Uganda’s February 18th election was a rote exercise; the outcome was never in doubt. According to a poll conducted in August 2015, 61 percent of Ugandans did not believe incumbent President Yoweri Museveni, in power since 1986, would lose the election. And indeed, he did not. The Electoral Commission reported on February 20th that Museveni won with 60.7 percent of the vote.
The electoral period has been tense. Voter intimidation and harassment have been rampant. The police detained opposition leader Kizza Besigye four times in eight days, keeping him under house arrest for several days directly after the results were announced. Protesters and opposition supporters have frequently been met with heavily armed security forces. Prior to the election, one person was killed and several were injured as a result of such clashes with the police. Citing “security concerns,” the government blocked social media on Election Day. Many believe this was a calculated move to make it difficult to share timely information about the elections (and potential incidences of fraud) on Election Day.
Previous elections in 2001, 2006 and 2011 have all followed a similar script. The 2001 elections, so called “no party” elections in which candidates ran for office as individuals without the backing of a party, resulted in a victory for Museveni over Besigye, 69 percent to 28 percent. Besigye supporters were repeatedly harassed, assaulted and arrested prior to the election. After challenging the results in court and losing, Besigye was arrested on charges of treason. Allegedly fearing for his life, he fled to the United States. Besigye returned to Uganda in 2005 and spent much of the year before the 2006 election fighting charges of rape and treason. Museveni won that election, with 59 percent of the vote to Besigye’s 37 percent. The 2011 elections also saw Museveni defeat Besigye, 68 percent to 26 percent. Alleging fraud, the opposition rejected the results.
Unfortunately, Uganda’s experience with elections is not uncommon. In a recent book, I examine the nature of electoral violence in Africa. Using data from close to 300 elections held from 1990 to 2014, I find that between 50 and 60 percent of elections held in sub-Saharan Africa experienced some form of violence.
I argue that there are two types of election violence: strategic and incidental. Strategic electoral violence is unleashed in a pre-planned and methodical fashion, sometimes committed by youth groups or party-affiliated militias, to affect the outcome of an election and ensure a certain candidate or party wins office. Elections in Kenya, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe frequently exhibit this type of violence. Incidental violence, on the other hand, requires no planning and is generally borne out of frustration and circumstance. It is the result of clashes between protesters and overzealous security forces, or supporters of opposing candidates or parties. Examples include the 2012 elections in Senegal and to some extent February 2016’s elections in Niger.
The main distinction between these two types of violence revolves around the motivation and planning involved in carrying out violence; however, many elections experience a combination of these two types. Additionally, because of the illicit nature of electoral violence more broadly, perpetrators often disguise their motives making these two types frequently indistinguishable. Nonetheless, the typological distinction is more than just an academic exercise. For two reasons in particular, we should be aware of the differences in the types of election violence that takes place. First, while the causes of strategic and incidental violence sometimes overlap, they also vary substantially. Second, the policy interventions necessary to prevent, mitigate, or respond to electoral violence will differ based on the type or types that occur. Looking closer at the recent Ugandan election is illustrative.
The 2016 Ugandan election has exhibited both types of electoral violence. The government’s repeated harassment, intimidation and arrest of potential voters constitute deliberate strategic acts meant to prevent opposition candidates from participating in election-related activities and to scare off their supporters from voting for the opposition. (Strategic violence may also be used to coerce voters into casting their ballots in favor of the ruling party, but that is the subject for another post.) Strategic violence is generally related to electoral institutions that promote a winner-take-all mentality (such as plurality rules) and where judiciaries and the rule of law are weak, meaning the consequences for deliberately engaging in electoral violence are rarely enforced. Addressing electoral violence of this nature requires institutional adjustments to reduce incentives for violence and to empower the courts or other dispute resolution mechanisms to prosecute offenders.
The recent episodic violence that has taken place in the capital Kampala where protesters and security forces have clashed is an example of incidental violence. Over the course of the past few months, several have been wounded during protests when police fired tear gas into crowds of opposition supporters, or protesters have thrown rocks and bottles at security forces. Presumably, the violence is not pre-planned. Rather, it is a byproduct of protesters regarding the perceived unfairness of the electoral process and an attempt to call public attention to the problem. Incidental electoral violence is generally a response to the quality and conduct of elections. Perceptions of fraud and malfeasance are closely tied to outbreaks of incidental electoral violence. Improvements in the independent management and of elections can help prevent incidental electoral violence from occurring. Better training of security forces in crowd control techniques can also reduce incidental electoral violence.
While electoral violence may be common in Uganda, and Africa more generally, that doesn’t mean it should be expected or tolerated. It can be dangerous for democracy. Election violence influences how citizens relate to their government. I demonstrate in my book that those who fear election violence are much more likely to believe that their country is not a democracy and are much less likely to be satisfied with their government. They are also much less trusting of political institutions. I believe that electoral violence has the potential to undermine democratic development by affecting individual level satisfaction with and attachment to certain governments, ultimately leading to regime vulnerability. Understanding the different types of electoral violence, and identifying specific causes, is just the first step in reducing electoral violence in Africa and, in the process, hopefully promoting democracy.
Dr. Stephanie M. Burchard is a Research Staff Member in the Africa Program at the Institute for Defense Analyses. Her book, Electoral Violence in Sub-Saharan Africa: Causes and Consequences, is out now.