How the EU Can Support Peaceful Transitions in Africa
How the EU Can Support Peaceful Transitions in Africa
Commentary / Africa

How the EU Can Support Peaceful Transitions in Africa

Too many transitions of power in Africa result in bloodshed. Crisis Group's Richard Atwood examines the causes of violence and ways to prevent it. This is the executive summary of a policy briefing submitted to the European Parliament.

Although most elections in sub-Saharan Africa are reasonably peaceful, some see extreme violence. In Togo, the ruling party’s crackdown after the 2005 polls forced tens of thousands to flee the country. Ethnic killing and cleansing after the 2007 elections took Kenya to the brink of civil war. Repression before Zimbabwe’s 2008 presidential run-off sparked a political and humanitarian crisis. After Nigeria’s polls last year, mobs emptied northern cities of their Christian minorities. This paper examines what causes this violence. It draws out patterns from diverse cases. Are polls hazardous in some conditions? What are the warning signs? How can violence be prevented? It pays particular attention to what the EU can do to help make transitions more peaceful – through better analysis; sustained engagement; a realistic and flexible approach to observation and conflict mitigation; linking assistance to diplomacy; more work with police and courts; and strengthening regional capability.

Troubled African elections reflect the continent’s struggle with succession – itself a symptom of the vast rewards of public office. Incumbents’ grip on power, resources and the levers of state can make them reluctant to step down and difficult to dislodge. Their opponents, meanwhile, often sit in dusty offices, with little to do and no money to do it with. This dynamic, which is especially treacherous where ethnicity or religion determines political allegiance, ups the stakes of political competition across the continent, and often drives violence. But it plays out differently in different places – shaped by the political context; underlying grievances; divisions in society; the inclusiveness of rules; the capability and legitimacy of state institutions; the contenders themselves; the parity of force between them; their access to fighters and weapons; and their readiness to kill, attack or bully rivals. A conceptual distinction can be drawn between violence round: (i) post-war elections; (ii) competitive polls in unconsolidated democracies; (iii) votes under authoritarian rule; and (iv) those after the departure of a long-serving ruler.

Politics can be militarised even in societies not emerging from war.

In Côte d’Ivoire in late 2010, for example, two heavily-armed and militarily balanced factions fought a high stakes zero-sum contest for the presidency. Neither was likely to accept defeat quietly. Sure enough, although the UN certified the results as credible, the losing candidate Laurent Gbagbo preferred to return to war than cede power. Deadly clashes and attacks also overshadowed the Democratic Republic of Congo’s first vote after its civil conflict. But there, in contrast to Côte d’Ivoire, the loser, Jean-Pierre Bemba, stood down: partly due to clever mediation and – perhaps more crucially – because his loyalists were fewer and weaker than those of his rival. Post-war elections are often risky. Fear and insecurity can be pervasive, politics divisive, societal cleavages deep and votes mobilised along them. But a fight between two well-equipped and evenly-balanced forces for a powerful presidency – like the Ivorian race – is riskiest of all. Whoever loses has a strong incentive, and the means, to battle it out.

Politics can be militarised even in societies not emerging from war. Kenyans and Nigerians have suffered repeated violent elections since their return to multiparty politics. Polls are competitive – indeed campaigns are fierce, given the benefits of incumbency. But institutions, the rule of law, and the state’s monopoly of force are all frail. Politicians habitually exploit identity and armed gangs to win votes. Guns are plentiful and a lack of jobs for young men means a steady supply of recruits. The Kenyan polls in 2007, again a winner-takes-all contest for a powerful presidency, saw a distrusted election commission’s flawed results tally ignite inter-communal violence. Weak and politicised state institutions struggled to contain it. In fact the police themselves killed hundreds. Much of the violence was orchestrated by leaders, but it tapped anger at corruption and older, deeper disputes over land and resources. In Nigeria too, underlying grievances – especially rage at poverty and inequality – fed 4 How the EU can support peaceful post-election transitions of power: lessons from Africa upheaval in the north after the 2011 presidential vote. Nigeria’s vast oil revenues, partly dispersed by state governors, also make for bruising sub-national contests.

Violence usually costs a regime’s legitimacy more than skewing the playing field or rigging.

