be an increasingly pervasive narrative that – as one Ugandan commentator puts it – ‘any election in Africa can…degenerate into violence.’

Where are these narratives coming from? Who sustains them? How are they being used? And with what implications for democracy?

My recent paper explores these questions through an analysis of the 2015 elections in Tanzania and the 2016 polls in Zambia and Uganda. Despite their very different political histories and electoral experiences, my research finds that in all three contexts incumbent regimes deliberately constructed, fostered, fuelled, and exacerbated the sense of threat in order to legitimise tactics that skewed the electoral playing field.

The language of security and the politics of fear are themselves becoming important tools in the menu of electoral manipulation.

Security logics and the construction of threat

The language of security can be extremely powerful. Proponents of securitization theory have argued that the very act of labelling something as a ‘security problem’ can make it one; and by successfully convincing others that there is a significant threat, political elites are able to justify the use of extraordinary measures to counter that threat. My research suggests that incumbent regimes are drawing upon these security logics in order to gain advantage in the polls.

In the weeks, months – and sometimes even years – leading up to the election, key figures from within the state apparatus begin to make explicit, public declarations that the polls pose a threat to peace, and that they risk plunging the country into widespread violence.

They simultaneously identify the opposition as the source of that threat, characterising them as hooligans and thugs intent on chaos, and claiming to have knowledge of their advanced plans for violence. These efforts – often reinforced by pervasive peace messaging – allow incumbent regimes to shift the narrative away from the importance of free and fair elections, to one where peace and order must be prioritised at all costs. In Tanzania, Zambia, and Uganda, these security logics facilitated similar strategies of manipulation.

Militarization of elections

Firstly, and most visibly, security logics were used to justify a highly militarized electoral context, where heavily armed security actors patrolled the streets – sometimes even in armoured military vehicles – ostensibly to ensure peace. Deployed disproportionately to opposition strongholds, however, this security presence was also, and arguably primarily, aimed at creating fear and intimidating opposition supporters. Images of police ‘riding in vehicles like rebel soldiers’ serves as a highly symbolic performance of the state’s capacity for, and willingness to use, violence.  

By deliberately fostering the idea that the elections pose a threat to peace and stability, incumbent regimes are able to convince many that this militarization is necessary and, for some, even desirable.  Nevertheless, heavy police and military presence can heighten fears amongst opposition supporters, not only scaring some voters away from the polls entirely, but also serving to stifle political debate and participation more broadly.

Disrupting the opposition

Secondly, the language of security was used as a pretext for severe restrictions upon opposition campaigning and the freedom of assembly. The various iterations of Public Order legislation within each of the three contexts were frequently invoked in a highly partisan manner in order to frustrate opposition activities. The police regularly denied or cancelled permits and permissions for opposition rallies – sometimes at very short notice – and opposition candidates were frequently arrested for public order offences and breaches of peace.

This tactic was taken to extremes in the Ugandan elections, with a number of candidates being preventatively arrested for their potential to undermine peace and security. In the immediate aftermath of the polls, blanket bans on demonstrations, political rallies, and other forms of public meeting were also issued in the name of ensuring peace, preventing demonstration and political protest. Where events were deemed ‘unlawful’ and a threat to peace, the police commonly employed an excessive use of force to disperse the crowds.

Through these measures, the state apparatus in all three contexts sought to intimidate the opposition, to prevent opposition candidates from fully engaging with voters, and to deny citizens the right to peaceful demonstration and protest over the conduct of the polls.

Silencing criticism and debate

Thirdly, the asserted need to maintain security and peace was used to silence critics and stifle vibrant political debate. The incumbent regimes in all three contexts were highly sensitive to public criticism, and figures from across civil society – including candidates, journalists, and human rights activists – were harassed, arrested, and detained on the pretext of sedition or inciting disorder and violence. Indeed, arrests were made for the smallest of slights – such as accusing the Zambian president, Edgar Lungu, of wasting taxpayer money at a holiday resort. In addition, security concerns were cited as a justification for censoring stories that might cast the government in a negative light; banning live broadcasts that might feature critical voices; and restricting opposition candidates’ access to media exposure.

This effort to silence criticism was further extended to the repression of social media activities, either through the partisan use of legislation – such as the Tanzanian Cybercrimes and Statistics Acts, which were invoked to arrest citizens for disseminating false or misleading information – or through shutting down entire social media platforms due to unspecified threats to public order, as in Uganda. These activities all served to curtail freedom of expression – a crucial component of free and fair elections – and allowed the incumbent regimes to maintain some control over the electoral narrative.

It is often thought that political elites will choose more clandestine practices of electoral manipulation due to the heavy reputational costs associated with it. However, security logics can provide a platform of legitimacy for tactics that significantly advantage the sitting government, and that nevertheless take place in plain sight.

As long as key stakeholders continue to prioritise security over free and fair elections, the politics of fear will continue to form an important part of the toolkit of electoral malpractice.

Sarah Jenkins is a Lecturer in Politics and International Development at the University of East Anglia.

This article is based on ‘The politics of fear and the securitization of African elections, Democratization, 2020

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