Nairobi, Kenya (CNSNews.com) – Elections usually are regarded as a sign of democracy and stability, but many Africans are pondering the risks they can pose to national harmony when the results are disputed.
Within the span of six months, two African countries came close to civil war over election-related disagreements, while a third country is recovering from the effects of an election-triggered conflict several years ago. The problem frequently arises when sitting leaders rig the election results because they are reluctant to cede power rig results.
Apart from the still-unresolved crisis in Zimbabwe, Kenya almost went to war early this year. Elections in Nigeria in 2007 were marred by contentions, poll-rigging and the deaths of more than 200 people.
And Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) continues to grapple with the after effects of a civil war that erupted in 2002 after a failed attempt to topple the president.
Scholars and political analysts across the continent are now debating how to overcome the challenge and safeguard the growth of democracy in Africa. The Institute of Security Studies, a pan-African think-tank, organized a meeting to discuss conflicts resulting from election disputes.
Emerging issues include a shortage of independent groups to organize and supervise elections, failure to use information technology to facilitate election processes and weak legal systems.
While President Robert Mugabe’s determination to cling onto power in Zimbabwe lies at the heart of that country’s crisis, Simon Badza, political science lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe, also attributes the debacle to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission’s lack of autonomy and impartiality.
“The flawed elections in Zimbabwe could set a negative precedent which could undermine democratic stability in the entire African continent,” he said. “We need countries to follow harmonized guidelines set out by regional leaders.”
In Zimbabwe, the official results after the first round of elections were not released for more than a month. Mugabe eventually took part in a second round unopposed after opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai – who had claimed victory in the first round – withdrew from the runoff, citing massive irregularities.
Despite international condemnation, Mugabe refused to step down and is currently involved in negotiations for a power sharing deal with Tsvangirai.
But analysts say such agreements, similar to those negotiated earlier in Cote d’Ivoire and Kenya, are depriving African voters of their right to be led by rulers of their choice.
Professor Kay Matthews of Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia said Africa needs to make better use of technology such as electronic voting systems, to reduce incidences of electoral fraud.
Speaking at the Institute of Security Studies meeting, Matthews suggested that the continent also learn from India, where dedicated and efficient electoral commissions exist at both the national and local levels.
During the discussions, the African Union came under fire for failing to compel countries to use set election conduct guidelines or to reprimand leaders who openly cheat during elections.
Ibrahima Kane of the Open Society Institute faulted the A.U.’s African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, which facilitates monitoring of elections, noting that the document nowhere recognizes “that democracy is a right” for Africans.
Participants called on the A.U. to be consistent and comprehensive in observing elections.
They also recommended that constitutional reforms be sped up across the continent.