Violence is frequently state-driven, notably where power or authoritarian elites are unsettled. During Zimbabwe’s 2008 presidential elections, after a first round in which opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai won more votes than incumbent Robert Mugabe, the ruling party’s brutal crackdown forced Tsvangirai out of the run-off. In Togo in 2005 the death of long-standing president Gnassingbé Eyadéma led the ruling military and political elite to rely, first, on suspending the constitution, and then on even heavier repression during elections to secure a win for his son. Violence usually costs a regime’s legitimacy more than skewing the playing field or rigging. But when those fail, sending in elite guards or militias to curb opponents’ campaigns, stop their supporters voting, steal their ballots or quash their protests can be an alternative gambit to keep power.

Across these diverse patterns one thing does not change: violence is always a political problem. International observation and technical assistance can be vital. But alone rarely are they enough. Occasionally they may even be the wrong tools. All measures to prevent violence must, of course, be tailored to context and based on careful analysis of what drives it. They might, however, include – over the long term – policies to reverse exclusion and inequality between groups; temper zero-sum competition; dilute executive power; strengthen or de-politicise rule of law institutions; reinforce checks and balances; demobilise armed groups; build broad political and public trust in the electoral management and dispute resolution bodies; set up early warning and citizen monitoring systems; and promote peace building. Just ahead of the vote, better procedures, codes of conduct, mediation by high-level panels or envoys, good offices, civil society observation, fair and timely dispute resolution, and diplomatic coherence can often help. Specific options for polls in different political contexts (postwar; unconsolidated democracy; authoritarian; or just after a long-serving ruler’s death) are given throughout this paper.

National politicians, state institutions, civil servants and civil society lead in tackling violence. But the EU can, in places, help. General measures it could take include:

1. Identify Countries at Risk

  • The EU should identify countries prone to violent or troubled elections. Its delegations, with country expertise, should usually lead, but can be supported by other European External Action Service (EEAS) divisions, or draw from analysis by civil society groups focused on conflict prevention or democracy analysis.
  • The EEAS could develop a short guide on “warning signs” that signal risks of violence during elections. Staff in EU delegations and headquarters could be trained on preventing and responding to electoral violence, including on how to gather data that can help identify risks.

2. Regularly Assess Dangers

  • The EU should integrate conflict sensitivity through all its activities, including political reporting and analysis.
  • In countries at risk, two to three years before an election, it could deploy a team of electoral and conflict experts to assess the danger of violence and steps that national actors, the EU and wider international community can take to minimise it. Teams may draw from EU election observation missions’ (EOM) and other observers’ conclusions.
  • These missions could be undertaken with other international or regional bodies. They should be followed by regular consultation between bodies to improve co-ordination and keep public and private messaging coherent.
  • The assessment teams would map a strategy including (i) the risks and when they occur; (ii) different options for tackling them; and (iii) which national and international actors should do what and when.
  • They could also consider whether an EU EOM would be useful and suggest benchmarks which, if not met, would mean conditions for a sending one were inadequate.
  • Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) could accompany missions, or pay their own visits aimed at forging links – and pressing home the same messages -- with national politicians, especially members of parliament.
  • Four to six months out, an assessment team should visit again. This mission could be combined with the exploratory mission (ExM) that determines whether an EOM is deployed. Or, alternatively, the EU could develop a methodology for ExMs that emphasises political risk analysis and add a political or conflict expert to the exploratory team.
  • Whatever the format, the mission should also prepare recommendations for national actors, the EU and other to improve polls and limit violence in the time remaining before the vote.

3. Sustain Engagement, Invest Sufficiently

  • The EU’s engagement must be sustained. In countries at risk the EU should keep elections on its radar all the time.
  • Delegations, together with other diplomats and agencies, and drawing from the assessment missions described above, should constantly monitor and support efforts to reverse drivers of violence. They should focus as much on the risk of conflict as on technical improvements to elections.
  • Given the EU’s multi-year budget cycles, it must allocate sufficient funds for violence prevention, with contingencies for when delegations identify risks and entry points for the EU to help national actors tackle them.

4. Help EU Observers

  • International observers are not peacekeepers. Only in some conditions can they help prevent violence. Expectations of them should be realistic.
  • The EU should take into account the political context of an election for refining the format of its observation missions. It might avoid deploying short-term observers where political space is closed and elections are non-competitive, for example. It might send longer and larger missions in moments of deep political uncertainty or for polls it identifies at risk in unconsolidated democracies.
  • It should give missions greater flexibility in timing their preliminary statements, especially if results are contested. It should withdraw its observers from the field carefully and apply its observation methodology consistently by giving results tallying and dispute resolution sufficient scrutiny and reporting.
  • It should redouble efforts to align statements with African observer missions, where those missions are credible, by seeking regular co-ordination meetings with other observers. Member states and EU delegations should support the conclusions of EU EOMs in their public and private statements.
  • The EU should develop methodological guidelines on the role of observers in volatile situations, especially during a post-election results crisis. In advance of deployment, chief observers, their deputies and other core team members should be briefed on these guidelines and relate them to different potential scenarios the mission could face.
  • Workshops in Brussels, perhaps externally-facilitated, with chief and deputy chief observers who have worked on missions in fragile and conflict-affected states should aim to regularly draw and – mostly importantly -- document lessons from their experiences.
  • Last, international observation is a tool not a policy. It can only be one component of the EU’s strategy towards difficult elections and a country’s democratic development.

5. Support Citizen Observers

The EU should continue to fund national observation efforts, which have a greater coverage across the county, in most places have improved dramatically over the past decade and should eventually supplant their international counterparts.

6. Tie Assistance to Diplomacy

  • Building or reforming institutions to prevent violence is political work. Strengthening EMBs, for example, or rule of law institutions, requires space as well as training, away from politicians’ meddling. The EU must usually tie assistance to a diplomatic strategy – involving political dialogue – to mobilise will for reform.
  • Delegations should closely monitor key developments relevant to the conduct of elections, including changes to election legislation or the appointment of new election commissioners, especially the chief. Investing millions on an EMB then standing by as the president names a loyalist as commission chair makes no sense. The EU might even avoid providing significant support to EMBs that do not enjoy public and political confidence.
  • The EU could also emphasise measures to improve dialogue between stakeholders, like EMBs, political parties, especially opposition leaders, and citizens. Consensus over rules and institutions can be as vital as the rules and institutions themselves.

7. Look Beyond Electoral Assistance, Especially to the Rule of Law

  • Violence sparked by elections usually reflects deeper problems: authoritarianism, the high stakes of political competition, or institutions too weak to manage it. An exclusive focus on electoral triggers – one that overlooks structures, institutions and the wider political context – won’t reduce bloodshed.
  • The security forces and judiciaries are at least as important to containing electoral violence as EMBs. The EU could consider shifting its focus towards them, especially in areas of security planning and creating more effective dispute resolution mechanisms. It could also work with prosecutors: early action by them against perpetrators of violence could also deter future incidents. Stronger rule of law would also help dilute executive power and reduce the zerosum nature of political competition.
  • Similarly, human rights watchdogs, lawyers associations and policy think tanks have an important role on the broader context of issues relating to electoral violence, and should be seen as complementing the role of grassroots citizen observer groups.
  • The EU must also support efforts to hold perpetrators accountable, usually through national judiciaries or commissions or inquiry, but if not – and for crimes of sufficient gravity -- at the International Criminal Court.

8. Help Raise the Profile of the Opposition

  • Giving the political opposition a more prominent role may also help reduce zero-sum competition. MEPs and diplomats could develop ties with, and pay more attention to, opposition politicians. Even small gestures such as visiting their offices or inviting them to speak to European politicians can help.

9. Strengthen Regional Capability

  • African observation of African elections will only grow in prominence. So too will African mediation of African crises. The nascent ties between the EU and AU observation units should be developed and similar efforts made with ECOWAS and SADC.
  • African experts should be invited regularly to participate in EU observer teams, perhaps outside the continent.
  • The EU should also continue to support the AU and sub-regional organisations as they enhance their mediation capability. It should back, where appropriate provide technical advice to, and if necessary fund, regional mediation of election-related crises.
  • It should do everything possible to deepen democratic norms through regional instruments like the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance and ECOWAS’s Supplementary Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance, as well as global treaty bodies.

10. Work with Others

Although the EU’s scope for action varies between countries, it often works behind-the-scenes. Its critical funding for peace-building work may not be publicised. Rarely do its diplomats lead mediation, which should be deferred to Africans under a UN, AU or sub-regional mandate. Its role may only be partially acknowledged even when it foots most of the bill for an election.

But the EU’s quiet work with or through others can be its most effective. Its support can be a lifeline to state institutions and civil society groups. Its own experience with democracy holds valuable lessons. It can help forge diplomatic consensus and develop – especially if its risk analysis is shared -- an international and regional strategy that can help save closely-fought polls. It can, in association with UN, AU or others, call planning meetings well in advance of risky elections to forge a co-ordinated strategy to avert trouble. At key moments delegations or parliamentarians can nudge national leaders, or identify others best-positioned to do so. When storm clouds gather, they can raise the alarm and press for more dogged action. The EU can do much to assist peaceful African transitions, even if its officials are not always centre stage.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.